Listening to the new album by Arrington de Dionyso is not unlike playing one of the fascinating, visceral releases from maverick world music label Sublime Frequencies. Like the SF roster—which includes Saharan guitar groups Group Doueh and Group Bombino, Syrian dabke star Omar Souleyman, and numerous compilations of radio-sourced pop music from Southeast Asia, North Africa, and the Middle East—Dionyso provides an unpolished, direct assault of exotic sound that goes straight for the jugular.
For some years, Dionyso has been exploring the possibilities of voice improvisation, throat-singing, and bass clarinet in a variety of solo and collaborative projects, most notably his group Old Time Relijun. For reasons best known to himself, he decided to set up a group based on Indonesian-inspired music and to write a collection of songs in Indonesian. The result is Malaikat Dan Singa, an occasionally impenetrable but mostly fascinating album.
Following the inevitable question of why Dionyso has decided to do this, the most immediate queries may well relate to issues of authenticity. But Dionyso’s approach seems to be that of Sun City Girls members Alan and Richard Bishop, both of whom are involved with Sublime Frequencies. Contemporary world music recordings have encouraged listeners to associate a certain cleanness to the quality of the sound. The high production values of releases on world music labels, it seems, are supposed to make communication between musician and audience more intimate and hence more authentic. The irony, of course, is that it takes a very high level of mediation to make this intimacy possible and to render the technology that allows it invisible (or inaudible). Less well recorded or “finished” music—arguably more authentic due to its unpolished nature—consequently comes to seem less desirable. Sublime Frequencies blast through this hypocrisy by providing access to music that brings the listener close to the source via the highlighting of the mediation process. It is not surprising to find that Alan Bishop has made encouraging noises about Dionyso’s project. Malaikat Dan Singa aims for a similarly direct approach, avoiding the high polish that distinguishes most world music releases and opting instead for dirty, directly-sourced recordings which place them closer to ethnomusicology. Dionyso’s record label describes it as “future world music”, but it should be considered spatially as much as temporally.
Dionyso has frequently spoken of his desire to connect to the ritualistic elements of music-making, and has looked to shamanistic practices as a way of doing this. If we can understand ritual, in its various guises, as something that needs a set-aside place in order to work, then the removal of the participant from their everyday world is one obvious way in which this can be achieved. Seen in this light, performing in a foreign language and testing the limits of musical language seem perfectly authentic procedures. The effectiveness and authenticity of Malaikat Dan Singa, then, rests on its ability to summon up these liminal spaces rather than on its adherence to any particular template that can be measured (this may not be the case for speakers of Indonesian, however, who will not be able to set aside the recognizable linguistic sites).
“Kedalaman Air” kicks the album off with a driving, somewhat sleazy guitar riff, to which Dionyso adds his Indonesian lyrics, running the words into the low resonances of throat singing. The refrain (“kedalaman air”) is insistently catchy and decorated with whoops and equally insistent high guitar fills. The lyrics to “Mani Malaikat” are delivered in a hoarse bark, suggesting both an attempt at Indonesian singing styles and a possible nod to death metal; skronky bass clarinet adds another layer, the outer exploratory limits of free jazz perhaps. The point is, with such raw and decontextualized music as this, it’s hard to know just what to call this music. Rather than allowing for neat categorization, it pummels you into submission (or rejection, depending on your tolerance for these sounds).
“Mani Malaikat Window” is less pummeling, more lulling, carrying the listener along on a sonic litter of throat singing, chimes, and distorted electronics. It’s a meditative couple of minutes before the raw garage rock of “Nama Bersembunyi”, which, over compellingly basic guitar and drums, presents a vocal that initially identifies with an “Eastern” delivery before deciding to channel Iggy Pop instead. “Mahkota Kotor Window” searches for resonances in the bass clarinet that suggest throat singing, using microtones and an unwaveringly repeated beat to trance-inducing effect.
And so the album plays out, a medley of throat singing, deep resonance, clarinet journeys, spirit rhythms, and ritual invocations. The CD version of the album concludes with the lengthy “Nafsu”, which develops from an exercise in tone and drone, through what is essentially a rhythm track, to a full-on clarinet skronk-out before fading away into the ether. Listeners will be left none the wiser as to the reasons for it all. Perhaps, as Van Morrison once put it, “it ain’t why why why, it just is”. Dionyso, in taking us on his own journey into the mystic, has provided one of the most fascinating and bewildering North American releases of the year. This is not so much Future World Music as Parallel World Music. It’s happening now and all you have to do is open the door to that other world.