Allmusic’s brief biography of Idjah Hadidjah praises her as “an outstanding female singer from a whole generation who avoided Western and Indian influences in favor of a distinctive regional sound.” That makes it sound like Hadidjah and her peers made a deliberate, personal aesthetic choice to turn back to roots music and away from corrupting international influences. She sounds like some sort of Indonesian Alan Lomax.
The truth, though, is more complicated, and more oppressive. In 1961, nationalist Indonesian president Sukarno banned Western music, particularly rock and roll, as part of official anti-imperialist, anti-foreign ideology. Indonesian musicians were supposed to return to traditional forms in order to glorify a pure village past and a present political ethos. This nationalist censorship was carried on by Sukarno’s successor Suharto when he took over in a genocidal coup in 1967.
The government demanded reactionary traditional art, and choreographer and composer Gugum Gumbrai delivered—sort of. In the early 1970s, Gumbrai, then in his 20s, began a study of the rural Sundanese festival harvest ritual ketuk-tilu. Ketuk-tilu involved erotic dancing by vocalists who sometimes doubled as sex workers. It was performed to percussive music based around the ketuk-tilu, or three kettle gongs, and the rebab, a small bowed instrument.
To this basic ensemble, Gumbrai added the gamelan, a Javanese ensemble of percussive instruments including drums played with mallets, drums played by hand, and xylophones. He also modified the dancing with movements from Indonesian martial art pencak silat, somewhat reducing the stigma associated with ketuk-tilu’s sexuality. His singers sang lyrics about the joys and sorrows of rural life. The new, updated, modern traditional Indonesian country music was called Jaipong, and it became a national sensation.
Perhaps the most successful Jaipong singer was Idjah Hadidjah. Hadidjah worked in Gumbrai’s ensemble in the 1980s, recording more than 40 cassettes over the decade. Despite her profligacy, he work is mostly unavailable in the west. The one well-known collection released in the US by Nonesuch, Tonggeret, is a mixture of Jaipong performance and less percussive, abrasive genres like Karinding and Celempungan.
And then there’s Sinden Beken, (loosely translated as “Famous Singer”) a collection of Jaipong supposedly from 1980, which is available digitally for obscure reasons. Whatever its provenance, though, it is a marvel and a mindfuck. To Western ears, the overdriven percussion seems to follow its own, obscure rhythmic logic, while Hadidjah’s vocals soar in undulating melisma from high- pitched to more high-pitched to shattering glass. She’s often joined by a male vocalist or male vocalists, who comment and shout encouragement a la Bob Wills, or actually duet on tunes like the eight-plus-minute sounds-like-a-party- song “Bendrong Petit.”
On first listen, Jaipong may feel like a dry avant-garde novelty; Schoenberg for the East. But once you start to find your way through it, the melody and rhythm begin to resolve into odd, sneakily detonated hooks. The slow, bowed pace of “Gandrung” (“Infatuated”) drags like a limping passion, as Hadidjah’s voice rises pure and pained into the rural night, clearing your sinuses and stabbing your heart. The patter-and-grind of “Leang-Leang” is insistent enough that even the notoriously too-respectable-to-dance Hadidjah must have sashayed a hip or two as her vocals throb and flirt.
And then there’s the stunning “Mahoni” (“Mahogany”), with a fiendishly impossible, and impossibly catchy, vocal line,. Hadidjah belts it out like Nancy Wilson with a tank of helium pumped up her nose: “Maaaaaaa hoooooo niiiiiii!” The background guys chant what sounds like, “go go go go go!” or just caw in awe and joy.
As well they might. Their government wanted Gumbrai and Hadidjah to create a distinctively Indonesian sound for national glorification, and they did that. But they also made a music too odd, too sexy, and too innovative to be kept to the rural village. Sinden Beken shows that you can force musicians to sow your seeds, but the harvest is beyond your control.