Susheela Raman doesn’t think much of borders. Born in London to South Indian parents but raised in Australia, her musical career has been all about bringing together people, cultures, ideas, and sounds to create her own musical voice. She’s worked with musicians from South and South East Asia, Africa, Greece, Turkey, and North Africa on previous releases such as Music For Crocodiles and Vel. So it doesn’t seem at all odd that for her latest album, Ghost Gamelan, she has worked with gamelan musicians from Java.
Gamelan has long been the secret sauce that has interested every creative musician and composer, and artists from many other disciplines as well. Musically everyone from Debussy to American iconoclast Harry Partch have listened to, studied, copied, and theorized upon this alien musical system that is in so many ways the complete opposite of our Western musical system.
It’s interesting that “gamelan” is the word for both the ensemble of metal gongs, drums, xylophones and other percussion as well as for the music they create. Putting the gamelan musicians together with Raman’s band wasn’t the easiest task, requiring many hours of rehearsal to get it right. Though there are some tracks, such as the haunting “Annabel” where the gamelan is more of an aromatic in Susheela’s musical cocktail, some of the album’s most memorable tracks are those like the album’s opener, “Tanpa Nana” where the gamelan musicians assert their presence right away, embedding the sound of their instruments deep within the fabric of the music. They are also heavily in front on the melodically gorgeous “Spoon.”
The album’s second track, “Beautiful Moon” sounds like it could have come from Portishead’s debut. Not only the lazy trippy drum beats and spacey guitar work, along with the off-kilter vibraphone glimmer of the gamelan instruments, but even Raman’s vocal style here is reminiscent of Beth Gibbons.
Raman and her collaborator, guitarist and producer Sam Mills first encountered modern gamelan musician Gondrong Gunarto in Indonesia in 2015. Gunarto and his ensemble are part of Indonesia’s kontemporar, or contemporary, branch of gamelan. Though they play traditional gamelan instruments they don’t always do it in traditional ways and they mix Western pop music sounds into their work as well. In Raman’s words:
“They have a real sense of the avant garde and a sense of theatre so in contemporary gamalan things are allowed,” says Raman, “they’re allowed to set fire to the ukelele or whatever!”
In 2016 Mills and Raman returned to Java to record a version of the Beatles song “Tomorrow Never Knows,” written by John Lennon. As the closing track on the Revolver album, TNK absolutely blew the doors off the ideas of what rock sounds could be about or could sound like. The Gundrong Gunarto ensemble set up a gently clanging circle of loops that collide with each other, moving in and out of the listener’s awareness. For the B side the group recorded George Harrison’s Indo-pop song “Love You To.”
“For me, it’s strange to think that as they (The Beatles) were imagining India in Abbey Road, my dad was flying to London to start a new life, so there was two-way traffic,” Susheela says. “It was interesting to look at what the Beatles did 50 years ago, which still sounds so strong, and to do something creative with those songs, not straight covers.” Susheela Raman Interview January 2017 | Rhythm Passport
When Mills and Raman were putting finishing touches on some of the compositions for Ghost Gamelan they realized that they wanted the sound and the energy of the gamelan to be a part of this record. The songs themselves are lyrically ethereal, full of mysterious comings and goings.
“The record is evoking strange and ghostly presences,” says Raman in an interview last year. “All of the songs have this ethereal, spooky feeling about them…A lot of the songs are reflecting on mortality,” Making Ghost Gamelan Like Sculpting Metal | RFI English
Adding gamelan helped take the sound of the songs away from Western pop and creates that quality of being between worlds, maybe in an unforseen bardo between life and death, light and dark, time and timelessness. But it presented real challenges since gamelan music uses different systems of microtuning that aren’t in step with the tempered Western scale. Many Asian and African musics use these microtunings, but the gamelan is different than anything else, resulting in its unique sound.
There’s no telling where Susheela Raman’s restless spirit will take her next, physically or musically. But there’s one thing we can be sure of–it will have something to teach all of us (including Susheela).
And it probably won’t stay inside the lines.