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V/A - Sumatran Folk Cinema

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Artist: V/A

Album: Sumatran Folk Cinema

Label: Sublime Frequencies

Review date: Mar. 21, 2008

Sumatra, the predominantly Muslim, northernmost Indonesian island, reveals itself to be a baffling and occasionally unsettling place in this video by Mark Gergis (Porest) and Alan Bishop. The DVD, which records travels from Medan, the capital, to Aceh, Banda Aceh, Padang and Bukitinggi, doesn’t try to bring any of the island's particular traditions to light. It’s just a jumble of pop and folk music, incidental street happenings, snippets of raw television and even a brief look at Aceh rebels honing weapons – pretty much the equivalent to many of Sublime Frequencies’ radio collages. The sounds of scooters, boats, dead fish slapping the ground, chickens, commercials and horror movies appear just as important as the Persian rhythms that percolate below the surface of everything here.

If there is a focal point, it’s Dangdut, the region’s prominent form of pop music. The video centers around several female singers, some brimming over with sexuality, all of who have the same backing band. The music itself is a miscellaneous stew of cheap, hair-metal guitar, hand percussion, wood flute and rhythms that venture close to reggae's turf, and is often as annoying as it is pervasive. Yet this document, perhaps better than any other collection of Indonesian music (even this label's own past excursions into the archipelago), shows just what a musical mash-up this region is. There are scenes of small vocal choruses singing atop drummers playing western hip hop as well as students cloistered away at the Aski School of Music, tuning violins and cellos in preparation for the performance that follows. Elsewhere, women dance on smashed plates, a group of young men beat some of the most precise percussion – complete with subtle acrobatics – east of Afiadenyigba, Ghana, and an after-dinner performance of hand percussion and Ney gives whiffs of the island's Arab/Islamic connection.

The most bizarre footage comes from snippets of television. Dancing skeletons, zombies and a confusing shot of a woman threatening to cut two shackled girls’ hair, scissors inching closer and closer to their heads, are as hilarious as they are disturbing. Nearly as odd is footage, shot in 2001 by Billy Nessen, of the Free Aceh Movement firing at a government motorcade. In fact, the Aceh footage in general (most of which was filmed by David Martinez), with fishermen, dead sharks, and rebels readying handguns, is simply jarring.

Gergis and Bishop come at this as outsiders with a seemingly welcome invitation inside, capturing the island's juxtapositions of chaos, rhythms and beauty. (One scene in the extras reveals a small semi-electric band of gongs, synth and bass guitar, playing a gorgeous ballad while a lizard drinks out of a nearby water source teaming with garbage.) The results are less a statement about Indonesia than a snapshot of Sumatra’s wonderfully random culture. While much of the music and television show just what Western influence is capable of, seeing it bent, filtered and re-forged in the hands Sumatrans turns it into something much more intriguing. At least as far as a Westerner is concerned.

By Bruce Miller

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