Thursday, October 20, 2011

V/A - Street Musicians of Yogyakarta LP & 7" - Mississippi Records
V/A - Street Musicians of Yogyakarta LP & 7" - Mississippi Records
It's really too bad about this cover. The vast spectrum of "world music" records stretches from funky, James Brown-influenced party music to drab ethnographic document, with the cover art and title a pretty good indicator of the contents (Ghana Soundz has a "z" for a reason, for example). On the Fun Indicator this LP looks like it would score something around "raisin bran." But we all know what Bo Diddley would say about the situation, and indeed, this record looks like a farmer but it's a lover. Street Musicians of Yogyakarta is secretly one of the best folk-pop records I've ever heard and its contents as colorful and kaleidoscopic as its cover and title are monochrome. If you've ever explored the music of Indonesia it very quickly becomes apparent how dizzyingly expansive the musical landscape is, from the slow, stately court music of Javanese gamelan to the Ventures-meets-kroncong instrumental music of the Steps (head over to Radiodiffusion Internasionaal for a primer). What makes Street Musicians, recorded in the late 1970s, so interesting is that it represents a vast array of traditions and styles, all channeled through the format of street performance -- which is to say, under the constraints of extreme economy of both instrumentation and players. The musicians all use portable, acoustic instruments -- guitar and guitar-like instruments, zithers, violins, small gamelan-type percussion, tambourine and hand drums -- and whenever a group performs together, the number of players is as small as possible to get the song across (more players means the already small pay is split more ways). For the most part, this equates to fairly straight-forward songs, some of them traditional, some modern compositions, performed by one or two people, often up-beat, incorporating enough western influence that they immediately register as familiar to western ears but still foreign enough to be surprising.

There are a few, sometimes stunning, exceptions, however. Arguably the centerpiece of the record is a 14-minute long piece of what could be called "street gamelan." The droning melodies and elastic tempos and dynamics of the Javanese court version are represented, but instead of a large ensemble of metallophones, percussion and fiddle-like strings, the piece is performed by only five musicians; three singers, a zither player and a hand-drummer. Incredible. And the ritualistic presentation of court gamelan is substituted for a loose, expressive style (at one point in the piece, one of the singers takes a break to roll a cigarette!). It's truly psychedelic; passages of lush, beguiling polyphony suddenly conjuring themselves literally out of the thin air, the song coming back to earth for a moment (a singer clears her throat), then once again twisting into new, heady shapes.

The LP itself is quite long, close to 50-minutes, and included with it is a 7" EP with 4 songs on it. There is an informative booklet with detailed information about each track on the record proper but not the EP -- my ears tell me they are additional recordings of musicians represented on the LP, and perhaps the lack of description means they were not included in the original 1982 issue (which was not vinyl, so I think that means cassette). I highly recommend this release, it's really an "eye"-opener musically and something I can easily foresee still listening to years down the line. The only bad thing about it is the cover!

"Kuda Lumping" (a song in the dangdut style):

$13, email to order it.

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