Monday, December 8, 2014

Angklung Paglak: Bamboo Sounds High Above the Sunrise of Java

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

Location: Kemiren, Banyuwangi, East Java

Sound: Angklung paglak

Extending nearly one thousand kilometers from west to east, Java is an elongated beast of an island. While dwarfed by giants like Kalimantan on the map, a trek across its length reveals its surprising mass (friends are often surprised to discover  that despite the fact that I live on a tropical island, my home in Bandung is nearly six hours from the nearest beach!)

Despite its expansive reach, Java appears, at first glance, to be pretty homogeneous compared to the astounding variety of ethnic groups found in areas like Papua, Sulawesi, and Sumatra. If you were to ask your average Indonesian what ethnic groups live on Java, they would probably respond with only two: Javanese and Sundanese, the two biggest ethnic groups in the whole nation by far, with the Sundanese inhabiting West Java and the Javanese taking up the rest. Indeed, while Java is unique in being largely made up of only two ethnic groups, there are surprises to be found if you know where to look.

What most people forget are those ethnic minorities (technically sub-ethnic groups) living on the fringes: the Baduy of West Java, a subset of Sundanese sequestered in the province of Banten, living intentionally traditional lives, some shunning outside contact altogether; the Tenggerese, Hindu descendents of Majahapit princes living around the lunar landscape of Mount Bromo; and lastly, the Osing of Banyuwangi.

Poetically called the "sunrise of Java" in reference to its location on the easternmost tip of the island, the area of Banyuwangi is famous for being the gateway to Bali, which is just a short ferry ride away. This proximity and a history of resistance to Islam has given the Osing people of this area a culture with a potent blend of Javanese and Balinese influences.

This unique fusion has made for a musical culture that is unlike anything else in Java. The angklung paglak is a perfect example of this cultural anomaly: while it strangely shares a name with the much more well-known Sundanese angklung, it is in form nearly identical to another instrument, the Balinese rindik. Just like the rindik, the angklung paglak is a xylophone made up of a series of bamboo tubes, tuned by length and by skilled shaving of the bamboo on one end.

Nearly always played in pairs, the angklung paglak is played at a mindbogglingly frenetic pace, enabled by a hallmark of Javanese and Balinese music: melodic parts shared between the two instruments through interlocking, hocket-like patterns. Providing a deeper rhythmic foundation are two small kendang drums unlike any other I've ever seen - unlike most drums in Java and Bali, which are beaten by hand, these kendang are beaten with simple wooden sticks with one hand while the other hand strategically dampens the vibrating membrane. Under the percussive barrage of the angklung, these kendang provide a dizzying interlocking accompaniment.

Perhaps the most fascinating thing about the angklung paglak is the context that surrounds this music: in Banyuwangi, you can't have angklung without paglak. One of the most bizarre and amazing performance spaces I've ever encountered, a paglak is a small thatched hut, raised on stilts nearly ten meters off the ground like some kind of bamboo approximation of a treehouse. Paglaks are designed as a kind of watchtower: situated high over a community's crops, the high vantage point allows farmers to guard their crops from birds and other undesirables.

At some point in the past, farmers began playing music in these paglaks, taking the angklung found in Osing gamelan ensembles and jamming high above their crops. This music serves a variety of purposes: like many other folk musics played by farmers around Indonesia, the music simply provided an amusing diversion during long days of toiling in the fields. In a more spiritual context, the angklung paglak is played by the Osing during harvest ceremonies, blessing the fields and the goddess of rice and fertility, Dewi Sri, with music as the farmers haul in the season's yield. I've even read that in the past, the soundof angklung paglak was meant to be an aural deterrent, not only to pests but to the tigers and ghosts that haunted the area.


I had seen a handful of low-resolution YouTube videos, but I was still shocked and delighted when I finally encountered the music of angklung paglak firsthand. After a long and discouraging search through the Banyuwangi countryside, my eternal music searching companion Sinta and I had come up empty-handed: we had taken the usual path: driving deep into countryside. from narrow asphalt roads to bumpy mud paths snaking through rice paddies, asking folks about where musicians could be found. At some point we found a paglak, and were told the musician was nearby, only to find him muddy and barefoot, leading a water buffalo to pasture. He didn't even have his instrument with him, he said. Try asking in Kemiren!

Motoring back to the village of Kemiren, we managed to track down the house of an angklung paglak maker and musician, but he was out working in the fields - nonetheless, his grandmotherly wife sat us down and gave us steaming fresh rice crackers and tried to figure out what we were doing there. We were discouraged - the difficulty of looking for music exclusively played by farmers is that these guys are usually far too busy working in the fields to humor a random bule asking questions about their music.

Back in Banyuwangi city, we suddenly remembered a suggestion we'd heard the night before at a village trance ritual: "If you're looking for music," a friendly local had said, "go to the Department of Tourism and Culture - surely they can help." At the time it had seemed laughable - Indonesian government offices are notorious for their inefficiency and unreliability - just a bunch of uniforms shuffling papers. How could they possibly help?

We were out of options - it was an unlikely lead, but it couldn't hurt. Showing up to the office, we were referred to a Pak Aekanu, who turned out to be an angel in disguise as a government official. To our surprise, Pak Aekanu was just the man we were looking for: an expert on Osing music who had friends in all the right places. Within minutes he had made some calls and commissioned a performance for us in Kemiren later that day.

Thus we found ourselves in Kemiren once again, paddy-side, the rapidly bubbling sound of angklung churning from a paglak high above our heads. After chatting with Pak Aekano's contact, who was surprised to meet not a tour group but an eager American and his girlfriend, I was invited into the musical watchtower with a gesture and smiling "go on up!"

I climbed up a narrow bamboo ladder and perched myself on the hut's edge, realizing that this was no expansive Swiss Family Robinson treehouse: four musicians (Pak Dalah, Pak Rayis, Pak Muni, and Pak Ribut) were crammed into the small space, shredding away on angklung and kendang. I set up my recorder and settled in, taking in the view of verdant green rice paddies from above while trying to follow along to the relentlessly interlocking rhythms these amazing musicians produced.

I was astounded - farmer's music I've heard in the past, such as the calong and gongga lawe of Mandar in West Sulawesi, is simple and unhurried, unsurprising for music meant to while away a hot day. Yet here in Banyuwangi there was this remarkable music, non-performative tunes played for this same purpose, yet brimming with virtuosity and complexity. And even more remarkably, very few if any researchers beyond Pak Aekanu have expressed any interest in this music whatsoever.

