Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Cigawiran in Cigawir: Devotional Sundanese Singing in the Countryside of West Java

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

Location: Cigawir, Garut Regency, West Java

Sound: Cigawiran

Living in West Java is a delight for a guy like me with a taste for the unique and obscure, as the music of this part of the island is mindbogglingly diverse: I've read some sources that state that there are upwards of 200 Sundanese musical genres scattered about the area. The phenomenon which allows such diversity in a relatively small place is how hyperlocal music can be here - often musical styles exist or survive in only one small village of the Sundanese countryside.

Cigawiran is one such hyperlocal treat. Named after Cigawir, the small village (kampung) in the sprawling rice paddies of Garut from which it comes, Cigawiran is an a cappella style of devotional Sundanese singing. The tradition can be traced back three hundred years to 1713, when the style first began to be developed in the pesantren (Islamic boarding schools) of Cigawir. Since then, Cigawiran has been passed down from generation to generation in a select few families in Cigawir.

While Cigawiran resembles the more widespread a cappella folk style called beluk and to an extent the vocals of the tembang Sunda genre, it is, as far as I know, the only such style that is centered on Islam. While beluk is more related to the mysticism of traditional Sundanese religion (Sunda wiwitan), Cigawiran is purely devotional music in content, with each song functioning somewhere between preaching and prayer.

Nothing is pure, however. While prayers are usually recited in Arabic, Cigawiran uses Sundanese, with bits and pieces of Arabic thrown in when a term may lose its specificity in Sundanese. The singing style too is full of Sundanese flavor, with the lyrics intoned in the unmistakable pentatonic scale called pelog. The style is unique for the range it requires, jumping octaves from low tones to notes that are unusually high for a male singer (Cigawiran is usually sung by men, but there are female singers as well.)


Strangely enough, I first heard of Cigawiran when I was in far off Sulawesi. An amazingly helpful Sundanese guy named Asep was living in Mandar helping with a community theater program, and he helped introduce me to some sayang sayang musicians in the area (more on that one in a later post!). One night as we talked about our homes back in West Java, Asep told me about a unique style of singing near his hometown of Garut. I was immediately curious, and Asep offered to help me seek it out as soon as we were both back in Sunda.

Last month, my girlfriend Sinta and I took a trip out to Cipanas, a hot spring resort area in the hills outside of Garut. While most ordinary folk would be content to bask in the romance of the natural hot springs and enjoy the quiet ambience of Garut's volcano-specked scenery, I have conditioned myself to equate holiday with music, so it was not long after we arrived that we were on the back of Asep and his friend's motorbikes, zipping into the countryside in search of Cigawiran.

After a few miles through glowing green rice paddies and down progressively awful roads (from asphalt to gravel to rocks and clay), we made it to Cigawir and the home of Pak Iyet Dimyati, the torchbearer of Cigawiran in the 21st century. After being invited into his surprisingly cushy home (comfortable couches in an Indonesian living room, what a surprise!), we settled in and chatted with Pak Iyet, who had emerged wearing a white peci cap and rubbing his eyes - we'd awkwardly interrupted a nap!

After Pak Iyet woke up a bit and graciously answered our questions (through a mad relay of Sundanese, Indonesian, and English), he sat cross-legged on his couch, put his hand to his ear, and sang for us. It was a rare occasion for me - there in his snug living room, all the usual sounds of motorbikes, chickens, and buzzing insects were absent, letting the remarkable weaving of Pak Iyet's singing voice fill the small space.

Terima kasih banyak Asep Holidin for the amazing help and translation and Sinta Dwi Mustikawati for diligent notetaking.

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