A couple of weeks ago, I talked about jazz in this column, something that made me feel like I was in over my head a bit. Well, this week, I’m going to multiply that feeling by a hundred as I talk about a great record that melds the music of Indonesia with Appalachia.
It’s worth it, I swear, because this debut release by Rumput is remarkably special and well-worth any music fan’s time, whether or not they even know what Indonesian music sounds like.
For background, here is the description of Rumput included on their Bandcamp page:
“This collection is the culmination of our first phase as a band: the three years from when Hannah first encountered kroncong groups in Java while studying under a Darmasiswa scholarship, to the time of our full-band residency in Bandung. As we release it, Andy is already in Bali on another round of field research on music in community, while the rest of us are preparing to fly to Bandung, after which Hannah, Natalie and puppeteer Edward Breitner will stay on for another year of intensive study: Hannah pursuing a Fulbright scholarship on kroncong, Natalie a Darmasiswa on gamelan, and Edward a Darmasiswa on wayang (shadow theater).”
The importance of that description is to inform you of the place from which this music comes, which is a deep appreciation of the music and an even deeper desire to understand what makes it live and breathe. They aren’t pretending to be experts on the music, instead contextualizing it with their own experiences, both personally and musically. This can be felt in the album’s sequencing, as songs in foreign languages weave in and out of English-speaking folk tunes, some familiar to even the most-sheltered of people. It also helps give this record a great deal of heart that tears down the vast distance that separates culture.
The nine musicians who make up Rumput are all singularly talented, and that talent is also multi-faceted considering at least four of the members are playing multiple instruments on this record. Hannah Standiford’s voice, dynamic and resolute, packs the most musical power of any instrument. But it’s also notable how well Standiford restrains that voice at times, letting the songs flourish in her its diminished glory, rather than buckling under its celestial weight.
Brandon Simmons’ flute work stood out at points too, giving some songs a feathery sentiment, while the entire string section can blow you away if you let them, especially when you consider how hard it must to be introduce Americana jaunts into Indonesian chants. In that sentiment, percussionist Brian Larson is probably Rumput’s secret weapon, providing steady direction wherever the sound may veer. With nine members though, there’s more than enough praise to go around. But really, it’s not the talent of the musicians that makes this record special, it’s how warmly familiar they make all these songs feel.
Does this music sound different? Of course, but it never feels foreign, an important distinction when melding two styles so embedded into historical culture. Their approach lets your appreciate a song like “Ondhe Ondhe,” the album’s true peak, and embark on the sweet adventure it takes you. It lets songs like “Jali Jali” and “Nyi Roro Kidul” feel as though they could be played anywhere, whether in the bustling streets of Jakarata or the humble confines of the Carter Family Fold, something that sounds so odd to type, but feels so true when listening. Their interpretation of folk standards like “John Henry” break down country and culture lines, making the messages feel communal in the world, as opposed to regionalized in a country.
It’s not just that Rumput has made experimental world music feel comfortable and inviting. They’ve also shown how comfortable and inviting the whole world is, with melodies and break-downs that makes Indonesia feel like a short highway ride away, instead of on the opposite side of a globe without any relation to us at all.
It makes you feel more connected in this world, as opposed to isolated. While that’s something that specifically speaks to us in 2017, it’s also a timeless inspiration which is ultimately, what Rumput has beautifully created here.