Pak Aekanu was pleased, as were the musicians who played for us, that interest was being expressed in this obscure, unheralded artform. Humble yet complex, this music deserves to have its day, to extend beyond the rice paddies in the sunrise of Java and into the ears of those who never knew such a place even existed.

A big thanks/terima kasih banyak to Pak Aekanu, without whom this documentation would not be possible. Matur nuwun to the musicians Pak Dalah, Pak Rayis, Pak Muni, and Pak Ribut, as well as to Ms. Sinta Dwi Mustikawati, my constant travel companion/translator/notetaker extraordinaire.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Tarawangsa: Sacred Strings in the Hills of Sumedang

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

Location: Ciwindu, North Sumedang, West Java

Sound: Tarawangsa

In distinct contrast to the gamelan Sunda, with its elaborate array of gongs and xylophones, tarawangsa music is a shockingly spare art form, pure and minimal. The music is played on just two instruments: the tarawangsa, a two stringed fiddle played upright like a rebab or small cello, and the jentreng, a seven-stringed zither (confusingly, the names of both instruments can be used to signify the musical genre as well.) These instruments are unique and inseparable - unlike other Sundanese instruments like suling or kecapi, the tarawangsa and jentreng are only played together, and only in a small handful of villages scattered throughout West Java, most famously in villages on the outskirts of Sumedang, a city to the west of Bandung in the heart of the highlands of Sunda.

Tarawangsa is often described as sacred music, and rightfully so - it is not the kind of Sundanese music that one might hear in a hotel lobby or a wedding party. The music is inextricably wrapped in elaborate ritual, and is almost always paired with an upacara adat, or traditional ceremony, usually connected to ancient animistic rituals related to spirits, fertility, and agriculture.

An integral part of this ritual is the trance dance which accompanies the tarawangsa music - men and women take turns getting swept up in the web of melody and rhythm that the two musicians weave, swaying and bobbing with long colorful scarves in a beautiful freeform dance which often results in the dancers becoming possessed. This possession takes many forms - I've seen old women stagger and sway as if drunk or having a seizure, and I've seen men transmit messages from the spirits within to the audience of friends and family members, sometimes through wailing and tears.

Tarawangsa compositions unfold as a captivating ten-to-twenty minute crescendo, beginning slow and melodic, the simple plucked strings of the jentreng providing a rhythmic and harmonic base for the soaring melodies, built on the typical Sundanese pentatonic scales of pelog, salendro, and madenda and played on one steel string of the tarawangsa. As the dancers fall into trance, the music becomes droning and percussive as the tarawangsa player begins simultaneously drawing his bow in harsh strokes across one string while plucking the drone string with his free hand. Just as the music and possession reach their peak, the musicians suddenly cut the trance short with a pluck of the jentreng, and the dancers awaken from their altered state.


It was nearing midnight when Kang Krisna stopped his motorcycle on the dirt road ahead of me, the sound of the motor and the glare of his headlight abruptly cut off. "Listen," he said in Indonesian. "You can hear it already."

We were only half an hour or bumpy driving from the main road with its truck convoys plowing through the night, but it already felt like we were in another world. I peered through the moonlit hills, searching for the source of the sound: an amplified keening of steel string pierced the cool air, floating over rice paddies and frogs croaking in the dark.

"Everyone is very excited that you are coming. The ceremony is over, but the music is just beginning."

The ceremony Kang Krisna had invited me to that night was called bubur suro, a ritual of thanksgiving for the rice harvest. Village women had spent the day preparing bubur, a kind of rice porridge steamed in a packet of leaves, the food representing both an offering to Dewi Sri, the goddess of rice fertility, and a symbol of past and future prosperity for the village. Now the midnight dance session would begin.

We drove on into the village, pulling up at a sparely lit wooden pavilion with village elders lining the outer edges. At the far end of the pavilion sat the two tarawangsa musicians, nearly invisible behind a massive display of offerings, from effigies and bamboo trays of vegetables to clusters of plastic water bottles (the energy of the music and ritual throughout the night would, I was told, supercharge the contents into holy water.) A cloud of thick, sweet smoke drifted from a bowl of incense, smelling of lavender.

After offering a humble two-handed handshake and greetings to every man in the room, I was asked with smiles and beckoning hands to sit on the bamboo mat surrounding the "dance floor" while being plied with coffee, snacks, and questions.

Meanwhile, the musicians played on, the sounds drifting amplified through the air as slow and sweet as the incense. As the piece continued, men would rise from conversation and drift from the perimeter, prostrating before the offerings, saying a prayer, and wrapping long, colorful scarves around their necks. Some men merely swayed in place, grasping at the ends of their scarf, while others moved about the room in the firm, aggressive yet graceful dance so particular to Sundanese men. Women watched and waited on their side of the pavilion, folded scarves rhythmically bobbing in their outstretched hands.

As the night wore on, the music worked its way through my ears and into something deep inside me. After numerous calls to join the dance, I found myself unable to refuse - suddenly I was scarf-wrapped and swaying with the others. While no spirit possessed me, the music somehow seemed to, my feet following the slow tempo of the jentreng's plucking, my arms, scarf in hand, rising and falling to the sound of the tarawangsa. I felt both self conscious and delighted as kneeling grannies giggled at me from the sidelines and men approached me again and again, draping me in more and more brightly colored scarves (a gesture, I can only hope, of welcoming, not ridicule.)

While the spirits may have felt reluctant to enter this bule's body, they seemed to readily enter others. My friend Kang Krisna spent hours in a glacial orbit around the room, eyes closed, as if some far off place. Other men had dramatically different reactions - at one point, an older man approached the pile of offerings and grabbed a kris, a kind of twisted dagger thought throughout Java to be loaded with mystical spirits. Shaking and grunting with wide eyes, the man pranced about the room, shaking the sheathed dagger over the heads of prostrated women as if squeezing a fruit of its juice. The women, clearly flustered, beckoned other men to sit between their side of the room and the dancing space, buffering them from the intensity of his possession.

Suddenly, one of these men, having taken a puff from a cigar from the pile of offerings, broke into a wailing sob, flinging his feet forward while women prayed over his body, holding his head in their arms. As powerful energies seemed to swirl through the room, the women took a batik sarong and held it over their heads as if cowering under a torrential downpour. The women too began to cry, palefaced and shaking. I hesitantly perched on the small stage's edge a safe distance away, confused, disturbed, and entranced all at once.

