Burhan Sukarma’s compositions on Ningnang demonstrate what it really means for music to be “traditional.” He calls upon the many expressive resources of the Sundanese music he has been playing for decades to create meaningful new music for the present day. One thread that unites all the compositions is hinted at in the title of the second piece, Banda Manusa, which means “humanity’s shared resources”; the music reminds us that the earth is a source of both limitless potential and great responsibility.
From the rhythmic dissonance of Ningnang (“disharmony”) to the classical degung idioms of “Sérédét Degung” (“nostalgia for degung”), the original pieces on this recording display Burhan Sukarma’s creative range as a composer, as well as his gift for expressing a range of emotions, from very sad (“Panghegar”) to very happy (“Mangga”).
If there is a theme to this album of mostly new compositions, it exists most succinctly in the second piece, “Banda Manusa;” this title, which means “humanity’s assets/treasure,” is an optimistic gesture to remind us of humanity’s rich, shared heritage and potential.
The sequence of songs on this album can be interpreted to hint toward a nebulous strategy for human renewal. As the second piece, “Banda Manusa” is positioned as a welcome corrective to the first piece, “Ningnang,” the title of which refers to “disharmony.” Although most Sundanese music is abstract (i.e., the musical sounds themselves do not necessarily evoke literal meanings), “Ningnang” is a rare exception: After a strident opening unison passage with a triple rhythm, some musicians switch to a duple meter, while others insist on continuing to play in three; the result is a rhythmically unsettling section that paints in sound the title “dissonance.” A third section resolves (if only briefly) the rhythmic clash. Both pieces are cast in Sundanese music’s most intense, emotion-laden tuning system, called sorog, roughly C-B-G-F#-E.
The titles of the next two selections evoke personal, mundane, but emotionally significant states: the title “Panghegar” suggests something mildly pleasant, while the phrase “Sérédet Degung” promises to evoke pangs of emotional distress. “Panghegar,” cast in sorog, is an instrumental version of a popular song that has been circulating for decades. Burhan Sukarma recently composed “Sérédét Degung” to soothe his pining for the degung music of his birthplace in West Java. It is cast in the style of degung klasik (“classical” degung pieces), which are characterized by florid playing on the bonang (14-kettle gong chime) and suling, asymmetrical phrases, and simple stick drumming. Like most klasik pieces, this one is set in the degung ensemble’s original pelog degung tuning (roughly G-F#-D-C-B), in a mode that emphasizes the pitches B and F#, setting an elegant, yet melancholy mood.
The playlist then moves toward more conciliatory approaches to interpersonal relationships. Burhan Sukarma casts his new song, “Mangga,” in one of degung’s most cheerful musical modes (which reminds many listeners of western music’s stereotypically “happy” major mode, with emphasis on the G and D). He also composed lyrics for the song, although this version is purely instrumental. “Ayang-ayangan” also is cast in a more cheerful degung mode which emphasizes pitches C and D (evoking a mode some might hear as mixolydian). The contrasting sections are all built from the same simple melodic motif, but each section brings to mind different kinds of movement; it is easy to imagine two friends walking playfully “arm in arm” together.
Patokan (“basic”) pieces like “Kulu-Kulu” are perfect vehicles for showcasing Burhan Sukarma’s skill at improvising. (Perhaps it is more fruitful to compare such pieces to simple chord progressions than to pieces.) Tonally, “Kulu-Kulu” returns to the melancholy, elegant pelog degung mode heard in “Sérédet Degung,” although Burhan Sukarma introduces a variety of additional pitches in his improvisations as well. The gamelan accompaniment includes two rhythmic treatments: first, a very slow, spare treatment, followed by a livelier section.
The addition title designation, “Ngaler Ngidul,” literally means “to the north and to the south,” but figuratively it suggests equivocation or even aimlessness. Burhan Sukarma himself translates the phrase as “everywhere,” and applies it to describe his own free-wheeling improvisations. Musically, the title might also suggest the contrasting rhythmic treatments (slow dua wilet [doubly-long rhythmic patterns] vs sawilet satengah [one-and-a-half wilet, a lively double-time rhythmic treatment]) or the insertion of additional pitches in the suling part. In any case, “Kulu-Kulu Ngaler Ngidul” brings listeners full circle from the dissonance of “Ningnang,” through the painful and joyous emotions expressed in the other pieces, to a more harmonious approach to differences of opinion. Such is banda manusa—the treasure trove of sentiments that comprise humanity’s assets.
Burhan Sukarma is one of the most influential Sundanese musicians of his generation. He built his international reputation as a masterful improvisor on the suling bamboo flute, performing on hundreds of traditional and contemporary recordings. Those recordings continue to inspire generations of musicians who scrutinize them for inspiration and technique. Since relocating to the US and founding Pusaka Sunda, Burhan has also been recognized for the artistry of his gamelan degung compositions.
Undang Sumarna is an esteemed Sundanese drummer and educator based in Santa Cruz, California. Since 1976, he has introduced thousands of college students to Sundanese gamelan music through his teaching at University of California, Santa Cruz. He has toured throughout the United States and frequently joins Pusaka Sunda for recordings and performances.
Musicians: Ed Garcia, Danni Redding Lapuz, Malaya Redding Lapuz, Ray Lapuz, Gretchen McPherson, Olivia Sears, Henry Spiller, Rae Ann Stahl, Burhan Sukarma-Director, Undang Sumarna-Guest Artist
All material © Pusaka Sunda
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