New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Category: gamelan music

Getting Lost with Gamelan Kusuma Laras at Roulette

Where do you go when over the past four decades, you’ve staged two thousand shows by artists from all over the world, all over New York? Robert Browning ended up at the most easily accessible venue in Brooklyn: Roulette. All trains lead to Atlantic Avenue, more or less; the space is two blocks away, maybe less depending on your exit.

Last month’s performance was an impassioned, intense concert by a legendary Iraqi singer backed by this hemisphere’s only traditional Iraqi classical maqam ensemble (there will be other potentially transcendent Middle Eastern bands here next year). This past evening’s show was completely different: New York’s own traditional Javanese-style bell orchestra, Gamelan Kusuma Laras building hypnotically starry ambience for the audience to get lost in. It wasn’t clear when the show started – were the two brief introductory numbers just a warmup, everybody running the riffs to make sure they were in tune? – nor was it particularly clear when it ended. But in between, time stood still.

Ironically, as the once-ubiquitous gamelan and shadow puppet spectacles in Indonesia seldom take place these days outside of weddings and other special occasions, gamelans have become a meme on college campuses across the US. I.M. Harjito is one of the main reasons why. If an American-based gamelan are any good, it’s likely that the now Connecticut-based Harjito trained them. Seated amid the group’s bells, gongs and gender xylophones, he began the show playing starkly keening, acerbic phrases on the rebab fiddle, then switched between a couple of double-barreled drums. Interestingly, the the smaller of the got the boomiest sounds.

In front of the ensemble, guest singer Heni Savitri was spellbinding, calmly and methodically working very subtle variations on riffs in a scale that wasn’t quite whole notes and wasn’t quite pentatonic either. With her austere, bitingly resonant, otherworldly voice, she sometimes exchanged brief phrases with either the rebab, or one of the flutes played by a member of the choir seated to her left. For all the innumerable variations, the music was incredibly catchy: several blues-tinged riffs, rising from and then returning to a central note, lingered long after the show.

Gamelans have enough bells to make Edgar Allan Poe jealous, and this group are no exception. Surrounded by banks of bright, shiny brass bonang and smaller kenong bells, the men and women in charge built a glacially shifting interweave of spare polyrhythms, rippling and pinging and glimmering into the night. Behind them, two of the group’s percussionists accented turnarounds, sudden tempo shifts and transitions with a big rack of gongs and a bass drum. Meanwhile, the higher-pitched tones of the genders glistened and clinked, adding an extra layer of celestial gleam.

Gamelan lyrics typically draw on ancient Javanese mythology; in addition, Harjito had come up with a couple of originals encouraging the musicians to reach greater heights. But the night was best appreciated as a cohesive whole, a chance to go completely down the rabbit hole that Claude Debussy discovered in 1889 at the Paris Exposition, where he decided that gamelan music was the future – and shifted the paradigm for music everywhere outside of Indonesia.

The next concert staged at Roulette by Robert Browning Associates is a flamenco festival on March 28 of next year: details are still being finalized.

Get Lost in Susie Ibarra’s Chiming, Hypnotic Philippine Sounds on Governors Island

Percussionist Susie Ibarra, a mainstay of the downtown scene since the 90s, draws on her Filipina heritage to create an often mesmerizing blend of traditional bell ensemble sounds and jazz. She’s leading her aptly named DreamTime Ensemble this Saturday afternoon, July 13 at 3 PM, playing a free show outdoors in front of Building 10A in the park in the middle of Governors Island. Ferries leave from the old Staten Island Ferry terminal, and from the landing where Bergen Street meets the Brooklyn waterfront, on the half hour during the afternoon; a roundtrip ticket is $3. Ibarra is also at Issue Project Room on July 27 at 8 for $20/$15 stud/srs.

Ibarra’s five-part Song of the Bird King suite, with her slightly smaller Electric Kulintang quartet – streaming at Spotify – capsulizes the kind of dream state and flickering magic which have become her signature sound. From the first slides of Oz Noy’s acoustic guitar and Lefteris Bournias’ otherworldly, microtonal Balkan tenor sax over the bandleader’s ripples and pings, the effect is psychedelic to the extreme.

Her fellow percussionist Roberto Rodriguez drives the music forward – as well as round and round – with his drums and electronic loops. The suite’s epic first part, Of the Invisible rises and recedes, sometimes with majestic echoes of Pink Floyd, other times a mashup of ancient, fluttering and trilling Balkan sounds mingling with Ibarra’s steady pointillisms.