As the music reached its percussive crescendo, the man who had been parading with the kris collapsed as well, his friends hovering above him, holding his hands as his legs trembled before him. Suddenly, the music stopped, the silence somehow louder than the frogs outside. The men slowly sat up, as if from a dream, or a nightmare.

After Kang Krisna had awoken from his trance, I approached him and asked him about what I had seen that night. "Honestly, I'm not usually the type to fall into trance, but recently I've been feeling it's power more and more." He explained that when in trance, he feels as if something his moving his arms and legs for him, puppetlike. When asked to explain the crying, he suggested that perhaps the people were possessed by spirits of their ancestors, and that it was also possible that they were expressing regret for failing to obey adat, or traditional law and custom, in their daily lives.

While Krisna tried his best to help me make sense of that evening, I left feeling bewildered, as if I had stumbled upon something beyond my capability to understand. Maybe I wasn't meant to understand at all, and maybe I never will.

Notes on the recording: This recording isn't as "perfect" as I'd instinctively like it to be - the tarawangsa and jentreng are amplified through a primitive sound system, and more obviously, there is the sound of conversation throughout - you can clearly hear one of the village elders quizzing me on my life in Indonesia and my experience in Sumedang behind the sound of the tarawangsa. But I have to remind myself, and I'd like to remind you too, that the reason I don't record in the studio is because I want to record the sounds of Indonesian music as they exist in their natural habitat, in an aural environment as "natural" as possible. For much Indonesian music that is performative, the audience does not sit enraptured and silent as in a Western opera house - they chat, joke, and come and go as they please. Even for music as powerful and sacred as tarawangsa, the villagers in attendance can verge from chatty inattention to dancing entranced themselves, sometimes within the space of minutes. Something to keep in mind as you hear voices dance around the sound of fiddle and zither...

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Sounds of Sundanese Street Musicians, Pt. 1: Busking on the Fringes of Bandung

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

Location: Taman Hutan Raya, Bandung, West Java

Sound: Pop Sunda/Musik Jalanan (lit. Street music)

In Indonesia, sometimes you follow the music, and sometimes the music follows you. As I've previously discussed in my post detailing siter music in Central Java, the practice of busking takes quite a different form here as compared to the West - while Western buskers pick a spot in a well-trafficked public area and hope to catch the attention of passersby, Indonesian buskers make money on the move. These musicians usually work by roaming from warung to warung, playing a snippet of a song and then offering around a hat a plastic cup to the discretely disgruntled diners, who usually cough up a few hundred rupiah just to get the riff raff out of their hair.

Because of this technique, street musicians (or pengamen in Indonesian) have no particular imperative to be good - in fact, as I mentioned in my previous post, their technique is often to be so bad as to make their audience bribe them to go away. This leads to countless punks half-heartedly strumming Oasis songs on painfully untuned guitars and old beggar men walking from car to car at red lights, repeating the same sad, flat suling riff to each window.

Nonetheless, there are gems in the world of Indonesian street music. While cities like Jogja are more famous for the variety and nostalgia of their street music (keroncong groups and traditional instruments like siter are more likely to be found there), Bandung still has its occasional diamond in the rough, from surprisingly virtuosic violin and guitar players playing weirdly countrified duets to roving dangdut duos with electric guitar and handmade portable kendang, sometimes made from PVC pipe and tire rubber.

Wherever a crowd is to be found, undoubtedly pengamen will follow, whether it's a warung, a traditional market, or a volcano. This recording was made in a large, forested park on the northern fringes of Bandung, which shows that this street music needn't be on the street at all - the only requirement is large crowds of people willing to be pleased or annoyed enough into letting go of some coins.

While street music can vary from Western ballads to dangdut, this particular musician opted to play something with some local flavor - a song from the pop Sunda repertoire. Pop Sunda is a form of popular music, sung in the Sundanese language, usually heavy on synthesizers and other Western instruments but maintaining Sundanese melodies and often featuring Sundanese kendang and synthesized versions of traditional instruments.

In this stripped down acoustic cover of a song by pop Sunda artist Doel Sumbang, the musician transforms the upbeat, synth-driven track (extolling the virtues of Sumedang, a small but well-known city to Bandung's east) into a slow, almost mournful piece. It's interesting to note how in it's acoustic setting, the guitar performs its own emulation of other musical forms -  in the short melodic runs, the guitar sounds distinctly like a kecapi, the Sundanese zither, while in it's syncopated strumming, the nostalgic acoustic strumming of old time keroncong comes to mind. This clever street musician is clearly hitting his audience with something he knows they will respond to - nostalgia and ethnic pride.


Living on the northern outskirts of Bandung, it's comforting to know that peaceful, green respite is just a few minutes drive at any moment. One weekend a few months back, some friends and I decided to escape the traffic-clogged streets and head for the hills, hiking through the nearby pine forest and into the tourist favorite Taman Hutan Raya, a protected natural area popular with likeminded city folk looking for some fresh air and natural vibes.

As I wrote before, where there are crowds, buskers will follow, and on this day a few scrappy young men with even scrappier acoustic guitars were walking along the green paths of the park, approaching strolling groups and trying their luck. I'd wanted to start recording street music in Bandung for quite some time, but had always felt that the deafening environs and "play until they pay" technique of the musicians I usually encountered in the city never leant themselves towards an attempt. When I heard a musician playing this haunting, distinctively Sundanese song, I worked up the resolve to ask him to play it for me in full. After a short bemused conversation ("Where are you from? You like Sundanese music??"), he happily agreed.

Note: I regretfully forgot this guy's name after asking him, as I so often do. If any local musicians know him, please let me know!

Friday, October 24, 2014

Over the River and Through the Woods: In Search of Sape' in The Heart of Borneo

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

Location: Sungai Ting, Kayan Mendalam, Kapuas Hulu, West Kalimantan.

Sound: Sape' kayan (Literally "sape' of the Kayan", after the Dayak sub-ethnic group from which it originates.)

Of the various Dayak lutes that fall under the umbrella term sape, the sape' kayan is one of the least known and documented. While the instrument called sape' kenyah or simply sape', sampe, or sampeq is an international symbol of traditional music in Borneo (it is even the highlight of the world famous Rainforest World Music Festival in Kuching, Sarawak), the sape kayan exists on the fringes, rarely recorded or performed. In fact, before my visit to West Kalimantan, I had no idea it existed at all - I was searching for sape' kenyah, and was lucky enough to find it's ancient brother as well.

