Various Artists

Sumatran Folk Cinema

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AllMusic Review by

Sublime Frequencies has become as well-known for its homemade musical documentaries as its releases, but Sumatran Folk Cinema may well be a new pinnacle among its offerings. Extending the rough-and-ready recording approach that characterizes many of its audio and visual offerings, this hourlong effort, mostly drawing from footage by Mark Gergis and Alan Bishop, almost acts as an extended, contradictory answer to an unasked question -- what is contemporary "folk" music in an interconnected world? Sticking to the company's narration-less approach here, what the filmmakers most often seem to suggest is an anti-romanticizing of Sumatra and its people -- it's a 21st century portrait, ranging from billboards hawking cell phones to the sports team T-shirts and near-hipster haircuts on a number of young men -- not to mention footage of guerilla separatist movements at work, violently -- even while societally conditioned "familiar" imagery of a tropical Third World setting abounds. Similarly with the music -- there is no one "Indonesian folk" tradition or even a Sumatran one, as everything from large-group ensembles reenacting traditional theatrical performances to one man with a guitar appears. Even more pertinently, the wide range of non-Indonesian musics familiar to people is evident: Western violins are taught to students in one group session; at a nightclub an enthusiastic band and vocalists make their way through House of Pain's "Jump Around." Another cover surfaces via a piano-and-vocal take on "Moon River," but more often than not one hears and sees performers taking instruments and technology from around the world and applying them to their own situations, like the street musician softly coaxing melodies out of a simple, ground-laying synthesizer. Yet the standout performers might be a large band performing in Indonesia's own recent musical fusion style, dangdut, barely a few decades old and combining everything from Western instrumentation to Bollywood soundtracks. The band are solid pros, especially one brilliant guitar player, while the female lead vocalist sings, bumps, and grinds in fairly eye-opening style.