Our knowledge of foreign cultures is most often obtained through the media we consume, outside of actual travel. Given the abysmal amount of Americans who even own passports (30%), we predominantly rely on the Internet, cable shows and newspapers. While the possibility of exploring innumerable forms of media now exists, old habits die hard (or not at all). We tend to gravitate towards the channels and blogs that best express what we want it to, very often at the expense of fact. If fiction can be passed off as truth, let our favorite printed word be the final one on the subject. As long as we don't click on pages that betray our fantasy, we never have to face the inconvenience of critical thought.
Which is why international music is so crucial in the modern, interconnected world. Let's begin with Indonesia. What you first learn about this 17k+ chain of islands in Southeast Asia is that it houses the planet's largest population of Muslims. While this might not stop us from eyeing the "exotic" coffee beans produced in its tropical climate, the biggest news stories usually revolve around the turbulent political -- and inevitably religious -- climate. While politics affects the nation's 238 million people, music is what actually offers us a glimpse into their soul.
When I was born in 1975, the music world was ruled by Led Zeppelin, Stevie Wonder, Little Feat, the various tentacles of the Beatles and increasingly (and to my ears, unfortunately), the burgeoning sound of synthesizer-fueled disco. World music meant, well, not much as the term wouldn't be coined for nearly a decade, but in a nutshell, anything that landed on a Channel 13 nature documentary. Yet across this shrinking planet, those very rock and funk legends we were championing were influencing artists. First stop: Indonesia.
Titled Those Shocking, Shaking Days: Indonesia Hard, Psychedelic, Progressive Rock And Funk 1970-1978 (Now-Again Records, March 14), this forthcoming 20-track retrospective sounds like lo-fi rock that could have emerged on American shores. "Psychedelic" is an understatement. The guitars, harmonicas and keyboards that color these tracks are unapologetically spacey. Like the American players that inspired these Indonesians -- especially men like Bill Withers and John Lennon -- the tone is entirely political, which is why many of these songs are sung in English. It was easier to slip a message by Suharto's "New Order" censors in a foreign language. Those crooned in Indonesian rock equally hard, but I'm guessing (or at least I'm told in the extensive liner notes) that they were toned down. Even though the rising popularity of the pop-focused Dangdut held the populace's attention, rock music was potent and influential. Ears were listening.
While spinning these songs three decades later, we can imagine the bell-bottomed, long-haired men idolizing the rock legends oceans away. While a digital music junkie, this is one album I highly recommend physically buying. The liner notes are substantial and graphic -- the visual effect is stunning. Most bands look like bad outtakes from the musical Hair. Flute players in forests, ill-fitting suits worn in front of Marshall stacks, pastel button downs and large dogs on flimsy leashes are represented. My favorite track, "Shake Me," is by possibly the only band ever named after the leader singer's pharmacy. AKA is the acronym for Apotik Kali Asin (Kali Asin Pharmacy). At the outset of the song, Ucok Harahap ironically asks his "boys" if they like LSD, "glass" and what sounds like "muffin." (You tell me, listening below) Then in his pigeon he asks if they like "stone." They emphatically scream "No!" perhaps as in "no censor here." Then he asks if they like sex. You can guess the reply. The James Brown beat that drops is a monster.
The liner notes that arrive with the equally sensational Psych Funk Sa-Re-Ga! Seminar: Aesthetic Expressions of Psychedelic Funk Music in India 1970-1983 (World Psychedelic Funk Classics) are just as worthwhile. The album covers, even better. In fact, the best vinyl cover I've ever seen might be German saxophonist's Klaus Doldinger's Valentim Mehler's Herbsplatte '69. The trio's heavy-footed Krautrock drumbeat was met by a winsome sitar, earning it a place on this compilation of obscurities four decades later. On the cover, Lothar Meid is holding a bow over his stand-up bass while smoking a pipe in a fur cap; drummer Wolfgang Paap is interviewing a pig; Doldinger is shoved in the back of a winter forest, smoking or talking into the head of a vacuum. I only wish I could have bore witness to the planning of this epic photo shoot. There might be plenty of Germanic symbolism embedded in this surreal landscape, but that would require having any clue what Germans are talking about, which I clearly do not, even if some of my ancestors were born there.
Most of the songs here are played by actual Indian musicians. Four by late composer RD Burman are especially noteworthy. He is perhaps the most famous of this lot, for good reason. No Bollywood producer embraced psychedelica as he. A more famous cut, "Lekar Ham Diwana Dil," features playback extraordinaire Asha Bhosle and Kishore Kumar. Efforts like the Bond spy flick-themed "Everybody Dance With Me" by the ever-outlandish Bappi Lahari and Kalyanji Anandji's saxophone-driven "Somebody to Love" give this comp sturdy legs to stand on. This is the crazier side of Bollywood, one I sometimes wish the genre would return to (though it has made strides in recent electronica-based scores).
I didn't get the whole package for The Sound of Siam: Leftfield Luk Thung, Jazz and Molam from Thailand 1964 -1975 (Soundway Records), so I can't comment on hairdos, boots or speaking swing. They must be thorough, though; the label sent me a Word document that reveals plenty. Of the three comps described here, this is by far the most fluid and integrated, with one clear sonic line decorating these 19 songs. It's easy to get sucked in right away with the first two tracks, both by Chaweewan Dumnern, considered the "queen of molam." A layman's folk style traditionally backed by zithers, fiddles and flutes, Dumnern was part of a wave popularizing the sung poetry with guitars, bass and drums. This was pop music two generations back, and much more rewarding than the tinny orchestrations of dance music that calls itself Thai pop today. I'd rather singers emulate Robert Plant and Janis Joplin than Lady Gaga any day.
While the vocal tracks are pretty much all ingenious, my favorite is the Petch Phin Thong Band's "Soul Lam Plearn," which you can listen to below. Started by phin (three-stringed, pear-shaped lute) player and rickshaw driver Noppadol Duangporn, he wanted to revive the music of his native Isan. He started his own label and recreated his indigenous sound, much like the way Horsemouth was doing in the epitome of '70s reggae, Rockers. His perseverance paid off, however delayed, though he did reach fame in Thailand when his records dropped. Four decades later, Duangporn, like many of his contemporaries, have gone global, thanks to the help of studious ears digging through rare vinyl to highlight important social and musical periods of our recent past--nothing less than a feat in the politically and personally fickle and rapidly changing world of today.