Despite its flourishing and growing tourist industry, Indonesia remains, to most music aficionados, an exotic place, a land of unknown cultures and rituals, which mark the lives of its many ethnicities. Among the country’s multitude of islands, Java houses not only Indonesia’s capital, but it is also home to some of the most interesting musical styles to emerge within the Indonesian archipelago.
The Indonesian music style which is most likely to ring a bell (pun included) with Western audiences is that of gamelan music, a style dominated by percussive instruments, among which the most often encountered are metallophones, xylophones, or bamboo flutes. The music’s repetitive, often hypnotic patterns have influenced musicians in many Western music genres: from Erik Satie and John Cage (in classical music), to John Fahey (folk) and King Crimson (progressive rock).
What does all this have to do with the album under review? Not much, but it serves as a starting point for listening to an album whose music of focus shares only the geographical location with the better known and more widely spread gamelan style. Tarawangsa, the music style which forms the basis for Tarawangsawelas’s Wanci album, is exactly what gamelan is not. Whereas gamelan features an entire ensemble of percussive instruments (and, at times, even vocal parts), tarawangsa is a minimal form of art, which features only two instruments: the tarawangsa, a two-stringed fiddle, played in an upright position, like a cello, and the jentreng, a seven-stringed zither. Unlike other Indonesian instruments, the tarawangsa and the jentreng are only played together and they form the instrumental basis for tarawangsa music, which is played in a handful of villages in the western, Sundanese part of Java. Even more, tarawangsa is a sacred style of music. This means that it won’t be played (or heard) in mundane locations, or at festive moments. Tarawangsa is indistinguishably connected to rituals and traditional ceremonies. More than this, the music is always accompanied by a free form dance, in which the dancers, wearing long colorful scarves, weave their hands and get swayed by the music, falling in trance. Usually the melodies are long and they are based on a crescendo pattern, starting out slowly and steadily reaching a peak with the dancers falling in trance. The music has a drone effect, the tarawangsa player both plucking and bowing their instrument. The jentreng player ends the music abruptly, by plucking the instrument.
Unlike gamelan, tarawangsa is a lesser known style of music, and fewer music compilations of Indonesian music include the genre. Vincent Moon is responsible for a more recent (read 2012) album dedicated to tarawangsa. The duo Tarawangsawelas take a more modern, contemporary approach to this sacred music.
The seven songs which form the album Wanci (out on Morphine Records, 2017) are shorter than traditional interpretations, which go beyond ten minutes, often reaching twenty. With the exception of Sekalipun, which is a traditional composition, all songs last less than ten minutes are composed by the duo. But the length of songs or even the scarce information about the culture the duo comes from and about the music they perform doesn’t help the listener much for the musical experience one is about to embark when listening to the album. The first composition, Selalu, follows the pattern of tarawangsa, with the mixture of bowing and plucking which grows faster and faster before ending abruptly. The tarawangsa fiddle adds a cosmic feel to the music, which somewhat lacks in traditional interpretation. The droning effect becomes even stronger during the second composition, Tetap Terbit, which creates the image of a void slowly opening up and then disappearing. The plucking technique echoes this void. Kecemasan, the album’s third composition, somewhat recaptures the feeling of the first song (a feeling even more pervasive after the hollow-like effect of Tetap Terbit), but the tempo is slower. The plucking of instruments is more regulated, reminiscent of lazy clockwork. The song’s ending is not typical for the tarawangsa style. Instead of an abrupt ending, the composition slowly fades away, while the tarawangsa’s bowing sounds become more and more distant. Dari Timur, the fourth composition, features a faster tempo, with the tarawangsa’s bow omnipresent, reaching both high and low end notes. The fifth song, Ada combines the swaying mood of the first track and the cosmic feel. The duo’s teacher and a fourth player join in for the sixth, and lengthiest, track on the album, the traditional Sekalipun. The track starts out slowly, inducing a meditative feel, before picking up speed. The repetitive plucking patterns, growing faster and faster, and the swaying bow of tarawangsa create the dancing trance, which is so typical for this kind of music. The last track, Matahari, features the tarawangsa fiddle up front, creating the drone effect right from the beginning. Listening to this, one might think at times, they are listening to some new rendition of Metal Machine Music. The tarawangsa’s bow helps chase this feeling away. The album ends on a high note: the cosmic feel is omnipresent; one does not dance, one sways and floats. Despite this, Matahari has a feeling of heaviness attached to it, which remains until the very end.
With his experience in mixing the modern and the traditional, Rabih Beaini has done a fine job in producing, mixing and arranging this album. The artwork might not succeed in letting the listener know about all the moods and feels of this album, but its minimalistic horizontal and vertical lines go well with the two playing styles (bowing and plucking) featured on the release. Tarawangsawelas’ Wanci is a work that manages to incorporate the essence of a traditional style of music and bring it into the 21st century, to a whole new audience, which knows (or used to know) close to nothing about the actual music and its place of origin.
2. Tetap Terbit
4. Dari Timur
7. Matahari (Digital Only Bonus Track)