Part two, 21 Million Hectares (a reference to the Philippines’ forest acreage prior to global warming) comes across as a gamelanesque take on psychedelic cumbia, a shuffling, loopy thicket of beats underpinning Ibarra’s catchy riffage and Bournias’ achingly gorgeous, bagpipe-like phrasing. The third section, simply titled The Dream is more spare, echoey and evocative of loungey 90s trip-hop.

Spare bottleneck guitar and Bournias’ long, desolate birdcall sax echo over a martial, practically industrial beat in Indigo Banded Kingfisher. The concluding segment, Migratory has more of a swaying, strolling groove: until Bournias’ meticulously modulated microtones kick in, it sounds like a traditional Filipino ensemble taking a stab at Midnight Starr-style early 80s electro. To quote Jeff Lynne – another guy who knew something about early 80s electro – it’s strange magic.

Good Cop and Bad Cop Try to Remember Make Music NY 2014

Good Cop: Before we get sidetracked, which is what we usually end up doing, let’s run down the artists we got to see at this year’s Saturday edition of the annual buskers’ celebration, Make Music NY. We both agreed that four-piece percussion group Ensemble Et Al were a lot of fun. I had never seen a gamelan orchestra other than on PBS, so I really liked Gamelan Kusuma Laras, who hit the spot especially for me considering that Bad Cop had insisted I drag myself out of bed early on a Saturday just to get up to the Upper West Side for an act so bad that I’m not going to even mention who he was.

Bad Cop: My bad.

Good Cop: Ain’t that the truth. I was really out of it, and I was really in a bad mood after you subjected me to a wanky bass player singing Christian rock. Now your logic was that somebody who’s willing to play a show at ten in the morning has to be totally punk rock, he probably stayed up all night the night before, right? Well, you didn’t do your due diligence. And besides, there are other people who would be willing to play at ten AM on a Saturday. They’re called morning people and they are evil.

Bad Cop: At least the gamelan put you in a good mood.

Good Cop: Why didn’t you at least google the guy? I sure could have used another hour of sleep.

Bad Cop: I did. Couldn’t find anything.

Good Cop: My point exactly. I think you did it to be sadistic. Anyway, we agreed that the other two acts we saw, Killer Killy Dwyer, who’s sort of a combination performance artist and comedy-rock songwriter, and then instrumental rock band No Grave Like the Sea were also worth running around Brooklyn to see.

Bad Cop: We would have seen more bands but there were a lot of no-shows.

Good Cop: I don’t want to get into that.

Bad Cop: It’s germane to the conversation.

Good Cop: OK. The boss at this blog had mapped out a plan that sent us all over town, with plenty of choices depending on how much time we needed to get from Point A to Point B and so on. I’m sure we were the only people in town who were doing anything that crazy!

Bad Cop: As expected, lots of people who were on the Make Music NY master calendar either didn’t get to where they were supposed to be on time, or completely blew off their sets.

Good Cop: The program made a point of saying that set times were approximate…

Bad Cop: Approximate doesn’t mean nonexistent. This happens every year. I blew this off last year but I went to the one the year before, at least tried to, and saw a grand total of two bands in about six or seven hours and most of that was on the subway since everywhere I went, there was nothing to indicate that anyone was going to play there. I might do this next year if Blog Boss asks, when it’s on a Sunday, but after next year, there’s no way in hell I’m blowing off work just so I can run all over town on the hottest day of the year.

Good Cop: This year the weather couldn’t have been better, and it cooled off even more at night.

Bad Cop: Temporary reprieve. Don’t count your chickens.

Good Cop: Good point. Anyway, let’s tell the people about who we saw, starting with Ensemble Et Al. How would you describe this band?

Bad Cop: I’d call them downtempo, trip-hop, chillout music, but with an indie classical thing on the side. They know who Philip Glass and Steve Reich are, that sort of thing.

Good Cop: I really liked them. They looked like they’re all good friends, they interacted a lot with each other. And then they played frisbee in the street afterward. Everybody in this band smiles a lot. Which makes sense because their music is hypnotic and intricate, and requires a lot of teamwork, and a lot of tradeoffs, and the four people in the band clearly like working with each other.

