Fantastic Indonesian Music Part 1

Very happy to stumble upon some exquisite Kacapi Suling music at the Southbank on Saturday (part of the Discover Indonesia festival). The music from Western Java featured a trio of zither (kacapi), flute (suling) and a metallophone – just three musicians but a beautiful combination of sounds and timbres. The music was extremely calming and soothing – music for late-night listening. Some of it was quite descriptive – a child crying, or an evocation of ‘the narrow footpath’. To someone familiar with Indonesian music, some of it would apparently sound quite nostalgic, recalling a ‘golden time’ long since passed.

The kacapi is shaped like a boat – it seemed very suitable for an instrument that was to take us on a voyage of discovery through these night-time stories. It appeared to call for great skill and dexterity – it seemed like two distinct textures were at play simultaneously, almost like a bass and melody, though they overlapped. Like all multi-stringed instruments, it could be a terror to tune – though it seemed to be behaving itself mostly on this occasion. (It’s always interesting to hear how a skilled musician might manage to build-in some ‘tuning passages’ without disrupting the flow of the piece…)

The suling on the other hand looked to be of incredibly simple construction – an unadorned bamboo flute, but like its tin-whistle distant cousin, capable of the most incredible inflections and expressiveness. Alongside the kacapi, it traced out the most beautiful pentatonic melodies. I liked the way, at the very end of the piece, it sometimes raised the last note – as if it wanted to carry on, or maybe was asking us a question…

The third member of the trio, a metallophone of the kind you would see in a gamelan, played a kind of perpetual-motion accompaniment – mesmerising and evocative.

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For the final set of pieces, the kacapi player switched to a second kacapi, tuned to a different pentatonic scale. Whether it was just the refreshment of the new ‘key’, or a different character to the pieces, this set was especially appealing and had me imagining a voice riding above the instrumental textures – whereupon the kacapi player did indeed begin to sing. Apparently a lot of this music can have a vocal part as well, and be used to accompany late-night revelries. But still it is very dreamy and a little melancholy – I for one could have listened all night.

PS Would you like to know more about this music? The three musicians were part of ‘Sekar Enggal’, a London-based group (they were amazing) – I spoke with their leader Simon Cook afterwards, maybe we’ll arrange an interview…


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