It is difficult from a Western perspective to describe the diverse work that Susheela Raman has done with her musical and life partner Sam Mills over the past twenty years and one has to be conscious of using terminology such as “world music” due to the aversion that Susheela has for the term. During a workshop the day before the first of two performances of Ghost Gamelan, Susheela and Sam gave an introductory background regarding their journey since connecting in a roundabout way via Peter Gabriel’s Real World record label. Illustrating their talk with several intimate performances including a version of Blue Lily Red Lotus leading into Jimi Hendrix’s Voodoo Chile, they demonstrated that they are as much ethnomusicologists as they are performers with albums that have explored European, African, and South Indian influences to create new as well as refreshing takes on older music.
For the actual performance of Ghost Gamelan at the Space Theatre, Susheela was joined by Sam on guitar, Peter Bennie on bass, Malcolm Catto on drums and percussionist Hugh Wilkinson relegated to a third of the stage, the rest of the stage given over to the Gamelan musicians Gondrong Guanarto, Agus Prasetyo, Ndaru Nalang Adi and Rano Prasetyo and their Javanese instrument set up including bonangs, gambangs, gong agengs and sarons, with lone violinist Raven Bush on the right.
Following a mellow, free jazz introductory lead in and then album opening track Tanpa Nama, Susheela describes the collaboration with Gondrong Guanarto and the other Gamelan musicians as “bonkers”. The thematically “unobtainable” Beautiful Moon (reminiscent of Nick Drake’s Fruit Tree) is more subtle than the first song, the Gamelan music providing a texture less intrusive than the pounding immediacy at the beginning of the performance. The song ends to be met with a moment of silence, the first of several times that the music time is given time to settle before there is applause.
Sphinx contains elements of spaghetti western music with the mood of a late night jazz club and musical theatre-esque spoken word interludes. During this song, Susheela’s physical movement is visually captivating and conveys the energy of Neneh Cherry and Ari Up from the Slits (although I think that hair might have had something to do with it). Sheba is not from the Ghost Gamelan recording although does not feel separate from the other material being performed with Gondrong contributing vocals on verses taken from 400AD. “She died too young” is the introduction to Annabel, the most traditional Western folk-rock song performed with Susheela breaking into a near rap towards the end. Going Down is a song about a soldier dying on a battlefield and asks why war is necessary. The introductory percussive quiet jamming amplified to give a lo-fi effect before leading into a piece sounding like something akin to the works of contemporary composer Max Richter. Even without the introductory explanation, this is a reflective, moving piece of music.
Rose is a hypnotic, fully immersive piece that lyrically borrows from the poetry of William Blake. This piece is notable for being the first Gamelan arrangement that was composed with the musicians in 2016 and although it is closes the album, here it is played out of sequence. Spoons (“it means acolytes”), has Gondrong initially playing solo while Sam adds slight then gradually more noticeable musical flourishes on guitar like a musical duel before the rest of the group join in to produce a song that could very nearly fit onto Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks. Ghost Child (“we are the ghosts of our younger selves”) begins and ends with Gondrong blowing on a wood wind instrument and out of a formless jam it becomes a mutant James Bond theme song via Raven Bush’s violin riff.
The performance is completed by a song that although it is not from the Ghost Gamelan recording it directly lead to the project and was the first song they actually recorded together, Tomorrow Never Knows. Percussionist Hugh Wilkinson settles down with the Gamelan musicians to play gongs after having previously alternated between his percussive set up and piano during the performance. This Beatles cover version was appropriate to finish as it was recognised by Gondrong and his musicians as using a Javanese scale and here it can be interpreted as both an acknowledgement and reclamation of the borrowing of Gamelan music by the West.
OzAsia Review by Jason Leigh