Thursday, May 22, 2014

Ritual Rice Pounding Music of Tana Toraja

[Aural Archipelago has moved to a new site - why not read this article there? Lots more material at]

Location: Lemo, Tana Toraja, South Sulawesi

Sound: Ma'Tumbuk

Ma'Tumbuk Torajan is the name given to the ritual of pounding rice in a large rice-mortar, made ​​from a hollowed out tree trunk, using long wooden pestles. As a way of making the Strenuous work more enjoyable, the pounding is made ​​into polyrhythmic music, with some players pounding on the outside of the mortar as well in interlocking beats. The "song" continues until the players tire from tough work and stop for a break.


Driving between popular tourist sites in Tana Toraja featuring bizarre casket-filled graves and the unique  tongkonan  traditional houses, I felt a kind of shameful boredom. I had already spent a few days traveling around the area, and had seen enough of traditional houses and weird grave sites to last a lifetime. So pulling past the souvenir shops and into the parking area of Lemo, one of the most popular destinations in Tana Toraja, I was not bursting with curiosity and desire to see more strange burial practices.

Upon getting off my motorbike and strolling around some nearby tongkonan , however, I Heard the alluring rhythm of percussion music in the distance. I SAW a tour guide leading some French tourists and asked him "Where's the music?" He pointed up the hill, and Began to lead his clients in that direction.

Seeing a steep muddy path leading up a nearby hill, I forged my way ahead of the guide and the French folks, blindly following the rhythmic pulse as I climbed higher. Occasionally I passed barefoot men struggling up the hill carrying a heavy-looking logs on their shoulders. Were they following the music, too?

Eventually I reached a clearing, and found a house-building rituals in process - men worked on the skeleton of a new house while a group of women Stood off to the side, rhythmically pounding rice in a huge wooden mortar. 

After watching for a bit and recording the sound, the women (plus one man, inexplicably - this kind of music / work is almost always performed EXCLUSIVELY by women) invited me to have a go, so I Gave it a try, pounding the long wooden pestle against the side of the mortar. Feeling embarrassed, I said thank you, handed the pestle back to an old lady, and continued to watch. I watched for quite a long time, soaking in the rhythm of work and the delight of stumbling upon new sounds.

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