Smithsonian Folkways made its reputation by digging in the dustiest of archives and traveling to the most remote regions of the American countryside in search of music that is on the edge of extinction. With its Music of Indonesia series, however, the number of dark corners to dig in increase hundredfold.
Indonesia's archipelago of islands, if superimposed on Europe, would stretch all of the way from Ireland to the edge of the Caspian sea. There are more than 300 ethnic groups there, and nearly as many languages. The information age has brought a national culture to Indonesia but it still remains a country of incredibly distinct ethnic hamlets. The musical diversity that this produces is evident on Music of Indonesia. Vol. 20: Indonesian Guitars. The guitars that most likely arrived with the Portuguese in the sixteenth century were quickly absorbed into numerous indigenous music styles, though no written record of their existence would be found until the end of the 19th century. Today, they are largely used in 20th century styles (not exclusively pop styles -- also quickly shifting folk styles, as well as foreign styles of music showing Indian, Hawaiian, Western and religious influences).
This collection pulls together a sampling of this music, all utilizing either a traditional six-string guitar or one of its two or four string homemade variants. Every track is fascinating -- thankfully Smithsonian has not chosen simply to stick with pure folk styles, instead providing a cross-section of many styles of music, beautiful, humorous, jubilant or sacred. Some of the most interesting tracks include "Sungguh Terpaksa," where the musician has turned a two-string guitar into an electric instrument by attaching a car speaker as a pickup and has performed one of the songs of nationally known (and urban) songwriter Rhoma Irma. The song was recorded in the deep country which reportedly made the performance hilarious for the audience, who, accustomed to being mocked by the urbane, find irony in the fact that city music has been crammed onto two strings of a guitar on a tiny stage. "Laggam Di Baway Sinar Bulan Purnama," is an example of laggam, a descendant of the first Indonesian popular music. This song is an incredibly pleasant combination of electric Hawaiian guitars, European flute, melody guitar, bass guitar, ukulele, banjo, and cello, showing how a collection of foreign instruments can be used to create something purely Indonesian.
"Fajar Di Atas Awan," a composition performed by a team of Indonesian ethnomusicologists, shows how world music influences (especially Indian and Indonesian pop music along with Islamic sacred music) can be synthesized in one song. The goal of Suarasama, the group that is featured here, is to bridge cultural boundaries through music; this gentle song is the final track in the Music of Indonesia series does just that and serves as a wonderful way to end the project.