Uwalmassa // Malar

Joseph Francis explores the experimental gamelan sound of Indonesia’s Uwalmassa.

Gamelan has been integral to Indonesian culture for centuries. It’s known for its role in religious ceremonies, public celebrations and even puppet shows (wayang). In its most traditional form, this bronze orchestra creates a soothing and uplifting effect through a hypnotic layering of repetitive melodies. Musicians learn their notes off by heart and no conductor leads, embodying the value of community over individualism. 

Perhaps owing to its humility, gamelan hasn’t stolen many headlines in contemporary culture. Don’t DJ, known for his preference for polyrhythms, somewhat radically championed the sound in modern dance music when he titled his 2016 release for Berceuse Heroique Gammellan [sic]. But the German producer’s toe tapping homage to the genre now comes across as conventional when compared with Uwalmassa, an experimental three-piece from Jakarta.

Uwalmassa deconstruct gamelan’s constituent parts and reshape them, which allows them to communicate something other than harmony. While their first two releases (Animisme and Bumi Uthiri) are relatively lighthearted and easy to imagine in a dancefloor setting, their latest Malar is brooding and meditative. It rewards the listener with undefinable sounds that subtly shift from song to song, telling a story in a distinct tongue.

With a tracklist that reads like the deadly sins, Malar comes across as a damning manifesto of our human avarice. Both ‘Caruk’ and ‘Majuh’ seem to loosely translate as ravenous or gluttonous, whilst the word ‘malar’ shares the same root as the Italian word ‘malaria’, which literally translates as ‘bad air’. With the backdrop of the pandemic, Uwalmassa’s polyrhythmic layering shows both the disturbance we have caused to our planet’s ecosystems and the insidious nature of greed. 

Admittedly, this can make for a dense listen, but within each layer lies something both familiar and new. ‘Majuh’ has an alt-metal feel thanks to its brash chords which ruffle a twinkling gendèr melody. ‘Rantas’ (named after a demonic witch from Kashmiri folklore) is the most danceable track: its scuttling tempo and beautifully strained, elephant-like klaxons (which reappear throughout the album) give it a jungle edge. Dubstep tropes can be heard in the LFO’d death knells of ‘Karnal’. ‘Putung’ on the other hand has a cartoonish dimension with its flip-flop patters and unintelligible murmurs, bringing to mind the twisted EBM of contemporary artists like Maoupa Mazzocchetti. Not to mention ‘Sembahyang’s wall-shuddering groans, which could rival Hans Zimmer’s score for Dune.

Despite these comparisons to genres and names which are familiar to me, Malar is far from a watered down version of gamelan ripe for Western picking. Arguably the album’s greatest strength lies in its unrelenting intensity and adherence to conflicting rhythms. In sticking stoically to gamelan heterophonic structures, the listener must accept a new language or understand nothing. It wears its heart on its sleeve and sticks to its aim of stirring rather than hypnotising. 

2019 documentary A Punk Daydream focuses on a kinship between Indonesia’s indigenous people and the tattooed punks of Jakarta who, in spite of living in the centre of the archipelago, feel equally distant from modern society. In this sense, I imagine Malar to be a perfect soundtrack for both communities: it’s an accomplished punk album that, through marrying an ancient genre (gamelan) with a rebellious angst, unites separate worlds against a universal and ultimately capitalist sin.

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