Despite sharing a name, the sape' kayan is distinctly different from its more well-known sibling in sound and construction. Described by Philip Yampolsky as looking like a "short-necked shovel" (in comparison to the boat-shaped sape' kenyah), it is carved from one piece of wood, with a squat hollow body, open in the back, out of which extends a short neck with three frets scalloped out of the wood. Unlike the sape' kenyah, which has up to five strings, the sape' kayan has only two - one acts as a drone while the melody is played on the other.

The instrument is played exclusively by the Kayan people, one of the myriad Dayak sub-groups found throughout Borneo. Originating in East Kalimantan, the Kayan came to the Kapuas Hulu area of West Kalimantan more than a hundred years ago in a mass migration, bringing their music with them. The sape' kayan seems to be used in the same contexts as its boat-shaped brother, providing accompaniment to dancing as well as for magical healing rituals.

Song notes:

"Lengilin" - Pak Paran described this tune as an accompaniment to a dance inspired a bird he called "manuk haluk", possibly a kind of eagle that lives in the jungles of Kalimantan. The slow, repetitive sound is meant to echo the deliberate, bird-like movement of the dancers.

"Healing Song" - This tune is meant to be played in conjunction with a ritualistic healing ceremony performed by a dukun, something like a "witch doctor." The Dayak believe that the sound of the sape' itself can have a mystical healing effect.


Ever since seeing videos of the massive boat-shaped sape' kenyah and hearing its sweet, droning sound, I'd wanted to go to Borneo to experience it for myself. With a week off for the annual Lebaran holiday, my travelling companion Sinta and I decided it was finally time to head deep into the heart of darkness in search of sounds.

After an indescribably long and arduous journey across the massive island, we finally reached Putussibau, the largest town in the Kapuas Hulu regency of West Kalimantan, an area renowned for its traditional Dayak culture. Renting a motorbike, Sinta and I headed off into the surrounding countryside with no guide or any particular idea where to find music.

A visit to Uluk Palin, a massive 200-year old Dayak longhouse twenty feet off the ground and hundreds of feet long, turned up empty - sape' was no longer played there, they told us. Go to Kayan Mendalam, one man said. There you will surely find sape' music.

Heading towards Kayan Mendalam, we'd occasionally stop and ask locals, lounging on the porches of their wooden stilted houses, where sape' music could be found. They'd point us towards the endless road ahead, saying "There's a musician in a village that's not far!" We'd proceed down endless gravel roads, passing nothing but forest and tall grass for ten, twenty steaming hot minutes, and then reach a riverside, where we'd have to load our motorbike onto a small wooden raft and get ported across and continue the bumpy journey anew. Put-putting across one placid river, I asked the raftsman about sape'. Pak Paran lives nearby, he said - he plays sape'. Was it actually near? Distance seemed to have a different meaning in the sprawling wilderness of this largely unpopulated area.

Finally we reached the small village where Pak Paran was said to live - Sungai Ting. After finding his house, an old man came around the side of the house, wiping dirt off his hands and looking curiously at his visitors. "Looking for sape', huh? Come on in!"

Pak Paran went to get his instrument, and when he returned I was confused - the instrument looked nothing like the sape' kenyah I had seen and heard so much. "This is a sape' kayan", he explained - "I made it myself." Sitting on the floor of his largely empty wooden house, under pictures of Jesus and family members of in traditional Dayak garb, Pak Paran smoked a kretek and told us proudly about the music of his people. "Kids these days don't care about Dayak art anymore - they just watch television and drink", he lamented. "I'm one of the few left here who play this music."

After some small talk and a tune up, Pak Paran played a number of short pieces for us, stopping between each one to explain the meaning - this one is about a bird, this one is for dancing, this one is for healing. One tune, he explained, was even said to be played in the past to raise the dead. The sound was so different from the sweetness of the sape' kenyah - it was minimal, raw, sounding dusty with age. I was enthralled. This wasn't what I'd been looking for, but it was an accidental discovery which made the long trek across rivers and jungles seem like a small price to pay.

Thanks to Jesse Clark for lending his mixing expertise to the problematic recording of Pak Paran's healing song!

Friday, October 10, 2014

Tingkilan: Gambus Fusion in East Kalimantan

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

Location: Samarinda, East Kalimantan

Sound: Tingkilan

In the long list of Indonesian music instruments, the gambus is something of an outlier - it is played across the lengths of Indonesia, from Sumatra to Solor, a uniquely massive stretch for a country with such heterogeneous musical traditions. And then there is its foreignness: in tone and shape, the gambus closely resembles the Middle Eastern oud, the classic pear-shaped lute so common in Arabic music. In fact, musicologists have traced the gambus back to the qanbus, a similar instrument originating in Yemen which spread across the Arabian peninsula. Because of these Arabic roots, the gambus is largely thought of as a "Muslim" instrument, even when the music has no religious content. Interestingly, the ethnomusicologist Philip Yampolsky has suggested that it is often allowed by conservative Muslims when other secular music is forbidden.

In East Kalimantan, the coastal people called Kutai have played the gambus for as long as anyone can remember. Combined with drums and singing, the Kutai call their gambus music tingkilan, or when accompanied by dance, jepen (also the name for the dance itself.) I came to Samarinda expecting to meet a traditional tingkilan group, but what I found was perhaps even more interesting.

The group I met, while proud of their music and heritage, were not purists. The style of tingkilan they played was distinctly modernized, but not via synthesizers and drumkits. Rather, the gambus had been combined with ukulele, cello, and Javanese kendang drums in a synthesis with kroncong, the syncretic Portuguese-influenced early pop music originating in Java. Asfi, the leader of the group that I recorded, explained that tingkilan had been fused with kroncong music as early as the 1950s, with the notion that the added rhythm and harmony would make for a more interesting sound.

The combination was like something I'd never heard before - gambus has often been played in ensembles called orkes gambus in a style that very closely mimics Arabic music - orkes gambus tapes even regularly feature Indonesian men wearing thawbs on their covers. It was odd and amazing, then, to hear it in this distinctly de-Arabized fusion, with the rhythmic ukulele, percussively slapped cello, and crooning vocals so strongly recalling the Portuguese-Javanese flavor of kroncong.

