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Suarasama - Fajar di Atas Awan

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Artist: Suarasama

Album: Fajar di Atas Awan

Label: Drag City

Review date: Aug. 18, 2008

Suarasama ("one voice") is an ensemble of Indonesian ethnomusicologists who blend Sumatran/Malay, Middle Eastern, Western, and Indian traditional music styles. ("Everything but rap and country," or rather, everything but China.) The group has been of global interest almost since its 1995 founding - Fajar di Atas Awan (Dawn over the Clouds) was originally recorded by Philip Yampolsky in 1997, towards the end of his work on Smithsonian Folkways's Music of Indonesia series. It was originally released on RFI and is re-released now by Drag City. It's sort of crazy that an album that was world music 10 years ago is now free-folk; that one can make an argument in various directions as to whether free-folk was influenced by the global current or by American sources only points out the modern convergence of many folk traditions.

This is all to say that Suarasama didn't sound like a Drag City band when Fajar di Atas Awan was first released, but now they do. In fact, they fit in well enough and overthink enough that they're kind of boring – cosseted academics trying to groove. Academics maybe do better when they go in the extended technique direction, like Gamelan Son of Lion. Straight reinterpretations of foreign styles (Nomo, Neung Phak) often seem pointless, like private fun gone public. Yes, Suarasama is a unique mélange of world styles, but they produce only harmony from the cultural interaction, never tension or dissonance.

Suarasama is led by composer Irwansyah Harahap. He forms most of the songs around stringed instruments and plays three – guitar, oud (a.k.a. 'ud), and a Malay lute called a gambus. Many of the songs feature female singer Rianthony Hutajulu. There are multicultural skin drums – Malay rebana, Persian duf, and tabla. Sometimes the group reinterprets the same melody with different instrumentation and arrangement. For instance, "Merangkai Warna" ("blended color") and "Lebah" ("bee") swap tabla for cymbals but are otherwise more or less the same. The best song, "Zapin Shirat/Ghazal Ingatan Diri" is also most inventive in its cross-cultural pollination. It sets an Arabic poem in the rhyming ghazal style to the swaggering beat of Sundanese (West Javanese) gamelan.

Perhaps the fact that these performers are ethnomusicologists is a distraction. After all, much of Indonesian culture derives from that of India (through poorly understood, ancient interaction around the 5th century) and the Middle East (through trade and religious influence starting in the 11th century). Suarasama live and teach in Medan, North Sumatera, a polyglot society of ethnic Bataks, Malays, Javanese, Tamils and Chinese. Suarasama's particular stew might be natural to their locale rather than a result of their studies. Indeed, Medan lies near the mouth of the Strait of Molucca, which separates Sumatera from the Malay peninsula. This strait has been one of the biggest shipping lanes in the world since the 6th century (pirates!); Medan was founded around 1500, a hot time in the exchange of goods and ideas between Europe, India, the Middle East, China, and Southeast Asia. What we hear in Suarasama is in a way a second post-modernity, a response to a second wave of globalization. They are re-merging all these lutes that we now call different instruments.

By Josie Clowney

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