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Bowling Green OH, 6 June 2004

Krakatau did fusion in reverse. While many of the American artists the Indonesian group emulates blended pop elements into their work to gain greater commercial appeal, the musicians of Krakatau have sacrificed popularity by incorporating more traditional music into their established pop jazz sound.

In 1988, the band was well established in Indonesia and two of its members—keyboard virtuoso and composer Dwiki Dharmawan and Trie Utami—were certified Indonesian superstars, according to Jeremy Wallach, an ethnomusicologist at Bowling Green State University who has closely studied the band. And lest those few parochial readers smirk at the concept of the Indonesian superstar, it’s important to remember that the country is the fourth most populous in the world.

The band, Wallach said, had a number of hits. But around 1988, they started to move in another direction. Pra Budidharma, who plays electric fretless bass, explained that he had been working with classical Indonesian musicians on a recording project. One of the drawbacks of incorporating Indonesian roots music with Western instruments is the incompatibility of the Indonesian microtonal scales and Western tempered tonality. This was especially difficult since even Indonesian musicians couldn't agree on the precise intonation for some notes. But with the assistance of a traditional musician, the players arrived at a tuning for one pentatonic scale and then layered another on top. "After that no one complained", Budidharma said.

Budidharma was already considering how to link the band's fusion with traditional gamelan. He had studied and worked for a time in the United States. On a trip to New Orleans, he heard street musicians playing jazz. He realized then how rooted the music he loved was to its native soil. Budidharma wanted to somehow link his own music to his own native soil.

But neither he nor keyboardist Dharmawan had any training in Indonesian traditional music. "We sacrificed our background, erased everything and started learning something new", Budidharma said. "Nothing" from the band's previous incarnation "was applicable". They were able to enlist the services of some of the music’s masters—principally Yoyon Darsono, who plays spike fiddle, the double-reed tarompet, bamboo flute and sings and traditional percussionist Adhe Rudiana. Both are respected as performers and as teachers. The reception Krakatau's new sound received was decidedly mixed, both Wallach and Budidharma said.

Budidharma said traditional musicians were concerned that people would prefer this Western blend, thus threatening the existence of the already endangered gamelan. Most, however, had their fears allayed once the band's mission was explained to them. "Traditional people live in the underground", Budidharma said. Krakatau can serve as a bridge from that traditional world to the modern world. "More and more people can explore and live in different ways." And most of the band's fans preferred its earlier pop sound. "Rich urban people like Western music", Wallach said, "and jazz is the most prestigious."

Still, this Indonesian roots fusion is the music the members of Krakatau are devoted to playing, so they now support the band with their other endeavors. Dharmawan is a noted composer who is sought after for film scores, for example. Budidharma plays in an industrial rock band. Rudiana and Darsono teach in the university.

The band continues to record. The most recent endeavor is Magical Match from 2000. The album—not available stateside—features Utami's keening soprano, soaring over dense rhythmic patterns. The recording, though it shows a significant traditional influence, also clearly reflects the band's pop past. The tracks, all collaborative efforts by band members save for two traditional pieces, are all tight and well crafted. The percussive energy seems contained, yet its potential for musical explosion is evident.

Krakatau realizes that potential more live, Wallach said. And American listeners are finally getting a chance to experience the band. This summer Krakatau is engaging on its first tour of the United States and Canada, with dates scheduled through early July. The band will return to Indonesia for a few weeks before returning for several dates in August.

Live, the band is markedly different from the sound on Magical Match. The most obvious change is that Utami is not touring with the band, which shifts the focus from world pop to an exotic—to Western ears—jam band. The traditional elements of the music, especially Darsono's vocals, fiddle and tarompet, really come to the forefront.

On the band's second US date in Bowling Green, Ohio, they sounded like a perfect blend of gamelan and Weather Report. Darsono proved a charismatic front man whether singing or playing. His lines snaked through the crevices of the diatonic scale, full of piquant lyricism, at times astringent, at other times ethereal. His tarompet provided Wayne Shorter-like commentary over the layers of polyrhythms and funk set down by the traps drummer Gary Herb and traditional drummer Adhe Rudiana.

Like other great fusion ensembles, the band developed throbbing grooves. They ratcheted up the rhythmic tension before releasing it in a burst of melody. Both Dharmawan and Budidharma showed chops that would be the envy of any American fusioneer. The concert concluded with percussionist Zainal Arifin and Rudiana playing a duet on barrel that had the vigor of improvisation, but was played in unison with drum-line precision.

Krakatau at once offered some new, even exotic ideas, and yet remained very true to the promise of American fusion—proving that the band has successfully found a way to honor both its Indonesian roots and its American forbearers.