Madura is one of 3500 islands on the Indonesian archipelago. Its music shares common scalar and instrumental qualities with Bali and Java. Given its geographic location, however, certain elements of the region's rocky, arid terrain separate the composition of its music. The music on Indonesia - Madura: Musique Savante is called "art music," in that it is music that accompanies dances, and poetic and sung recitations, in the style of the art of the land as it developed over time in palaces and royal courtyards. Before the 17th century, all music, painting, poetry, dancing, and storytelling, were fostered in the environment of the royal court. As Islamic culture spread throughout Indonesia, and Indians moved from cities into the rural areas to preserve their heritage, they began setting up, within their small communities, theaters for the fostering of art and music. The songs and dances here are played primarily by the gamelan: the Indonesian orchestra comprised primarily of percussion instruments and flutes. Either using a solo instrument or an ensemble, the gamelan orchestra accompanies each musical drama as it unfolds from either a lone poet-singer (the dalang) or a chorus chanting in response. Most songs are long exercises where the haunting, eerie quality of the gamelan orchestra actually has the opportunity to stretch from its place as keeper of rhythm and harmony (unlike any we're used to) and improvise a bit. This is especially true on the half-hour, four-part suite, which is a series of episodes from the Mahabarata -- the sacred historical text of the Indian world -- whose spiritual counterpart is the Bhagavad-Gita. In the episodes from the Mahabarata -- which are illustrated by dancers we cannot hear or see -- the gamelan orchestra moves through tempo and harmonic changes rapidly, forcing the singer to follow it down the path of the legend as it twists and turns through history. The dalang has no problem moving his voice and shifting his speech in order to keep pace with this sacred, artful work -- the product of centuries of writing -- and is an ongoing composition. It would be interesting, however, to see how the dancers enacting the drama react to the tempo and harmonic changes. This is one of the more moving and engaging discs in Ocora's excellent series on the music of the world.
AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek