My favorite Indonesian album? Thanks for asking. That would be Music From the Outskirts of Jakarta: Gambang, Komong, part three of ethnomusicologist Philip Yampolsky’s marvelous 20-volume Smithsonian Folkways series dedicated to the country’s music. Another fave is the series’ final installment, Indonesian Guitars, whose gorgeous seven-minute closer, Suarasama’s “Fajar di Atas Awan” (“Dawn Over the Clouds”), happened to kick off the ensemble’s 1998 Radio France Internationale debut, which Yampolsky recorded and Drag City is releasing here for the first time.
There’s no such thing as purely “Indonesian” music, insofar as the world’s fourth most populous nation consists of some 300 ethnic groups inhabiting 3,000 islands spread across a vast archipelago. Ethnomusicologists Irwansyah Harahap and Rithaony Hutajulu founded Suarasama, whose name unpromisingly signifies “equal sounds,” in 1995. Ethnically Batak, the husband and wife mix the Middle Eastern–inspired sounds of northern Sumatra with coastal Malaysian influences—along with the Pakistani qawwali-singing, Indian percussion, jazz improvisation, folk guitar, and various pop idioms they picked up while studying at the University of Washington. While the notion of an ethnomusicologist producing music by ethnomusicologists sounds like about as much fun as reading Harold Bloom’s fiction, Fajar di Atas Awan turns out to be an engaging, original, and surprisingly organic blend of Asia, Arabia, and Indonesia. In addition to writing the group’s (Islam-influenced) material, Harahap plays the gambus (fretless lute) and guitar, while Hutajulu sings lead and backing vocals, like Sandy Denny to his Richard Thompson, only criss-crossing cultures.What Western listeners (myself included) may find most appealing here is the grace with which Harahap de-rusticates styles, such as the album’s two zapin dances echoing rural Sumatra, without dumbing them down. While not quite virtuosos themselves (as Harahap’s “Playing Gambus” solo suggests), they are master musical chemists. The title track, while clearly beholden to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, transforms qawwali into honey. “Sang Hyang Guru” and “Ghazal Ingatan Diri” eventually add Indian tablas to beautiful chanting, moaning, and other species of devotional vocalizing. It all comes together in Fajar‘s nearly 15-minute finale, “Merangkai Warna” (“Coloring Colors”), a softly extended montage of everything that comes before. At a time when it sometimes seems as though all musics have become one—which is to say, none—Suarasama neatly bridges the gap between being and nothingness.