Bad Cop: Ron Tucker is the group leader. I didn’t catch the names of the other three. Everybody in the group switched off between instruments – marimba, vibes, glockenspiel, a little synth, a drum kit. They like loopy phrases that they run over and over again, then they shift tempos. Some of those were weird but others were more straight ahead. I thought it was cool that since the gamelan wasn’t set up yet, they started their set all over again. Even though we’d just seen them play those first two songs, I didn’t mind hearing them a second time.

Good Cop: Whoah, that’s high praise from this dude. Ensemble Et Al’s music is gentle and rippling but also dancing and energetic. It was on the quiet side, which I liked since I was short on sleep and in a bad mood. I wish I’d brought a mat.

Bad Cop: You would have passed out.

Good Cop: You’re probably right. Gamelan Kusuma Laras‘ music, at least at this show, was very dreamy and ethereal. As you’d say, it vamped along. They made a good segue with Ensemble Et Al. Some of their tempos were strange but others were more straightforward. Their performance was very tightly choreographed – various band members took turns leading the group – and they came across as being very well rehearsed. I guess you have to be if you have, what, 35 or so people in the group?

Bad Cop: Something like that. I agree, this really hit the spot.

Good Cop: The gamelan bells are tuned in some kind of approximation of the Asian scale. Lots of songs would start fast and then slow down, then really slow to a crawl at the end. I wasn’t expecting to hear as much singing as there was, and I don’t speak anything that would be spoken in Indonesia so I have no idea of what the lyrics were. But the contrast between the very sober, even somber, almost chanted vocals, and the high, airy, tinkling bell tones, struck a very beautiful balance.

Bad Cop: I wish they’d used that big gong more. It only got into one song, at least for as long as we stuck around, which was for the better part of an hour.

Good Cop: Then we went off looking for more gongs but couldn’t find them.

Bad Cop: Just the idea that more than one crazy person would lug a bunch of big heavy gongs into the middle of Central Park in the midday sun, in the age of global warming, on the longest day of the year, makes me laugh. This was ostensibly the New York Gong Ensemble – which according to Google, doesn’t exist, but somehow made it onto the Make Music NY calendar – and Blog Boss wanted us to check it out.

Good Cop: But it was on the way to the west side train and we had to get down to Chelsea anyway…

Bad Cop: Where there was another no-show…

Good Cop: And it looked like somebody was squatting in that band’s space…

Bad Cop: Which seemed to be happening a lot. And it wasn’t like bands were fighting over space, either.

Good Cop: As you might already know, what Make Music NY does is help secure permits for outdoor performances, all over town, all day long, every June 21. A great idea…

Bad Cop: Some backstory. The reason why Blog Boss didn’t cover this show personally is that Blog Boss is officially retired from covering Make Music NY, having written a scathing review a couple of years ago which among other things challenged the promoters to move it to a more realistic date, like in the fall when the heat isn’t so oppressive. Personally, I think the whole summer solstice connection is bullshit – remember, this whole thing got started by a bunch of French hippies.

Good Cop: So this is where the B team, a.k.a. us, goes into action. Our next stop was Grand Army Plaza where we expected to see a really good Balkan brass band, another no-show. Instead, there were a bunch of drum corps…

Bad Cop: …whose big extravaganza with banghra funk band Red Baraat we missed because by the time that got underway we had to get over to Branded Saloon a few blocks west to see Killy Dwyer. Now she was hot!

Good Cop: What she was wearing didn’t leave much to the imagination.

Bad Cop: Actually, when you think about it, it did.

Good Cop: I know where you’re going with that and you’re not going any further. Killy Dwyer used to front a parody band called Kill the Band. They put out a couple of albums and then broke up. This was recent. She was playing solo, with lots of digital loops: choir and orchestration and all kinds of stuff. What she does is funny songs interspersed with lots of improv, shock theatre set to music. And all the jokes have a political edge: she riffed on racism and gentrification and musicians getting priced out of the city and pretty much everything she did was funny. A lot of people who try to do political humor end up sounding really strident and she had both of us laughing out loud, which wasn’t easy to do considering that I was running on fumes and Bad Cop was really stoned.

Bad Cop: Let’s tell some of her jokes.

Good Cop: No, that would be a spoiler.

Bad Cop: But I wanna tell the one about the clitoris….

