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V/A - Those Shocking Shaking Days: Indonesia Hard, Psychedelic, Progressive Rock and Funk 1970-1978

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Artist: V/A

Album: Those Shocking Shaking Days: Indonesia Hard, Psychedelic, Progressive Rock and Funk 1970-1978

Label: Now-Again

Review date: Apr. 29, 2011

What are we grooving on when we listen to these myriad and multiplying rock/psych/funk/soul/gonzo compilations gathered from the nether-regions of the non-Western world? Is it the universal grok? Is it the self-satisfaction that our counterculture not only resonated, but also penetrated and incorporated every thing it touched? Whatever it is, we can rest assured that, instead of the hundreds of Midwest punk compilations that used to fill the “V/A” bins at our local record stores, which taught us state capitals never memorized in middle school, we now will finally stumble upon geographical truths beyond the usual reasons Americans learn the names of foreign countries: their genocides, our wars and cough syrup recalls.

Are we replacing the new production of underground American culture with the “discovery” of an already forgotten culture borne from an earlier period of state- and nation-building in the Third World? And are we doing this because we, deep in our finger lickin’ hearts, want to recall with nostalgia the era when the U.S. was top dog, the deadliest catch, the America’s got talent of the globe? As Ben Tausig astutely pinpointed in these pages weeks ago, the fact that we are surfing upon a meniscus of blood, sweat and tears involved in Third Worldster musics often tells us more about ourselves that it does the intended subjects of these discs.

I do not wish to impugn anyone involved in the hardships of locating, compiling and distributing any of these endeavors. But let us take solace in the historical record, however, if a collective guilt needs to be expiated among we in the majority that live in the demand side of the equation. After all, Bill Laswell helped spread the Fela Kuti gospel while the latter was still a national security threat in West Africa, and David Byrne publicized Brazilian psychedelia a few short years after the fall of the country’s military dictatorship and long before Tropicalia’s heroes became cultural statesmen and NPR interview fodder. Even more importantly, as I tried to point out in this magazine, the assumption of outward unidirectional flows of American music during the 1960s is not at all accurate when it came to the innovations within jazz that intertwined the identification of Third World liberation with our own homeland varieties.

The last rock compilation I reviewed on D-Mag, from late 1960s Pakistan, was billed as representing a unbeknownst sphere of popular resistance to the encroaching political Islam within late 20th century South Asia. This time around, rock and roll in Southeast Asia is presented as an erstwhile corollary to the anti-communist Suharto dictatorship, which killed at least 500,000 suspected leftists in the country during the 1960s. Rock is indeed a fickle muse. In this sense, the title Those Shocking, Shaking Days is about the aftermath of those years of living dangerously, the closing off of one path for the country and the opening of another. Not just an early Mel Gibson vehicle, “Vivere Pericolosamente” is the title of a 1958 short story by the Indo-Dutch modernist writer Tjalie Robinson, and the phrase was later used by Sukarno in 1964 as the President shifted the country’s stance from Third World non-alignment in the Cold War towards active anti-U.S. foreign policy at the height of the Vietnam War. Rock music became a symbol of imperialism, Beatles records were banned, and the Koes Brothers – a Beatlesque group – did a stint in jail until the Suharto coup. Taking on the U.S. empire, that’s one thing. But go to war against rock and roll, and here come the Marines.

Suharto was always one of Nixon’s favs, and Jerry Ford and Kissinger looked the other way as East Timor was bloodily invaded in 1975 (eerily unmentioned in this compilation’s otherwise extensive liner notes). Western aid, planners, capital, troops, and inevitably, rock music flooded Indonesia during the 1970s, and compiler Jason “Moss” Connoy capably shows their uneven effects among the various islands. The Javanese centers of Bandung and Jakarta produced the psych-prog band Shark Move, the R&B unit The Rollies, and the grand and funky AKA. To the west, Sumatra housed the Malay-crooning Golden Wing and the psych superstars Panbers. In Western Papua, where individuals tend to be darker-skinned, the afro-donning, P-Funk influenced Black Brothers came out swinging. The Koes Brothers not only resurfaced, but dominated Indonesian popular music as Koes Plus and other incarnations. For Americans, Indonesia’s most famous inhabitant during the early 1970s was a 10-year-old Barack Obama. Some of the phenomenal tracks on this disc tell me that a young Barry, instead of a secret Muslim, was more likely a secret funkster that perhaps imbibed limited healthy doses of King Crimson through Benny Soebardja’s band Lizard.

The high-caliber re-mastered tracks compiled here just hint at a trove of music from this period, and one benefit of such excursions is that it allows us to rethink our own founding countercultural myths. To wit: the 1970s were also the high point of American minimalism, as Reich, Glass, Riley, Adams et al borrowed tone and temporality from the Gamelan orchestras of Bali and Java. But the well-known kebyar style of Gamelan, with its rapid dynamism and virtuosity present even in its name (byar = “flare”), is not the timeless Southeast Asian art form many suppose it to be. Waves of foreign encroachment, from Islam to Portuguese and Dutch usurpers, forced musicians from Java to flee to the Balinese kingdom for patronage. Out of this frothy cross-island mix, a slow, courtly style of Gamelan, gong gede (large gongs), became prominent from the 16th century onwards. After the Dutch finally conquered Bali in the early 20th century, court revenues were limited, funds for art support declined, and many gamelan ensembles were melted down or given to neighboring villages. In conjunction with new flows of money, tourists and eager Western patrons looking for that “traditional” Oriental fix, northern Balinese villages developed the kebyar style around 1915, and it quickly spread due to its faster tempo, wilder dynamics, and tempestuous dance choreography. All of the original 78-speed recordings of gamelan music in the 1920s, which aroused the interest of Margaret Mead among others, were in the kebyar style. According to musicologist Michael Tenzer, kebyar both “posed a strong challenge to the hegemony of court aesthetic” but also acted as “the vehicle for a musical renewal encompassing the courtly past within its domain.” Ditto the 1970s, I would argue, as this compilation exhibits both aspects of Third World “freedom rock” — selective use of Western popular music to frame and pursue local dreams and passions, while also critiquing the ham-fisted authoritarianism usually propped up by these very same Western powers.

What about us, though? Why do we go to such lengths to seek out something so familiar? The story of the early 20th century gamelan switcheroo perhaps tells us that, to paraphrase Clifford Geertz’s notes on Balinese cockfighting, the most recent iteration of our love for Third World Rock is fundamentally interpretive: It is a contemporary Western reading of Western history and experience, or, more bluntly put, a story we tell ourselves about ourselves.

By Kevan Harris

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