Gamelan Madu Sari – Hive (2010)

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By Mark Saleski

What do you think of when encountering the words “world music”? Squeaky vocals in unknown languages? Lots of drums? Brightly colored CD covers on display near the checkout at Starbucks? It’s a sad fact that the way music is marketed has forced many kinds of music into more “manageable” categories, “world music” being the most generic (and perhaps least meaningful) label. Sure, that packaging was designed to draw listeners in, listeners who might be afraid of leaping straight in to, say, the folk music of Turkey. It just bothers me that there are so few people open to new aural experiences.


Back when the bigger stores were still around, I used to love going into the classical room at Tower Records. Though three quarters of the room was dedicated to classical and 20th century orchestral music, there was a large corner dedicated to music from the rest of the world. That’s how I discovered the gamelan. Indonesian in origin, the gamelan is an ensemble built around percussion: gongs, xylophones, drums, metallophones, and the like. When the ensemble plays, the interlocking and linked rhythms create a unique sound that shimmers and pulses.

Formed in Vancouver all the way back 1986, Gamelan Madu Sari, creates new music for the gamelan that fuses the traditions of the Javanese ensemble with modern elements as well as other musics developed along the way.

To get a solid idea of the tradition, the gamelan neophyte should pay attention to the opening “Ganjil.” It’s a perfect example of the interlocked shimmer common to this ensemble. The pairing of metallic and wooden percussion adds a unique texture, with the longer, chiming notes merging with the shorter wooden strikes.

On “From Heaven To Earth,” we get an interesting combination of old and new with the gamelan foundation supporting cello, bass, mandolin, and vocals. The voices of Jessica Kenney and Ben Rogalsky wind around each other as the orchestra alternates between background support and a more foreground, active role. It’s quite jarring to hear English lyrics in this setting but it’s that kind of experimentation that makes listening to this group so rewarding.

My two favorite tracks from Hive seem to come from opposite ends of the spectrum. “Nang Ning Nong” finds Anis Astuti singing beautifully in a fairly traditional setting, with flute lines commenting on the vocal. The effect is mesmerizing. On the other hand, “Stream” ends up sounding like gamelan by way of Steve Reich. Terrific stuff.

Hive closes out with the long-form “Inquietude,” with its masterful use of dynamics, both with regard to volume and tempo. It’s the kind of aural experience that I’m betting the new listener will be more open too after taking in the rest of this recording.


Mark Saleski

Mark Saleski

Mark Saleski is a writer and music obsessive based out of the woods of central New Hampshire. A past contributor to Jazz.com, Blogcritics.org and Salon, he originated several of our weekly features including the Friday Morning Listen, (Cross the) Heartland, WTF! Wednesday, and Sparks Fly on E Street. Follow him on Twitter: @msaleski. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.
Mark Saleski
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