Good Cop: OK. She’s obviously got a theatrical background, knows how to work a crowd. So she asked everybody, does anyone here know what a clitoris is? And one guy sheepishly raised his hand. See, she said, that proves my point. There’s definitely a need for a song that explains what the clit is all about.

Bad Cop: And for awhile it looked like she was going to lie down in the street, right there in broad daylight for everyone to see, and rub one out.

Good Cop: And then she stopped because a bunch of kids on bikes went by and she blamed them for ruining her orgasm. Which was a setup for another joke which I’m not going to tell.

Bad Cop: It was kind of a throwback to the kind of edgy performance art you’d see during the punk era, except with up-to-date references, you know, idiots on Facebook and that sort of thing. Along with the jokes, she did a fake gospel song, some hip-hop and a creepy garage rock song that she played on guitar. I recommend that you see her sometime: she’s funny to listen to on the web but that’s no substitute for what she’s like in person. She’s at Sidewalk on July 31 at 11.

Good Cop: From there we actually were able to catch a G train to Bushwick for No Grave Like the Sea

Bad Cop: Who were epic. An amazing band, one of the best I’ve seen in a long time. Cinematic without being cheesy. Postrock instrumentals with big swells and dips and genuine menace. And fronted by the bass player. Usually a bass solo is the last thing I want to hear, but when it’s Tony Maimone playing them, I want to hear one in every song. And the reality is that he really didn’t play any solos at all, just variations on riffs. Big, fat ones. Damn, this guy is inspiring to watch.

Good Cop: I was surprised there weren’t more people in the park to see them. They really have presence. It was like being at Madison Square Garden – their themes really envelope you. [to Bad Cop] I think you liked them more than I did – I think it’s a guy thing. Swaying, thunderous rhythms and anguished screams from the guitar and that ominous, booming bass. It wouldn’t surprise me if a lot of their songs were used as video game themes. Navy Seals Kuwait Inferno Challenge! That sort of thing…

Bad Cop: But with the anthemic drive of a rock band, like Pink Floyd or the Church playing instrumentals, or Mogwai. Maimone played with a slide on the first song – when’s the last time you saw a bassist do that? He owns Studio G in Williamsburg so he brought a super state-of-the-art rig and a pedalboard. They did a song with a reggae beat, then one that was more trip-hop…

Good Cop: …but loud!

Bad Cop: Yeah, there was a truck depot across the street from the park but you couldn’t hear the trucks backing in. That’s how loud, and how good this band was. It made my night. The guitarist stayed within himself even though he was playing all these screaming, wailing lines, the keyboardist played all these weird washes of sound, and used lots of pedals, one with a backward masking effect. Some of it was like watching Savage Republic with a keyboard, but without the Middle Eastern influences, I guess you could say.

Good Cop: I wanted to try to catch some of the Dum Dum Girls show at Prospect Park afterward, but there were problems on the L train so I went home.

Bad Cop: You should have taken the G instead…

Good Cop: I wasn’t going to push my luck. We already got lucky with the G once on the way over and I didn’t want to risk it a second time. Getting stuck in the middle of Bed-Stuy after dark with no other trains, no bus, no choice but to walk, no fun.

Bad Cop: You probably wonder why this blog has waited til now to publish this…

Good Cop: If you’re new to this blog, or new to us, we appear here about once a month, to offer a fresh perspective…

Bad Cop: We’re the B team. When Blog Boss doesn’t want to go out in the heat, or run around in the rain, or runs out of things to say about a particular artist, we get the call. Up and down like a yo-yo between here and the minor leagues, just to entertain you…

Good Cop: Anyway, the reason why this hasn’t appeared til now is that Blog Boss wanted to publish a bunch of stuff about upcoming shows first. As I understand it, that’s what people who follow this blog have asked for. We aim to please!

Bad Cop: And ostensibly there’s a historical aspect to what we do, which I think is debatable. But I agree with Blog Boss that on the web, the idea of getting the scoop on a particular event – a concept that goes back to the print-and-paper era – is dead. The first people on any scene will be tittering away on Twitter and Instagram and 99% of that turns out to be bullshit anyhow. It always takes awhile for the facts to shake out, whether you’re dealing with a newspaper, a blog, some loser’s Facebook page, the works. The more things change, you know the drill. Look for more snarky stuff from us here in a few days

The Sambasunda Quintet Take Gamelan Music to New Places

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.