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Spirited away across borders

MELBOURNE INTERNATIONAL ARTS FESTIVAL

Susheela Raman.

Susheela Raman.

MUSIC
SUSHEELA RAMAN: GHOST GAMELAN
★★★½
Melbourne Recital Centre, October 19

Throughout her career, Susheela Raman has spurned borders and built bridges between disparate musical realms. Her latest album, Ghost Gamelan, grew out of a chance encounter with gamelan music in Indonesia – one the Anglo-Indian singer has likened to opening a trapdoor and falling into a mesmeric, dream-like world.

Some traditional gamelan music can be quite strident, but Raman and her producer/guitarist Sam Mills focus on its more meditative qualities in this beguiling cross-cultural experiment. The 10-piece ensemble they performed with on Saturday could certainly create fields of energetic momentum, as they did on Tanpa Nama, where the four gamelan players (led by Gondrong Gunarto) struck gongs and metallophones in swift, staccato unison over a rock-tinged pulse from the guitar, bass and drums.

But most of the tunes hovered in a liminal state, somewhere between shadowy sway and languid groove. The subtle dissonance created by the meshing of the gamelan and western instruments – with their vastly different tuning systems – enhanced the pervasive air of melancholy, as did the generous use of reverb on the string instruments and vocals. Sadly, the latter also made it difficult (sometimes impossible) to decipher Raman’s lyrics, which dampened their potential emotional impact.

In the end, it was more satisfying to imagine her voice as just another instrumental texture, woven in among the sonorous violin, ghostly harmonics, glimmering gongs and occasional percussive chants to produce a genuinely alluring synthesis of east and west, mystery and illumination, earthy concerns and ethereal enchantment.

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