Going beyond gamelan

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From the forest drumming of shamanic rites to the slick studios of Jakarta, from untouched traditional sounds to a confluence of Asian and European elements, the scope of Indonesia’s music can be quite daunting, even as the rewards of exploration are plentiful. And when you’re faced with the world’s fourth-most populous nation, with 300 ethnic groups inhabiting literally thousands of islands, you can see that there’s still a lot of trailblazing to be done. Going well beyond the gamelan that has captivated listeners for ages, Smithsonian Folkways sets about exploring the other music from the islands of Indonesia in this 20-disk series. Thoughtfully, Folkways has issued a 15-track Discover Indonesia sampler to point to some highlights and entry points for this triumph of ethnomusicology.

Often, there’s a peculiar economy at work that results in wonderful hybrids, such as the delirium of brass, Hawaiian guitar and gongs. It occurs when Indonesia meets both East and West on Vol. 3: Music From the Outskirts of Jakarta. Vol. 2: Indonesian Popular Music is another excellent starting point. The cover photo, however, is a little bit misleading: Superstar Rhoma Irama looks more likely to break into "You’ve Got Another Thing Coming" rather than the sultry synth programming and charismatic vocals that set Jakarta to dance to his dangdut tunes. This set captures both the slick product of a national music and the local reinterpretation of pop sounds in a street brass band (an example of which is on the Discover Indonesia sampler).

And, even in this day and age, you can get lucky and come across isolated communities where the music has been untouched by outside elements, as on the powerful Vol. 7: Music from the Forests of Riau and Mentawai. No matter what the location in this series, all the sounds are recorded superbly, whether it’s a public ceremony or a shy, young woman singing a haunting orphan’s lament in the dead of night. Bountiful notes in each volume explain meanings and contexts in an intelligent, accessible manner.

This series is a tremendous undertaking that suits the size of the nation and the gorgeous heterogeneity of its indigenous music. Since much of this music has never been documented before, series producer Philip Yampolsky describes his efforts as "initial forays into uncharted territory." Rather than purporting to be definitive, the message is that there’s plenty more of this wonderful music to be discovered.

Dan Rosenberg writes about music for the Metro Times. E-Mail letters@metrotimes.com.

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