Indonesian music, in the part of the music-selling world that caters to English-speaking listeners, is a funny presence, there and not there, a flicker that comes and goes. In one sense of course it’s constant and strong: all you have to do is type “indonesian music"or something like that into a search engine and in ten seconds you’ve discovered that the Rolling Stone Indonesia once voted Chrisye’s Badai Pasti Berlalu the best Indonesian album of all time and, click, you’ve found the label’s website, and, click, you’re ordering the thing, click, you know Chrisye’s full name, click, you know his date of birth, click, you know when he died, click, click, click.
But you go to it, it doesn’t often come to you, this varied music, though the Balinese kecak or monkey dance appears here and there, a shattering rattle, sampled for various musical projects, films, and games—and the overlapping gonging of the gamelan is not unknown. Smithsonian Folkways put out a 20-disc set in 2000: Music of Indonesia. Field recordings exist. Sambasunda comes from West Java, which is gamelan territory. The group’s composer, Ismet Ruchimat, spent years playing overseas in different parts of Scandinavia and Iceland, working with jazz bands, and he brings a talent for multicultural integration into the music of Java, as he brought it into the group’s last album, Rahwana’s Cry, which was released in 2005.
The ruling sound is Javanese, with the cut-glass tingle of the kacapi zither and the Southeast Asian tang of Neng Dini Andriatti’s croon, but riffs from the outside help to glue it all together. The drums behind the bamboo flute in “Teman Endah” putter with Africa, the flute itself has a jazz-like solo in “Arang Arang Kaleon Prawa”, the strings that lead us into “Kembang Tenjung” are quick with Spanish guitar, and the other instruments sweep into the song with the melodrama of a pop ballad. Then Andriatti opens her mouth and the music reaffirms its nationality. The pop ballad becomes specifically pop sunda. West Javanese pop. I think the last time a pop sunda singer had any kind of Western exposure might have been Detty Kurnia, more than a decade ago, her Dari Sunda re-released in Britain by – who was it? I double-check. Riverboat, like this album. Dari Sunda was aimed originally at the Japanese market, with excursions into Japanese lyrics and a more international, or less-Java-rooted sound. Java is firmly Java. But the vocal delivery of the two women is similar, the low long passages, the smooth upward drift into a higher, thinner note.
In Java the gamelan is absent, and so is the seggak singing that electrified parts of Rahwana’s Cry, but the sense of gongs and rings and echoes is still there, though quieter now, and subtler, a glister not a yell. The Irish fiddle that joins the band in “Paddy Pergi Ka Bandung” is a brave experiment, and I believe brave experiments are a force for good. I’d rather hear people experiment than stay safe, but I don’t think the fiddle track works on this album. This lone fiddle is too distinct, it stands out while everything else around it is mingling, and this mingling is part of Java‘s character, this impression of instrument and voice running together in an ongoing continuity. It’s an excellent meeting-place of an album, not as purely traditional as most gamelan and field recordings, and not as pop-oriented as dangdut or Chrisye – it sits between them, a good little sweet spot of its own.
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