One of the most ubiquitous and instantly-recognizable types of indigenous sounds anywhere in world music is Indonesia's gamelan. The term specifically refers to a set of instruments, rather than the musicians who are playing them. These instruments typically include xylophones, metallophones, drums known as kendang, gongs, fluted made from bamboo, and string instruments.
Originating in Java and Bali, gamelan has been hugely influential, not just in the Far East, but across the globe. Gamelan has found its way into music as varied as American alternative rock legends Sonic Youth, and other experimental Western musicians such as The Residents and Robert Fripp (of King Crimson fame).
What makes gamelan so popular with artists seeking to explore different musical agendas is the way it can fuse separate genres. Throughout the 60s, 70s and 80s, Indonesian music blended local styles with distinctly western touches. Those influences from Europe or America were not only chart-friendly pop and rock, but also elements of progressive music. As well as fusing together music from different continents, gamelan is able to create a musical cocktail with localized ingredients, incorporating Malaysian elements.
Over the decades, Indonesian music has been clearly defined by bands like Gang Pegangsaan, Gypsy, Giant Step, Super Kid, Terncem, Bentoel and God Bless. These groups were markedly different from what could be termed ‘mainstream rock' because of the variety of sonic undercurrents that could be picked up in their tunes. The influences of the beautifully percussive gamelan instruments drove unique rhythms through much of the music. This became the solid basement in the structuring of the songs. Together with fluid baselines, an exciting genre sprung up, also typified by wildly experimental lead guitar playing, and loose vocal techniques.
Many of the progressive bands that originated in Indonesia became more widely known elsewhere in the Pacific region. For instance, the Abbhama Band, who only ever released one album, 1978's Alam Raya, gained something of a cult following amongst Japanese ‘prog rock' audience. Although there were certainly elements of their music that reached out beyond their immediate Indonesian horizons, they were also accused of being somewhat introspective. They were seen as a keyboard-heavy progressive band, rather than one that took on board a lot of more traditional local influences. As such, the obvious reference points were European or British prog acts, especially the likes of Emerson, Lake and Palmer.
All of the songs produced by Abbhama Band were principally the handiwork of vocalist and keyboard-wizard Iwan. After the band capitulated, he went on to form a band called Wow. They released three albums between 1983 and 1990.
Another Indonesian band that made waves in the prog rock scene was Aka. Rather than the occasionally overblown and pompous sound associated with many prog aficionados, Aka played a much more stripped-back type of psychedelic rock, merging this with elements of hard rock. Add a slice of funk with dirty rhythms, and healthy lashings of black souls spirit, and you have the makings of a very interesting listen.
While Indonesian progressive rock may not be everyone's cup of musical tea, it is well worth doing some research to track down its main exponents.