Harry Roesli Gang ‘Titik Api’ LP (LaMunai) 5/5

In a market awash with newly released unearthed treasures from the 1970s, Jakarta-based LaMunai Records bring us this gem. ‘Titik Api’ (Hotspot) is described as a ‘successful effort to blend Indonesian’s traditional instruments, such as gamelan, with Western music from progressive to funky hypnotic groove’. Well, that’s got my attention, let’s give it a spin!

I admit I had never heard of Harry Roesli, although he is still a well-known figure in his native country despite his death in 2004. As well as an artist, he was a political and social activist and I am told that the lyrics on this record reflect this.

The Gang of Harry Rusli was formed in the early 70s with the concept of merging traditional Indonesian instruments with contemporary rock music. Titik Api is their second recorded effort, originally a cassette only release from Aktuil music magazine in 1976. The group was soon disbanded after this project, however, when Roesli was offered a scholarship at Rotterdam Conservatoire. Upon graduation, he returned to Indonesia but concentrated on avant-garde compositions often in collaboration with other artists.

The record starts with a bang. “Sekar Jepun” is a Balinese traditional mutated into a prog-rock masterpiece with squidgy old-school mono synth, fuzz guitar and gamelan pounding a ferocious intro before it hits a laid back prog-fuzz guitar riff with syncopated gamelan. There are myriad changes of pace and rhythms even including an electric funereal burst. Gamelan goes missing though for the well-executed but more conventional AOR poppy funk-lite vibe of ”Merak”. Indonesian percussion headlines ”Jangga Wareng” apart from the occasional bursts of manic fuzz riffs and the rebab (stringed instrument) solo.

The epic ”Kebo Jiro” is adapted from a traditional Javanese tune and starts sweetly with lightly flanged guitar and solo voice. Soon it expands into some beautiful lush instrumental moments and builds into an engrossing jam. The brief “Epilog #1” closes record one with lusty vocals accompanied by arpeggiated acoustic guitar chords and keyboard drones.

“Prolog” is moody bluesy hard rock with kendang and outrageously heavily-affected guitar then locking into uptempo synthy/gamelan jam. “Curah Hujan” is a pleasant but relatively uneventful Bossa-style ballad. On the funky “Dinding Tulang”, the gravelly slightly sleazy lead vocal is offset by angelic female backups, the slide guitar/harmonica question and answer section is fun too! The slower “Semut” has heroic vocals accompanied by acoustic guitar and big keyboards wash; it’s a little too saccharine for my taste but the warm jazzy soul of “Bunga Surga” has a groove reminiscent of ‘What’s Going On’.

The Maluku Island traditional song, “Lembe Lembe”, is given the full Roesli treatment. Fuzzy guitar and mono synth double up on the riff with flute taking the lead. It’s a wall of percussion augmented by sustained guitar power chords, mono synth fills and a burst of beautiful choral vocals. “Epilog #2” concludes the record with country-folk tinged ballad including lap-steel and harmonica.

Bringing together such a diverse range of musical styles and instrumentation could easily have sounded clunky and contrived but the cohesion is so strong, it feels intuitive and natural. The album, while a success, is maybe a little uneven but I think that’s a credit to the sheer brilliance of the best tracks. The hotspots, so to speak! I would get this release just for “Sekar Jepun” or “Lembe Lembe” alone. I am amazed that I have never heard this music before but am thankful we now have the opportunity to enjoy it.

Kevin Ward