The Sambasunda Quintet Take Gamelan Music to New Places

by delarue

What would gamelan music sound like if it was played on stringed instruments instead of bells? The Sambasunda Quintet, a small-group spinoff of the famous Javenese gamelan orchestra, answer that question on their brand-new album, simply titled Java. It’s absolutely gorgeous. But unlike their main project, this particular unit doesn’t use gongs. Instead, this crew substitutes lush layers of kacapi (a boat-shaped zither) along with lute, wood flute, percussion and the delicate, dreamy Javanese vocals of frontwoman Rita Tila for an effect that’s far more eclectic, ambitious and global in scope than you would likely imagine. The songs here are LONG – miniature suites that clock in at ten minutes apiece or even more. It’s music to get lost in, especially for fans of Bollywood, gamelans or, for that matter, anyone who gravitates toward lush, hypnotic sonics.

With its lush dreampop-style harmonies, the opening track makes it easy to see where the roots of Indonesian pop originated.  Elegantly arranged, it builds almost imperceptibly to an unselfconsciously intense crescendo like several of the other tracks here. Another cut morphs from a big, tensely restrained minor-key ballad into a South Sea Islands tango; a bit later on, the group sends an Irish reel reeling into Javanese territory. While the idea of segueing from a gentle march, into hypnotic, pointillistic gamelanesque ambience and then Arabic modes might sound overwhelming, this group does it with a grace that’s often quite plaintive. One of the more anthemic numbers builds from an ominous motif that wouldn’t be out of place in heavy metal; by contrast, a catchy, biting pop number grows sunnier as it goes along, ending with a joyous “wheeee!” The album’s strongest track is a wary, ten-minute epic that mingles Bollywood, Middle Eastern and north Asian tonalities; the album winds up with another catchy, swaying tango-infused track and then a sweeping, insistent overture that rises and falls, mingling gently persistent lute with fluttering flute and the bell-like tones of the kacapi. The band is currently on UK tour; the record is out now on Riverboat Records.