Album Review: Tarawangswelas- Wanci

It’s rare that you’ll find a piece of art—book, film/television, music—that is all at once, both hypnotic and evocative, all while being incredibly unnerving and full of tension. But, somehow, Wanci, the debut effort from Tarawangsawelas, manages to pull it off effortlessly.

So what the heck is Tarawangsawelas?

That’s a very good question: primarily the product of Teguh Permana and Wisnu Ridwana, with production and oversight by Rabih Beaini, “Tarawangsawelas” is, as a duo, a contemporary take on Tarawangsa, a form of sacred music from Sudanese West Java.

This sounds weird; how do you hear about things like this?

The internet—the album was shared, without any context w/r/t what it was, on a place where I go to read about new music. I sampled a little bit of it, and was instantly entranced by it. Usually I am not super interested in ‘world music,’ but there was something so compelling and so unsettling about this that I couldn’t pull myself away.

So wait, what is this again?

“Tarawangsa,” as a style of music, is performed with two instruments: a two-stringed bowed instrument, and a seven-stringed zither-style instrument. Recorded in Bandung, the press material for Wanci describes it as “cosmic album composed with a careful modern interpretation of one of the most mystical and spiritual genres in Indonsia.”

What does that mean?

It’s difficult to explain, truthfully. It’s just the kind of record you have to sit down with, and immerse yourself in, to fully grasp just how otherworldly, captivating, and haunting it can be.

Spread across six tracks (with a seventh as a digital bonus), “Selalu” the first piece, is the most accessible, and most hypnotic—unrelenting in its kaleidoscopic rhythm, bouncing you around through the playful sounds of the jentreng (the zither-style, seven-string instrument) juxtaposed with the mournful wails of the two-string, bowed instrument, coincidentally called a tarawangsa (to make things even more confusing.)

In sharp contrast to the accessible opening, its follow up, “Tetap Terbit,” is the most disquieting; for a little over four minutes, sharp, muted stabs on the jentreng oscillate between the left and right channels, while creeping and dreadful layers of tarawangsa build and build, creating a nightmarish atmosphere that sticks with you for well after the album has moved on.

 “Kecemasan” is another standout—a little less accessible in comparison to “Selalu,” but only because of its pacing; a slow, swooning rhythm tumbles around you while the tarawangsa becomes the focal point—sharp sounding, mournful, and dissonant, here the instrument benefits from the addition of looping and other manipulations to create a cacophonic wall of noise that begins to take on a life of its own.

On Wanci’s second half, Tarawangsawelas continue to build on the atmosphere they’ve conjured with “Ada,” a piece that combines both the slightly rollicking rhythm with something much more somber—again letting the long, ghostly strains of the tarawangsa take the lead.

The proper album concludes with the lengthiest piece—the sprawling, 12 minute “Sekalipun,” which is the most ‘traditional’ sounding of the collection; meaning that in comparison to the other tracks, it arrives as the most reserved sounding. “Matahari” is the digital only bonus track, and it reverts back to the unsettling territory explored earlier in the record—the kind of thing that seems like it’d right at home if you were watching a seven minute loop of the blood getting off of the elevator in The Shining.

‘World music’ isn’t for everybody, and it can get a bad rap at times depending on how exploitive it is in presentation. Wanci is, first and foremost, a fascinating introduction to what I presume is an incredibly esoteric style of performance and kind of sound. With Tarawangsawelas being dubbed as modern interpretation, you can feel the exuberance and urgency with which this music is made with. Almost always captivating, unsettling, ghostly, and at times, nearly transcendental, Wanci is a doorway into a mesmerizing place that is difficult to shake. 

Wanci is out now via Morphine Records.