Various Artists

Music of Indonesia, Vol. 12: Gongs and Vocal Music from Sumatra

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This, the final volume focused on the vast island of Sumatra, samples two gong ensemble traditions and two male vocal styles, both staples of Sumatran music. Four boogying talempong gong selections from the Minang people of West Sumatra start things off. This was traditionally women's music played at work parties and celebrations. Muslim authorities, generally suspicious of gongs, discourage the tradition, and despite efforts to teach it in schools and so revive it, telempong is mostly played by old people today. Uptempo rhythms and cycling, medium- to high-pitched gong interplay mark the sound. A rice-stalk aerophone with a coconut-leaf bell makes an unearthly sound like a wheezy fiddle. This melodious gong music probably predates all forms of gamelan.

Three selections of didong, competitive vocal music from the Gayo people of Aceh in Sumatra's far north, provide a remarkable example of a music style's adaptation to change. In Aceh's rugged interior, rival didong teams used complex poetry to taunt each other while stirring the emotions of contest judges at weddings and other celebrations. After World War II, nationalistic themes and current events entered the tradition, and the all-night singing bouts became still more competitive. Today the style has singing stars called cèh, and it is performed at fundraisers and circumcisions. Hand-clapping, powerful male voices singing in unison, Arab-tinged drumming, and a mood of spiritual uplift mark the sound, which at times suggests the ecstatic feeling of Pakistani qawwali music. Sudden stops let the performers build through layers of emotional intensity.

Returning to gongs and chimes, kulintang is a product of forced migration and intermarriage between Javanese and Pubian peoples in southern Sumatra. The resulting Melinting group perform this highly rhythmic music using eight-gong sets mounted on a rack, and a single drum. The music is layered and busy, quite distinct from the more familiar gong music of Java and Bali.

The volume concludes with a lengthy selection of salawat dulang, a Muslim vocal form unique to West Sumatra. Two male singers take the roles of mother and child and progress through a prayer cycle that takes about 45 minutes and culminates in an exchange where the audience can ask questions and the singers must answer. Two such pairs of singers alternate sets through a long wedding celebration night. Close vocal harmonies produce some interesting buzzing effects, and though beat remains steady throughout, the singers maintain interest with constantly changing melodies that eventually rise to their higher registers and convey palpable spiritual fervor.

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