Through a cooperative effort with my school here in Bandung, I quite suddenly found myself teaching English at a natural gas refinery in East Kalimantan for one month. Before my trip, I looked into the music of the area - I was curious whether there was any culture at all in this part of Kalimantan, famous for being a province utterly engulfed by industrial behemoths like mines, oil rigs, and palm oil plantations, not to mention the refinery for which I'd be working. I was happy to stumble upon tingkilan music, and made it my mission to track some down while I was working.

Upon making it to Bontang, however, I found that perhaps this was not the perfect place for a culture lover. The industry of East Kalimantan has made it a melting pot of ethnic groups from all over Indonesia - Bugis, Banjarmasin, and Javanese people all make their way there in search of riches. While this sounds great, for a music hunter it spells trouble - none of these folks brought their music with them, and the local Kutai population has diminished, along with their traditional music.

Luckily, I met Asfian Nur Gusprada, a young musician based out of Samarinda, the capital of the province. One bored weekend, I made a promise to Asfi (as he prefers to be called) that I would come out to meet him and record his tingkilan group.

My students from the natural gas company dropped me off at Asfi's families house, and although it was my first time there, I knew instantly that we'd found the reight place: the sounds of electrified gambus was booming out of the house and into the neighborhood. A dance rehearsal was in full swing, with young girls playing dancing in unison in a large mirrored room full of instruments. The gambus was playing along with electric bass and a modified drum kit decked out with frame drums. I was intrigued but mildly disappointed - was this tingkilan music?

After the rehearsal, I talked to Asfi and he explained that he had an acoustic ensemble that would be more to my liking - they just had to rehearse and then they'd be ready to perform. Asfi introduced me to his group - all very young, probably still teenagers (Asfi himself is only nineteen) and quite a few not even Kutai - one was from Banjarmasin, another Javanese. Asfi explained that his is a musical family - his mother is a dance teacher, his father also a musician. His generation is keeping the spirit of Kutai music alive, while also playing, curiously enough, Dayak music, even travelling to Europe to share Dayak music and dance (but, oddly enough, not the Kutai music - is it not exotic enough for European audiences?)

After a quick rehearsal, we headed up to the now empty dance studio and Asfi's group, shy but exceedingly professional and talented, went through a number of their unique kroncong-influenced songs. As I watched them play, I felt proud: while I love meeting ancient musicians with one boney foot stuck in the past, I have to stop myself from seeing old folks playing old music as the image of "authentic" Indonesian music. Here were six young Indonesians, undoubtedly bumping Rihanna on their cellphones and going to the mall in their spare time, but nonetheless putting their heart and time into keeping a shrinking tradition alive.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Sayang Sayang - Guitar Music of West Sulawesi

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

Location: Outside Tinambung, Mandar Regency, West Sulawesi

Sound: Sayang sayang

When it comes to traditional music here in Indonesia, it can often be hard to get the facts straight, even if you ask the musicians themselves. There is little information about the origins of sayang sayang, a style based around the uniquely fingerpicked guitar played by the Mandar people of West Sulawesi. The name itself comes from the typical refrain of a sayang sayang song - "sayange, sayange!" (Darling, darling! in the Mandar language.)

Other than that, things get sketchy. The musicians I met said it all started when the Spanish brought guitars to Sulawesi more than a hundred years ago. But wait a second, the Spanish? The Portuguese all well-known to have spread the guitar around the archipelago, while the Spanish mostly stayed away from the colonies. Nonetheless, the musicians were adamant- it was the Spanish.

Next, how did such a style emerge? All it takes is an open ear and a decent knowledge of Indonesian music to hear similarities to the hybrid Portuguese-Indonesian kroncong music of Java, with it's rhythmic string instruments and syncopated basslines. Did sayang sayang come from kroncong, I asked? No, connection, they said. The style, they said, started spontaneously in the beginning of the 20th century. But one of the main songs/picking styles of the sayang sayang reportoire (and the song I share with you here) is called "Kemayoran", also the title of a well known kroncong song, named after a neighborhood of Jakarta! It must be a coincidence, they said. After some confused queries, the group leader was willing to concede that their bass player may have individually been influenced by kroncong basslines, but no more than that!

These days, I was told, all sayang sayang groups have gone electric to better accommodate the large wedding parties and other gigs - gone are the days of acoustic guitar (what they call gitar angin - literally wind guitar.) A typical group consists of two electric guitars - one strumming rhythmic cords, while the other melodically fingerpicks - one bass and at least two singers, preferably a man and a woman. The fingerpicked guitar is the true heart and soul of the music - sayang sayang music is even categorised not by song, per se, but by picking style or pattern - there are, according to the group we met, around eight picking styles/patterns in all, each requiring a unique tuning.

While the intricate picking style may be my favorite aspect of sayang sayang, surely the most unique ingredient is the singing - the male and female vocalists trade off improvising lyrics about the audience in a stream of consciousness designed to get folks to come up to the stage and throw down some bills for the musicians. This back and forth, because of its improvised nature, can stretch sayang sayang songs into all-night affairs - the group I met bragged that sayang sayang music features the longest songs in the world -sometimes hours and hours of endlessly looping instrumental parts and refrains.


Just like Batang Hari Sembilan, I first heard the Mandar guitar music of sayang sayang on the amazing Indonesian Guitars album from the legendary Music of Indonesia series recorded and curated by my ethnomusicological hero, Philip Yampolsky. Yampolsky and his crew had headed out to Mandar in the nineties and laid down some great tracks (acoustic, interestingly enough!), but as far as I know, no other foreigners had bothered to head out to those parts and look for more. The Mandar regency is an obscure corner of a massive island more famous for the death-obsessed Torajans of the south and the world class diving of Bunaken in the Nortth - few people make the trek to experience a hot, steamy coastal fishing area with no tourist attractions other than sailboats.

What Mandar is missing in concrete tourist destinations, it more than makes up for in rich cultural heritage. The Mandar are a proud people, and they've stuck to their culture and music more than most ethnic groups that I've met in Indonesia. It was surprisingly easy to meet a sayang sayang group - my friend Asep (who later introduced me to Cigawiran music in Garut) introduced me to the group Siasayangngi, said to be one of the best in the area.

After stopping by unannounced at the leader's wooden stilted house, the group's leader kindly invited us to record them a few days later in his living room. Coming on schedule at the appointed time, we felt the disorienting affects of what Indonesians call jam karet - rubber time, the flexible approach to time found all across the archipelago. After a few hours sitting on the wooden slats of the living room floor, munching on cookies and listening to chickens fight down below, the group had been assembled.

