Sabah Habas Mustapha Gets Homesick In Indonesia

Third solo album from 3 Mustaphas 3 bassist mixes West Java grooves, melancholy words.

The last thing British musician Sabah Habas Mustapha expected to write was an Indonesian hit song, but 1994's "Denpasar Moon" was exactly that.

"I was just trying to write my version of a wistful Sundanese melody with a light dangdut [street-pop] rhythm," recalled the former 3 Mustaphas 3 bassist, who has just released the new So La Li (Omnium). "Denpasar Moon" was recorded by Filipino singer Mary Beth for a hi-fi ad in Indonesia. The cassette version sold out, and inspired about 50 cover versions.

Mustapha (born Colin Bass) hasn't written any hits since then. But over the course of his three solo albums, he has delved ever deeper into the Indonesian styles his wife introduced him to "many years ago."

"Sabah Habas has a bass and will travel — to where his heart is so lonely, to make a song," former bandmate Uncle Mustapha (a.k.a. Mekons member and Billy Bragg sideman Lu Edmonds) offered cryptically.

Mustapha may not have been desolate, but So La Li does contain several downbeat songs and plenty of intercultural surprises. The lap steel played by musical brother Hijaz Mustapha on the opener, "Di Nagara Deungeun" (RealAudio excerpt), adds a wild Western tinge to the seductive Indonesian jaipong melody.

The album was recorded not in Jakarta, the cosmopolitan capital of Indonesia, but rather in the provincial city of Bandung, with the Jugala All Stars, who also appeared on Mustapha's previous disc, 1998's Jalan Kopo.

"I wanted to go back and do the new one with the same guys," Mustapha explained, "because I wanted a record that was a group effort. I had no set ideas when I went to Bandung this time. We all got together in the studio and improvised the songs."

The result is an updated version of Indonesian roots music that they hoped to combine with traditional Sundanese texts collected by ethnomusicologist Wim van Zanten in the book "Sundanese Music in the Cianjuran Style." The band created backing tracks and grooves, then found words that would fit them.

Tati Ana Mogiono sings the melancholy poetry, most of which expresses longing for a person, or a homeland. "Looking at the mountains makes you sad," Magiono sings in "Ningal Genung (Looking at the Mountains)" (RealAudio excerpt). "Looking at the shore makes you melancholy."

At least one of these exotically beautiful tracks sounds familiar: "Seuri" (RealAudio excerpt) seems to echo Roxy Music's "Avalon." But Mustapha denies the playful 3 Mustaphas 3 gene was at work. "I like some of the same simple chords as Bryan Ferry, and I like romantic pop music, [but] the melody actually came from a song by [Indonesian singer] Ida Widawati I heard on a cassette," Mustapha said.

Mustapha, who has also produced records for the Klezmatics, Zimbabwe's Stella Chiweshe and Madagascar's Tarika, hopes to tour So La Li with the Jugala All Stars in 2001. As Colin Bass, he'll be busy during the fall touring as bassist for veteran prog-rockers Camel.

And for those still hankering for more from wacky, influential world-music pioneers 3 Mustaphas 3 — their motto was "forward in all directions," but they haven't released an album in a decade — don't hold your breath. While Uncle Mustapha snorted, "Reunion? Mustapha is always united!" Mustapha would only say, "There might be an official live bootleg sometime, which could inspire us."

But inspiration doesn't come cheap — their current price is $55,000. "We'd need a rather large investment to play the old material," Mustapha warned. "We're too old to eat couscous from Uncle's fez any more."