Lesser-Known Gem: Guruh Gipsy – Guruh Gipsy

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Band: Guruh Gipsy | Album: Guruh Gipsy | Genre: Progressive rock, Gamelan music | Year: 1977

From: Jakarta, Indonesia | Label: Paramaqua

For fans of: Yes, Genesis, ELP

In Lesser-Known Gem entries, I’ve explored acts that combined progressive rock with Orthodox chants, flamenco music, and country and honky-tonk. The act I’m writing about today also blends progressive rock with the music of their homeland. That homeland, though, is Indonesia (specifically Java and Bali), which is quite far from progressive rock’s European homeland.

Guruh Gipsy were a one-off project. All the music was written by artist Guruh Sukarnoputra (a son of Indonesia’s first president, Sukarno), and he worked with the band Gipsy to record the material. Unlike the previous acts I’ve written about, Guruh Gipsy’s sole album was a widely-acclaimed and highly-influential success upon its release in Indonesia. However, as of the time of publishing, I’ve had exactly zero Indonesian readers of my blog, according to WordPress’s stats. It’s probably a safe bet that this is a rather unknown album to most of my audience.

Released in 1977, Guruh Gipsy offers a fascinating look at how well rock could fuse with non-Western musical traditions, including uncommon instrumentation and scales. There’s a striking mixture of keyboard-heavy Anglo-prog and Javanese and Balinese gamelan music, and the balance of each of those two competing styles varies from one song to the next. Western classical influences abound as well.

(For the unaware: a gamelan is a traditional ensemble of mostly percussive instruments found in Javanese and Balinese music. The primary instruments in these ensembles are gongs and chimes, which are struck with mallets. [Here is an example.](PROVIDE LINK))

The album opens with the huge suite, “Indonesia Maharddhika” (“Independent Indonesia”). This is the most overtly-Anglo-prog song on the album, being filled to the brim with huge, majestic organ, fluid synths, and soaring guitars. Here, the gamelan is kept to a minor role, acting almost like another keyboard instrument. (Fun fact: the opening melody is based on KC and the Sunshine Band’s “That’s the Way (I Like It)” but with the accentuation reversed.)

Following that grandiosity is a much quieter, more reserved piece, “Chopin Larung” (“Floating Chopin”). This is a fairly straightforward ballad during the verses, but the middle section of the song demonstrates some impressive instrumental skills.

“Barong Gundah” (“The Depressed Barong”) offers one of the fullest integrations of Western and Indonesian sounds. The gamelan provides a persistent, off-kilter rhythm which is complemented by the funky, awkward bassline. Guitar and burbling synth battle it out over this backdrop. This weirdness, though, is followed by “Janger 1897 Saka”, the weakest track on the album. It’s a folk-flavored ballad that’s a bit sweet for my taste and drags on for too long. (Wikipedia didn’t have a translation for this song title, and Google Translate didn’t help, either.)

The blending of Western and Indonesian styles resumes on “Geger Gelgel” (“Commotion in Gelgel”). It’s a high-energy, anxious song powered by the aggressive, metallic clanging of the gamelan and a speedy, nervous guitar line. The song builds to a chaotic climax, evoking the commotion referenced in the song title.

“Smaradhana” (“Passion”) is a mercifully brief brief ballad that leads in to “Sekar Ginotan” (“The Ginotan Composition”). This closing song, in stark contrast to the album opener, is purely Indonesian. Bassy gongs and wooden percussion provide a backbone as flute and chimes play a dizzying, technical melody.

This album was my introduction to Indonesian music, and I think it is likely the best way to introduce many people to such traditions. Guruh Gipsy showed that gamelan could be effectively integrated into rock music both in a leading role and as a supporting element. (If you’re interested in another example of gamelan in rock music, I’d recommend RTA by Rudra, a Singaporean death metal band. Its use is much less pervasive in that context, but it’s definitely there on a couple tracks.) In doing research for this piece, it was clear to me that Guruh Gipsy casts a long shadow over Indonesia’s history of pop and rock music, and it’s abundantly clear why.

Score: 91/100

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