Being very hard of hearing, and functionally tone deaf, has up till now limited my career as a musician. Despite these significant impediments I can today honestly describe myself as a world-renowned pioneering and award-winning musician.
My nascent career as an groundbreaking world musician began thousands of miles away from anywhere I have ever been. I picture the bamboo that would be crafted into the very angklung that would make me famous growing in black forest soil on a mostly wild Indonesian island. My angklung produces a single note, and is named after a single Indonesian island. The note was B-sharp, and the island was Flores.
The award I refer to is the world record for the largest angklung ensemble. The event I attended was the first ever attempt to set the record, and since there was no existing record to break we were a shoe-in for the record books. Someone suggested that this made the record less substantial; I prefer to think of it as pioneering new benchmarks for the progress of human culture as expressed in music. By one count there were 5,189 people involved in the effort.
The event took place on the expanse of poorly watered lawn that are the Washington Monument grounds. This is a great place for an event.
The record “attempt” was a key draw for the 2011 Indonesian cultural festival. One of the other big key events was a concert by “Air Supply”. I would miss the concert.
I was drawn to the Indonesian festival not by a desire to kick-start my musical career, but by a desire to get some lunch. I got some lunch that was quite good. It consisted of barbecued chicken on a stick coated in peanut sauce. The wait to get it was by any measure way too long, but it was made surreal by Washington DC July heat. I was so soaked in sweat that when I tried to put on sunscreen it foamed up like dishsoap.
There was a large professional stage where extremely perky announcers would gush over the accomplishments of each performer in an endless stream of dance troops and karaoke singers. Several of the karaoke singers were delicately attractive girls dressed in multilayered evening gowns. The gowns had long sleeves and neck-obscuring tall collars. The base layer looked like a quilted brocade. The top layer was a semi-transparent nylon shell with sequined patterns.
Twin jumbo trons captured the karaoke singers' exotic gyrations in practiced zoom and pan. The rock beat could have been produced by a three-piece band, but the organizers had opted for tape-deck instead. The singers attempted to marry traditional chant-like melodies to the electronic beat. In the thin heat that pretended to be breathable air the effect conjured images of small furry animals caught in a merciless geared industrial mechanism. They were whining in a terminus of pain. Whenever I glanced at the projected squealing pretty overdressed girls I would sweat a little extra.
There were dancing troupes in amazing oven-like costumes, and more perky banter. Then suddenly the stage was empty.
I still had a few minutes to wait for my food. One of the preparers was cutting bananas that she would coat in batter and deep fry. She did it with glacially slow precision. It was hypnotic. One cut, peal back a little more peal, place the knife against the banana, push it slowly through, peal some more.
I heard a strange trilling sound coming from some far-off place. It was beautiful. Someplace in it I could make out a song. It trailed off, and then started up again. The preparer must have been taking five minutes per banana; it was not food, it was art. I began to recognize the song. It was Bohemian Rhapsody.
I took my chicken on a stick (finally) across the festival grounds towards the National Klansman and noticed a second smaller stage On it was a group of people playing a bamboo percussion instruments hanging from black steel frames. A black-clad conductor wildly gesticulated in front of them while the performers would grab bits of their instrument and shake it vigorously. The band was rounded out with a small drum set and a bassist. The sound was exotic and danceable.
I could not completely make out the next song, but I knew it would be at home on a CD with some title like “greatest hits of the 80s”.
I was hooked.
Up on the main stage the perky announcers bantered about an “angklung world record”, and before I could figure out what this meant “Batala” -the amazing Brazilian drumming troupe- marched out. Always a treat their appearance was somewhat surprising at a festival named for a country roughly half way around the globe from the country that spawned their musical style. I discovered that despite the heat I had enough energy to bounce on the balls of my feet. I'm sure there was a breeze.
It was at this moment; soaked with sweat, driven by the primal beat of a few dozen drums, baked by a taunting sun, that I remembered a small (literally) bit of human ancestry from Indonesia that formed part of an interesting narrative.
Luckily I was just down the street from a place where I could get a little (literally) background information on it.
Interpol - Slow Hands by scootaway