Sunday, August 14, 2011

Strange Birds in Northcote

It's pretty late but if you're interested in West Papua or if you just generally like damn good music and you're in Melbourne you could do worse than to head down to the Northcote Social Club to see the launch of the soundtrack to Strange Birds in Paradise this afternoon from 1:45 - 4:45pm.

I saw a lot of these bands last year at an event to raise money for relief following an earthquake near the north coast of West Papua that caused a damage in Biak, Yapen and the nearby mainland. There was a really great mix of traditional percussion, I suppose what you'd call more modern guitar based folk songs and even some really tight soul. Great bands, great harmonies and always with a really driving rhythm common to a lot of Papuan music.

I recommend the music without reservation. The movie, less so.

I'm always a bit conflicted about these events because they tend to devolve into platitudes about freedom that make it sound like there's an easy solution to all of the troubles in West Papua. They encourage well-meaning Northcote types to buy lapel pins and Free West Papua bumper stickers while having no understanding of the context or the real-world implications of political change in West Papua.

To be clear, I don't support independence for West Papua. I'll go into the qualifications and reasons for this in a later blog post (if I tried to do it now I'd miss the gig). In short, I want the violence to stop, I want the people to be provided with health, education, infrastructure and other vital services and I want them to be free to express their thoughts, ideas and culture. I just think independence would be a huge roadblock on the way to doing that.

Politics aside, if you're in Melbourne, get down there and catch some great music. If you really do want some politics, ignore the rebels-without-a-cause and talk to the real Papuans.

For my non-Melburnian readers, fyi, Northcote is our little nexus of Hipsterdom. Centre of tight jeans, ironic glasses, veganism, fixed gear bikes and white people. It's top of the list of Stuff White People Like in Melbourne.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Finally, gamelan/metal fusion

I found the above track on one of those music sharing services that the kids were all using back in 2002 after buying (and loving) Dreams by Otomo Yoshihide's New Jazz Ensemble. As you might expect, it blew my little 19-year-old mind.

It was brash, loud, aggressive and best of all, it prominently featured Balinese gamelan right in the front of the mix. They were just samples and they were used more as a texture than an integral part of the music, but still, it was something.

If you haven't listened to much gamelan, it can sound pretty odd at first, but even as a kid I loved it. I can't remember where I first heard it, but I have vivid memories of taking gamelan music classes in primary school in Jakarta at age 8 and still remember the lyrics to some of the Javanese songs. I even once convinced my parents to let the driver take me to an all night wayang performance, though my hazy memory suggests that I wasn't awake for much of it.

When I moved back to Jakarta in 2004 I started seeing a lot of metal and hardcore music. The scene was very mature with distinct styles to be found in all of the major cities.

Maybe it's just me, but I actually see quite a lot of similarities between the next two videos:

The stop/start rhythms, the shimmering layers of sound, the intense blasts and virtuousity required all made it seem like a no-brainer that someone would be fusing gamelan and metal but I was never able to find it. I heard that Krakatau were doing great work fusing jazz and gamelan but I missed their show in Melbourne before I left and never heard of any gigs they were doing in Indonesia.

Imagine my delight then when I saw a link to Anaking's Facebook page on Rumah Musik Harry Roesli's wall.

You can listen to a few of their songs below. I recommend the second track: The Final of Nowhere. I'm a little puzzled by their decision to sing their songs in English (or Engrish?), but I can forgive them that.

It makes sense that the first metal/gamelan fusion band (that I've heard of, at least) would come out of Bandung. They have, arguably, the best metal scene in the country and STSI Bandung has one of the biggest traditional music student bodies in the country. I just wonder what took them so long...

Sunday, August 07, 2011

Is cycling in Melbourne dangerous?

One of my favourite blogs, The Melbourne Urbanist had a thoughtful post trying to nut out the constraining factor preventing Melbourne being accurately described as a bike city.

He (and his voluminous commenters) cite various articles and personal anecdotes all seemingly predicated on the assumption that to venture out on to the Melbourne streets with a bicycle is to take your life in your hands and it got me thinking: is cycling in Melbourne really that dangerous?

I ride 50-100km per week as a commuter with probably 30-40% of that distance on bike paths (with numerous street crossings) and the rest on roads; with the exception of a short stretch of footpath on Bell st between my house and the Upfield bike path I never ride on the footpath. I have been doing this for around 18 months now and in that whole time I have had to slam on my brakes to avoid a crash exactly once and stopped with a comfortable margin of error to the side of someone who pulled out of a side street on Sydney road.

I suppose I have a reasonable bike* with good brakes that would give me a little more control than average and while I'm probably slightly more coordinated than the average potential cycle-commuter in Melbourne, I'm definitely not exceptional in that regard**.

It could be a matter of framing: I rode a motorbike in Jakarta for almost a year so I may have a skewed idea of what constitutes obnoxious driving and a lower expectation of driver awareness. Am I oblivious to my impending doom or is everyone else overreacting?

* I ride a low-to-mid-range hardtail mountain bike with disc brakes set up as a commuter with slicks and the front forks locked out.
** I long for the day when I can do a track stand at the traffic lights.