As the band played, sound booming through the too-large soundsystem in the cramped living room, the mic was passed back and forth between the singers while the singers traded off improvising lyrics about Asep and me. As they were singing in the Mandar language, I didn't catch much more than "Amerika" and the Indonesian phrase kaca mata (glasses), but it was later translated roughly for me as something along the lines of "Hey there, American guy, hey guy in the glasses! Welcome to Mandar, we hope you enjoy it! Please marry a Mandar woman and settle down here!" It was a moment I'll never forget - sitting in that living room, listening to this delightful music that just so happened to be all about me!

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Music of Mandar, Pt. 1: Gongga Lawe

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

Location: Tinambung, West Sulawesi

Sound: Gongga lawe (also called gongga labe or jarumbing)

As part of my work in collaboration with the Indonesian Mouth Harp Association (Asosiasi Harpa Mulut Indonesia), I've tried to seek out as much mouth harp music as I can throughout this great archipelago. For an enthusiast of the buzzing, earthy sound of the mouth harp, Indonesia is a wonderland: there are dozens of varieties scattered across the islands, taking myriad forms and connected to varying traditions.

After seeking out the karombi of Tanah Toraja, I headed towards the sunbaked coastal area called Mandar, home to the only other mouth harp tradition in South or West Sulawesi that I'm aware of. In form and function, the gongga lawe is almost identical to the Torajan karombi and a number of other string-pulled mouth harps around Indonesia. For a description of the form and playing technique, you can check out my description in the karombi post linked above.

Gongga lawe has not reached the level of revitalization of other Mandar folk instruments like calong, nor does it have the mystical, socially significant role of the Mandar kecaping. Like many other Indonesian mouth harps, gongga lawe is as much as simple diversion as it is a musical instrument: it was traditionally played, like the calong, as a way for Mandar farmers to amuse themselves while taking a break from the heat and toil of labor in the crops.

These days, very few people can still play gongga lawe, largely because such traditions have been left by the wayside in the face of a progressively modernising society. As usual, I was delighted to meet a craftsman and player of this instrument, as its future, like so many traditional musics, is in jeopardy.


The main inspiration for my trip to Mandar was this YouTube video highlighting a variety of Mandar musical instruments, including the gongga lawe. Excited by the find, I shared the video with my friends in the Indonesian Mouth Harp Association, who despite their meticulous cataloguing, knew nothing of the instrument. It seemed to me like a challenge: I had to go there.

A few months later, I found myself in Mandar, meeting with Muhammad Ridwan, the uploader of the YouTube video. An expert in traditional Mandar culture, Mas Ridwan hooked me up with some friendly local artists who helped me get in contact with Ka Musa, the gongga lawe player in the video.

When we first stopped by the wooden stilted home of Ka Musa, we found that he was not home at all, as he was out working in the fields. Ah, I thought, my narrative of crushing modernity in Mandar is being complicated!

We came back the next day and I was happy to find Ka Musa greeting us at the tiny portal. Wrapping a sarong below his red t-shirt and peci cap, Ka Musa proudly showed us his assortment of instruments, from the calong to gongga lawe and the related gongga lima. He proceeded to sit humbly on the planks of the wooden floor and share them with me. The gongga lawe he had made himself - later he showed me his method, carving the thin instrument from a long piece of bamboo. Just as Ka Musa was proud, I too was honored to meet and help document the work of this craftsman who is playing a vital role in keeping this endangered tradition alive.

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.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

The Bena Sunday Church Choir

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

Location: Bena, Central Flores

Sound: The Bena Sunday Church Choir (see below)


With most music I record and encounter in Indonesia, I have a sketchy knowledge at best about the music at hand, but in this encounter I'm left with presenting the reader a near total blank.

I recorded this track in the village of Bena, one of the most traditional Ngada villages in Flores. It's a fairly popular spot on the backpacking trail, and thus sees a fair amount of visitors, most visiting to see the ancient complex of megaliths at the heart of the village. While nearly all Ngada have been converted to Catholicism, the megaliths betray their animistic past and syncretic present - while the villagers sing "Hallelujah" on Sundays, they also occasionally sacrifice animals to the ancestral spirits and leave them at the megalithic stone altars.

I happened to stop by on a Sunday morning, just in time to catch a Sunday church service in one of the rugged thatched-roof houses for which Bena is famous. The villagers sat on the ground and in plastic picnic chairs and sang sweet hymns about which I know nothing: do they have a special Ngada character to them or are they stock Indonesian hymns? Especially in the second hymn on this recording (which sadly was cut off due to low disc memory on my recorder), I hear harmonies that seem to have a special something: Flores is famous for its polyphonic singing - could there be a connection?

As always, anybody who actually knows what they're talking about, please chime in with a comment! Everyone else, just enjoy the lovely sounds...

Searching for Sasando

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

Location: Ba’a, Rote

Sound: Sasando

A traditional tube zither of the Rotenese people, the sasando is embraced throughout Indonesia as a unique piece of cultural heritage. However, this unique instrument is found only on the small island of Rote, off the western coast of Timor in East Nusa Tenggara province. Famous as much for its appearance as for its sound, the sasando is made up of a bamboo tube with strings stretched from top to bottom, the strings raised with bridge-like wooden wedges which allow them to be tuned. The distinctive appearance of the sasando mostly comes from the half-shell of dried lontar palm that surrounds the tube and acts as a resonator.

Sasando is meant as a platform for oration – oral poetry sung in the local language, Bahasa Rote. As such, the playing is not flashy or even particularly melodic – it merely functions as a rhythmic and harmonic support upon which the player can lay down line upon line of lyrics.


For weeks as I traveled throughout East Nusa Tenggara, I had my eyes set on the small island of Rote, fueled by dreams of finding this unique instrument in its native habitat. Upon reaching West Timor, I boarded a ferry to Rote and a few hours later ended up in Baa, the port and largest town on the island. Not quite sure how to proceed in finding the music, I stuck my bag in a cheap hotel room and headed down to the quiet main street of the town. Grabbing some mie ayam (chicken noodle soup) at a small warung, I struck up conversation in Indonesian with another customer who, when told of my quest for sasando, offered to bring me to a local musician.

