Various Artists

Music of Indonesia, Vol. 8: Vocal and Instrumental Music from Eas

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This and the next volume present music from Flores, a large, dry savanna island between Lombok and Timor in Indonesia's southern chain of islands. The island is 85% Roman Catholic, but it is highly fragmented ethnically and its music expresses a wide variety of approaches to harmony and polyphony. The vocal music is particularly interesting and dominates this volume.

The first five selections come from the Sikka Regency in the island's central region. Over the tok-tok-tok of halved coconut shells, a single thin voice leads a powerful male chorus in a communal work song. In another work song, a second undulating part recalls the softer vocal ostinato singing heard in Bali's famous monkey chant, kecak. Two pieces feature drums, most notably a high energy drum and gong piece that accompanies showy recreational dancing. A final work song involves an advancing line of 40 male and female workers. In their layered singing, sharp voices cut through a chorus of cool, horn-like ohh-ing to create a rich texture.

The microtonal vocal singing of East Flores' Tanjung Bunga region is one of the revelations of the series. This region is the scene of Indonesia's earliest Catholic conversions, and of many small wars, but no known history explains why the region has vocal music startlingly similar to South Slavic singing. The sharp, sustained, close-interval dissonance, and the distinctive up-swoop at the end of long phrases are virtually identical to the sounds produced by Bulgaria's female choirs. Scholars have scoffed at this notion, but the music wasn't there to convince them before Smithsonian Folkways made these recordings. The five work songs on this volume have changed some minds and stimulated lively speculation on the subject. The resemblance seems too great to be a coincidence.

The volume concludes with three work songs from seaside farmers in the relatively unstudied Ngada Regency in the Toto region. These use more standard Western harmonies reminiscent of Christian hymns, although the songs are secular and talk about such themes as seduction and infidelity, and the singers deny that they got their music from the church. Men and women singing together produce a full, harmonious ensemble sound.

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