Archive for July 2011
Despite my best intentions, it has taken me much longer than usual to post an entry for my recent trip to Indonesia. However, there are at least good reasons for this. First, and most importantly, myself and the family are getting ready for an extended period of leave in the UK at the end of the summer, so there is much to take care of before that happens. In addition, myself and Nat have been organising some dates for Europe in September, that should hopefully see us play gigs in the UK, Germany, Austria and France. Watch this space for details.
We were also privileged to welcome Isan legend Dao Bandon to perform at what will be our last Paradise Bangkok for a few months – it was heart warming to see the crowd’s response to one of my favorite molam artists. We also recently returned from 3 more dates in Japan. Playing there is always a pleasure, as people have such an open mind musically. Each gig is always different (two in Tokyo, one in Osaka) and allowed us to dig deep into our record boxes.
So, why go to Indonesia? Well, firstly it’s the size of the country, and due to its make up, the potential diversity of sounds that might have evolved across the archipelago. The main difference between this and previous trips, though, was that I knew the country had already been a seasoned destination for vinyl hunters, and only recently the Now-Again label had issued ‘Those Shocking Shaking Days’, an excellently researched compilation of Indonesian psychedelia. However, I was also hoping, as with Thailand, that there would be styles that the collectors had overlooked, preferably something below the western radar that had indulged in its own experiments during the 60s and 70s.
I arrive at midnight, and was greeted by a bevy of prostitutes in my hotel reception, casually looking for business over the thud-thud of karaoke in the next door bar. Not quite the welcome I was looking for. I went up to my room, which 30 years ago, must have been quite pleasant. Still, this much you expect from a 2 star establishment at 20 quid a night!
I had chosen this hotel due to its proximity to the flea market in Menteng, a recommended spot for record hunting. The next day I wandered out into the ambient busyness of a Jakarta morning, dodging traffic, and trying to match my map with the slightly skewed streets in front of me. I quickly found the market, which was literally a whole street of permanent stalls and small shop fronts, largely dedicated to the selling of antiques, ‘antiques’ and wooden and porcelain souvenirs of varying quality.
Half-way down I’m met by an elderly man, who asks me what I’m looking for. I explain and he quickly ushers me down the street to a shop run by a man called ‘Harris’. It is full to the brim with records, both familiar and unfamiliar. I rarely do any research prior to these trips. I certainly don’t draw up a ‘wants’ list for fear that I might overlook something. I want to hear the music with as open a mind as possible, particularly when I really don’t know what to expect. Ultimately, I want to be surprised and walk away with something I hadn’t anticipated.
Development in Indonesian music draws parallels with their south east Asian neighbours, such as the influence of American and British music in their surf and rock n’ roll experiments, culminating in a genuine psychedelic rock scene. Then there are the twin evolvements of ‘Melayu’ and ‘Dangdut’, which contain elements of Indian and Arabic music as well as indigenous rhythmic forms.
Preceding both of these, though, was another form called Gambus, named after the very lute I’d first come across in Sana’a, Yemen. Due to the coffee and spice trade, many Yemeni emigres had settled in what is now Indonesia, and indeed it was one of the conduits through which Islam was spread to the country. This is to say that, like the archipelago itself, the music of Indonesia is broad and unique, containing elements that do exist elsewhere, but which seem to blend together in a special way here.
The summary above I’ve obviously concluded in retrospect, but the different sounds and elements could be traced as I started to sift through the piles in Harris’ boxes. There was the odd psyche rock of an artist called ‘Harry van Hove’, the blistering soul/funk stylings of the Sitompul Sisters, the hypnotic sounds of Gamelan drum and gong orchestras from both Java and Bali, as well as Bollywood influenced Melayu by Elvy Sulaesih. The fact that all this was recorded locally, pointed to the astonishing rich seam of sounds, the surface of which I was merely scratching. I took the first of many coffee and kretek (clove cigarettes) breaks in a little stall across the road. My ears needed to rest.
I decided to have a look around at some of the other stalls, and met a man called Lian. He clearly had experienced a lot of western diggers in his time, and had a contact book with the details of the likes of DJ Shadow, Diplo, Alan Bishop and even a couple of friends from Bangkok. As I would discover, he also had a cunning knack of quickly figuring out what you wanted, and produced attuned piles of discs (most of which I’d take) every time I passed by his shop. As I was going through one such pile, a friend me & Nat had met in Japan called Baba, appeared. I knew he was in town around the same time as me, but we hadn’t made any plans to meet up. It was good to see him, and we spent the rest of the day going from shop to shop.
The next day I wandered up to Batavia, which is the old Dutch quarter. Batavia is also the colonial name of what is now Jakarta. Expecting well preserved streets and quaint architecture, I was amazed to note how utterly run down it was. Many hulking buildings had been left to literally rot and decay, and seem mostly utilised for wedding photos and the like. One I went into had a huge tree growing up through its centre, lending it a dreamlike air.
I heard this was a deliberate ploy on behalf of the government, eventually affording them the excuse to expunge the colonial echoes from the cityscape. True or not, this area of the city has a disjointed almost eerie feel, only offset by the affluent Cafe Batavia in its centre. I took a break there over an overpriced beer, listening to a slightly functional jazz band run through its repertoire.
The next day, I continued my search. The further down the market I went, sellers seemed more intent on charging exorbitant prices for LPs featured on the Now-Again comp, though they did bargain down on occasion, albiet with a disappointed air. However, once I’d figured out the names of the rural styles I was after, these tended to be languishing at the back of the shelves, going for next to nothing. The brunt were sleeveless, denoting a promotional copy gleaned from a local radio archive. Dangdut especially is an unashamedly populist form, often coming under criticism for its subject matter from society’s conservative elements, but it’s prolific output and adaptability has ensured its survival. It’s heavy percussion and simple arrangements draw a direct parallel with molam for me, and as in Thailand, dangdut also had its experimental adherents. Bubbling moog synths, spacey percussion and heartfelt vocals peppered the discs I was lucky enough to find, and I shall post up some sounds soon.
One of the total gems that Lian picked for me, though, was a direct and present echo of the influence of Yemeni music, and Islam in general. An LP entitled ‘Qasidah Modern’ by Fantastique Group yielded an astonishing version of the ‘call to prayer’ over ominous synths and measured drumming. The vocal had the same intensity I’ve heard in the best Pakistani Qawwali to the rawest blues or gospel. It contains emotion I think anyone could relate to.
I spend a pleasant evening in a local ‘padang’ restaurant feasting on spicy beef curry, before adjourning to a cafe next door for Javanese coffee. My final morning turned up a few more musical gems, as well as some antique wooden puppets for my kids, before I headed for the airport. A lone prostitute was still after some lunch time trade as I went upstairs to pick up my bags.
Although it opened up another world of music for me, perhaps more importantly, the trip seemed to offer one of the most obvious links that draws together the music of South and South-East Asia, the Middle East and East Africa. Listen closely and its easy to spot the DNA that allows Thai luk thung, Indonesian melayu, Lollywood soundtracks, and Ethiopian funk to sit comfortably side by side. This broad historical sweep that links trade, culture, migration, music and social history hints to a well of possibilities that needs to be properly explored.
As I head back to Europe, this chapter that has unfolded over the last five years seems to be drawing to a natural close. The next one, however, is only just beginning…