Ragnar Johnson assisted by Jessica Meyer - Madang / Windim Mabu [editionsmego - 2016]This album of traditional flute music from New Guinea consists of field recordings captured by Ragnar Johnson and Jessica Meyer. It was originally recorded and released in 1976. It is 2 CDs / LPs in length, entitled "Madang" and "Windim Mabu".
The production and musical approach are raw and stripped down, sounding like unprocessed performances from varying numbers of musicians. The liner notes state that numerous pairs of bamboo flutes can be heard on the album, as well as conch shells, gongs and 'Mo-mo resonating tubes'.
For the duration of the first 11 minute piece "Ravoi", one might think this is unskilled playing, with little to no sense of rhythm and organization that would indicate years of practice. The resonant overtones of the flute used are quite complex and interesting, but the clumsy irregularity of the notes make it easy to tune out. It's not unlike listening to children exploring new sound makers.
Discernable energy and emotion does begin to appear in the following tracks, and many of the tracks have a faster pace than the first. There is real feeling in the moaning, chanting voices that creep up in the background. The rhythms are more like sloppy approximations than the intricate polyrhythms I've heard in some field recordings of native music, but the sound undoubtedly feels like something like a 'village effort', a product of group connectivity. The different pieces are apparently recorded in different locations / villages, and so it makes sense that some groups would produce more cohesive music than others.
"Jarvan", the 3rd of disk 1's 4 longer pieces, has a sort of hypnotic, irregular undulation, a quavering rounded tone followed by a response from a second flute, backed by a constant wooden rattling. Sacredness and spirituality could certainly be attributed to this sound. The tones of the two flute players intertwine, and I begin to understand why the liner notes refer to 'pairs' of flutes.
Things finally get really interesting with the 4th track, "Mo-Mo", which contains a sound I have never heard on any album in my life, some kind of strange indigenous instrument which produces a voice-like, reedy growling. I can only assume based on the track title that this instrument is the 'Mo-mo resonating tube', and that it has some similarity to a didgeridoo, which has a similarly pitched growl. I would never tire of this texture, so strangely luminous and harmonic as it is. I find myself wishing a larger portion of the album was devoted to it. The flutes elsewhere in the album are pleasant enough, but not so singularly odd.
The 2nd disk has 12 shorter tracks, but isn't necessarily any kind of stylistic change. The flute and drum combo returns, sounding much like "Jarvan" from disk 1. The flutes aren't capable of melody so much as accentuating specific parts of their timbral overtone structure. The scale they occupy, if they could be said to occupy a scale, is small, 4 or 5 different pitches at most.
This patient, loosely organized music was the product of many generations of life in the jungle, isolated from other civilizations and technology. Admittedly, I hardly have the ear or the context to understand what these musicians are thinking or doing. That said, I've heard field recordings of African pygmy music that held my attention more easily, and this album's emptiness, low standard musicianship and general monotony can be difficult. It has educational value, as it is certainly a genre and technique with which I am unfamiliar, but I would perhaps prefer to see a video of one of the ceremonies in which this music is typically played, or simply to hear a more tightly edited recording. I would have liked to hear more of the 'Mo-mo resonating tubes'.Josh Landry