Friday, May 2, 2014

Terbangan: Mingling Trance Traditions Collide on the Urban Outskirts of Bandung

Sound: Terbangan

            “The terbangan ensemble consists of three to five frame drums of the terbang type, without attached metal cymbals. Optional instruments include the membranophones bedug, kendang, and kulanter, as well as the idiophone kecrek and the double-reed aerophone, tarompetTerbangan subgenres are numerous […] It can be said, however, that terbangan is the most common music ensemble found in connection with pondok pesantren, madrasah, and tarekat [Muslim educational institutions] in West Java. Accordion to Suryadi (1983, 17), the name “ter(e)bang” etymologically is derived from “to raise, to fly” (terbang) because its music was traditionally intented solely for transporting one’s soul to the Seventh Heaven of Islam, to God the Creator (Tuhan Yang Maha Kuasa).
-       Divine Inspirations: Music and Islam in Indonesia by David Harnish and Anne Rasmussen

Context: Last October, a festival of sorts was arranged in my neighborhood in the north of Bandung, with a small stage set up and performances of traditional and modern music continuing throughout the day. I was told that later in the evening, a special performance of tarawangsa, a kind of instrumental trance music, would take place in Cikalapa, the small grouping of footpaths in which I live.

When I walked up the footpath that night, what I found was not tarawangsa, but terbangan, a style of music I had never heard or even heard of. Four musicians sat on a low, recently constructed stage – three men playing terbang, the large frame drums (also called rebana in other contexts), and one man on kendang. In front of them sat the hallmarks of a trance ceremony – offerings to the spirits in the form of food and drinks, as well as burning incense.

The music began slowly, the instruments and vocals of the terbang players amplified through a pretty lo-fi speaker system (thus the not-so-great sound of the recording.) One older man led the chant, while the other members occasionally joined in unison.  Almost immediately young men from the audience moved to the grassy patch of “dancing space” in front of the stage. Some of them wore the black clothes and iket (headband) traditionally worn by Sundanese artists, while others wore jeans and metal band sweatshirts. Slowly swaying to the music and dancing in the distinctive Sundanese style, all bent arms and knees, many of the men fell into a trance.

Some of the young men began to roll on the ground, seemingly not in control of their movement while others continued to sway intensely, eyes closed. One teenaged boy in particular seemed particularly taken by the music as the tempo quickened – in an intense moment of catharsis or trance, the boy fell to his knees and let out a haunting cry. This continued for a quite a few minutes – if you listen to the recording the sound is loud and unmistakeable.

Thoughts: Despite the fact that Islam is the majority religion in West Java and much of the rest of Indonesia, pre-Islamic traditions and beliefs still hold an important place in Indonesian society. This event is a fascinating example of how something like “Islamic music” does not always exist in a pure context – here it is easily fused with pre-Islamic Sundanese trance practices. While the music is clearly intended for an out-of-body religious experience (see the previous mention of the origins of the name “terbangan” in “flight”), here this potential for a kind of disembodied trance – the monotonous rhythm, the chant-like vocals, the crescendo of rhythm – all lend themselves to a kind of trance experience that seems to be somewhere closer to pre-Islamic notions of trance as spirit possession.  Some may see a contradiction in this co-existence, but few who play and enjoy this music and the surrounding rituals seem to mind.

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