I clung to the back of his motorbike as we drove to the outskirts of town, pulling up in the yard of a home with goats gnawing on grass out front. An older man emerged from inside and, after exchanging a few words in the local language with my new friend, brought out a dusty old sasando. I was excited but skeptical, as the instrument seemed in pretty bad shape. As the man tried for ages to tune the unruly instrument, the trip began to seem like a bust – all I would find would be old men with broken old instruments, nearly forgotten. Eventually the man gave up on tuning his instrument and suggested we head to another nearby musician who was more likely to give us what we were looking for. After profuse thanks and apologies, we headed off again to another potential sasando player.

We pulled up outside a simple cinderblock home and, after a quick exchange between the locals in Rotenese, a musician brought his sasando out onto the porch and started tuning up. After offering some palm wine from a water bottle, the young man, whose name I regretfully did not record, sat down and shared a few short songs with us. Realizing at one point that I was taking pictures as well as recording, he went inside and came back in traditional costume, with a Rotenese sarong, simple blue shirt, and the bizarre sombrero-like ti’I langga, the traditional Rotenese hat, also made from the ever-important lontar palm. I found it interesting that music is often part of a larger cultural package including traditional dress, sombrero and all.

While I left fairly underwhelmed by the dry, simplistic sound of the sasando, I was nonetheless dazed by its bizarre construction. How could such fantastical looking instrument sound so dull? However, I was forced to remind myself of something ethnomusicologist Christopher Basile had warned me of before my trip: Rotinese art is oration based, so unless you've been working on your Rotinese, you're probably going to be missing a whole lot. With that said, there's only one solution - whip out your English-Rotinese dictionary and get to work!

Street Zither in Solo

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

Location: Surakarta (also known as Solo), Central Java

Sound: Siter

One of few stringed instruments found in Java, the siter is an 11-13 stringed box zither often used in traditional Javanese gamelan music (gamelan jawa.) The strings are plucked with the thumb nails while the other fingers follow along, dampening each note after it is played (although in this recording, the musician seems to allow the notes to ring free, which has a hazy, twangy effect.)

Usually siter is used as accompaniment for gamelan, but it is not uncommon to see it played as a solo instrument by street musicians (pengamen) in the cities of Central Java. The siter often acts in this context as a foundation for one or more singers (sinden) singing slow and graceful melodies in Javanese. In this recording, the sinden also provide a percussive foundation of rhythmic, interlocking clapping (keplok) as is often heard in Javanese gamelan and campursari music.


Sometimes you come to the music, and sometimes the music comes to you. On this balmy night in Solo, I was sitting in a humble warung enjoying some wedang ronde (a kind of ginger drink with peanut-filled dough balls), watching as one street musician after another came through and tried their hand at milking some rupiah out of their unreceptive audience. The street musicians of Indonesia, unlike in America, rove from place to place (usually stringing along from warung to warung), so their modus operandi is often to play so terribly that annoyed diners will be bothered enough to pay them to go away. Your usual act is street kids screaming along to an untuned ukelele or an old man apathetically playing a worn out bamboo flute.

This night was no different until in walked three older women, all wearing the traditional Javanese outfit of kebaya (blouse) and sarong. Two of the women wore a thick mask of makeup and their hair in the traditional fat bun called sanggul, while the third carried a purse under one arm and a siter under the other.

Sitting down amongst the tables of the warung, the women launched into song, the siter player flanked by her clapping, singing companions. Their technique was not to hold their audience hostage with atonal strumming until they could cough up some 100 rupiah coins. Rather, they seemed to aim towards pure nostalgia, hopefully awakening memories in the older diners of the times when such music was more commonplace, before the era of punk guitarists and dangdut music videos.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Aural Archipleago on the Radio + Future Plans

Hello to the few folks who may be checking this blog regularly,

Sorry for the month-long absence of new posts...I still have a treasure trove of sounds to share with the world (including quite a few from my most recent trip to Sulawesi), but have been in a bit of a lazy slump recently. Next wednesday is election day here in Indonesia (I'm nervous about that, but don't get me started), so I've got work off and plan to spend the day loading up a bunch of posts of great music and photos.

Last month my friend Greg Ruben interviewed me for his pirate radio station in New York City - you can listen to the hour long piece here - it features my awkward, often misinformed ramblings about Indonesian music with a few of my recordings thrown in there, including a not-yet-released tune from Mandar in West Sulawesi.

At the moment I'm planning a trip to the deep jungles of inner Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo) for the end of this month in search of some of my favorite music of the archipelago, the sape' lute of the Dayak people.

Aural Archipelago still lives...keep checking back!

Thursday, June 5, 2014

The Singing Coconuts of Mandar

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

Location: Tinambung, Polewali Mandar, West Sulawesi

Sound: Calong

Indonesia is a nation full of beautiful and unique percussion instruments, but calong deserves special mention for its simplicity and design. The instrument, unique to the Mandar people of West Sulawesi, consists of a large coconut, hollowed out and with the top quarter sliced off to make something like a deep bowl. The coconut functions as the perfect resonator for four bamboo xylophone "keys", arranged from front to back, not left to right as you might see on a typical xylophone.

The instrument was traditionally played by farmers to take a break from the backbreaking labor in the heat of the Mandar sun. As such, it is in that special class of instruments that is played not for performance or ritual, but for the simple joy of making sound.

One thing I was happy to see when spending time in Mandar is that the instrument is being revitalized in a big way, blossoming from its humble roots as an obscure farmer's instrument to a unique symbol of Mandar arts and culture. Elementary schools and arts groups have begun to embrace the instrument for its simplicity and ease of playing, producing identically tuned instruments in mass numbers for schoolchildren to bang away on in synchronized rhythm. Some clever instrument makers have even created diatonic double-coconut calong, allowing Western and Indonesian national songs to be played.

After spending countless hours in Toraja and Enrekang sitting around living rooms and bamboo huts waiting for something to happen, I was pleasantly surprised by the speediness of my first experience in Mandar. Minutes after meeting my brief host and "fixer", the author and expert on Mandar culture Muhammad Ridwan Alimuddin, I was immediately shuttled off on the back of a motorbike to the house of Tombo Padhua, a local musician.

We sat down with Pak Tombo in the living room of his home, a wooden stilted house like many I had seen so far in South Sulawesi. After sitting down for a chat, Pak Tombo disappeared into the dark inner rooms of his home and returned moments later wearing a traditional Mandar headband (ikat kepala) and carrying his calong, festooned with puffballs of red fabric and a miniature Indonesian flag.

Pak Tombo sat down in a green plastic patio chair and placed the calong on a small table in front of him. Illuminated by the sunlight shining in through the woven bamboo walls of his home, he beat out a simple rhythmic pattern with drumstick-like beaters, the dry sound surprisingly loud with the help of the coconut resonator. As I watched, I couldn't stop smiling - barely thirty minutes in Tinambung, and already I was enjoying the humble sounds of Mandar folk music, beaming from the inside of a coconut.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Reawakening the Duri Drone Flute in Enrekang

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

Location: Bentang Alla Utara, Enrekang, South Sulawesi

Sound: Suling Dendang Dendang

The traditional flute of the Duri people of the neighboring Enrekang regency, the suling dendang dendang is essentially identical in construction and sound to the suling lembang of Toraja (see my previous post here.) However, the suling tradition in Enrekang is different in a number of interesting ways - for one, I was told that suling dendang dendang is never played for funerals, only for weddings and other "upacara adat", or traditional ceremonies (which is unusual considering the wailing, creepy sound of the Enrekang suling seems quite fit for a funeral.)

The other main difference is that while Torajan suling is, as far as I know, always played as a solo instrument, suling dendang dendang requires a group of four men for performance. At the time of recording, however, only two men could be rounded up - the other two were in far-flung areas of South Sulawesi. I hope that the suling duo can give a sense of the difference this arrangement makes - playing in a pair, long drones are able to be sustained, with one player often maintaining the drone while the other adds ornaments and small melodic variations. At other times, the musicians play in unison, allowing for a fuller sound.

As with many other musics around Indonesia, information about suling dendang dendang is scarce. Actually, in this case, I seem to have found a first: there is literally no recorded information about this music that I am aware of, at least on the internet and searchable archives. As usual, I ask anyone with more information to please contact me.


Accompanied by my friends from Baraka, I arrived soon after sunset in the small coffee-growing village of Bentang Alla Utara, close to the border with Tana Toraja. We headed directly to the house of the kepala desa (village head), who was surprised and curious to see me there, telling me that the only other foreigner who he had seen in the village was an Australian researching coffee production (I was surprised to find this well-produced YouTube video about the village and its coffee production, starring Patola, the village head, and this mysterious Australian.)

Armed with headlamps, Patola led us through the quiet dark of the village to a nearby home, where we were eventually met, after a long awkward wait in the small sitting room, by two suling dendang dendang players, as well as another old man who had seem to come just to watch. One of the musicians was quite old, in his eighties, and seemed a bit grumpy - he had just been sleeping, he told us, when he got the call to come play for this foreigner. He hadn't played his suling in six years, he told us. I began to feel guilty and a bit ashamed - why was I bothering this poor old guy, just to get a recording and a photo or two? I tried not to let the thought distract me from the moment.

The men unpacked their suling, water buffalo horns and all, from a bamboo case and began to play, angling towards each other on the floral sitting room couch. After playing for a number of minutes, the old man who had come to watch motioned that he would like to dance. Rising from his couch, he performed a short, graceful dance, with emphasis on hand movements, as you often see in dances throughout Indonesia. It was a redeeming moment for me - while I still felt bad for waking the old suling player, at least our visit had allowed for a moment of inspiration.

Later, the previously grumpy suling player mentioned that if it wasn't for our visit, he wouldn't have played that night - his suling would have remained in its dusty case, unplayed for who knows how many years later. On that night, the slumbering tradition of suling dendang dendang was reawakened, if only for a short while.

Photo and video credits for this post go to my friend and incredibly helpful guide Salam Konzelink - I was too busy holding the recorder to do anything else! Special thanks also to Tamar Jaya and Unding Kaharuddin for being my friendly guides around Enrekang.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Bamboo Bass Music in the Land Above the Clouds

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

Location: Wai Wai, Enrekang, South Sulawesi

Sound: Musik Bambu (Bamboo Music), also known as Musik Bas (Bass Music)

Unique to Sulawesi, Musik Bambu  is played by an orchestra consisting wholly of bamboo instruments, with a large number of trumpet-like horns being led by six or more transverse bamboo flutes. The orchestra plays songs in the Western diatonic scale, in a style that is a bizarre fusion of local aesthetics, national songs, and imported European brass band music.

The backing instruments require some explanation, as they are unlike anything I have ever seen or heard in any other part of the world. Ranging from massive versions that produce booming bass to tiny ones that produce high pitched 'toots', each instrument (the instruments themselves, I was told by the local instrument maker, do not even have a proper name!) has the same general form and playing technique. The musician blows into a small bamboo "tubing" similar in concept to that of a trumpet or tuba, with the tubing twisting at ninety-degree angles until it meets the large resonating tube, a hollow cylinder of bamboo. This main cylinder can range in size from less than ten centimeters for the smallest instruments to more than a meter for the massive "bass" instruments. The tone of the instrument is based off of the length of the cylinder, with one instrument playing generally only one tone. However, some instruments have one hole in the cylinder, which, when covered or uncovered, allows the player to produce two tones.

Because each of these backing instruments produces only one or two notes, the entire group, from twenty to thirty players, must work together to produce the foundation of harmony and rhythm over which the flutes can play the main melody.

Finding reliable information about this bizarre music is nearly impossible. From what I can tell, it started in Manado, a city in North Sulawesi, but multiple sources tell different stories.  One source  suggests that it was invented by a homesick Dutch Catholic missionary in Manado in the early 20th century, while  another source traces its roots back to the colonial Dutch marching bands of the 1800s. In Manado, the Musik Bambu  sounds more firmly European, with an oompah rhythm that did not quite make it's way down to the Musik Bambu groups of Enrekang in South Sulawesi.

Despite the clearly European inspiration (from the Do-Re-Mi scale to the use of a conductor), multiple provinces and ethnic groups throughout Sulawesi, from the Minahasans of North Sulawesi to the Torajans of Mamasa and the Duri of Enrekang, claim the music to be wholly "traditional," with various origin stories of their own. The legend in Enrekang, where I made this recording, is that it all began with a water buffalo shephard who improvised a wind instrument out of a branch of the rice plant.

The reality of Musik Bambu 's history and the sound is likely far more complicated and impossible to trace - anyone who can help me figure this out, beyond my wild speculations, please let me know.

A note on the song: The tune featured here is a Musik Bambu cover of a famous song by Koes Plus, a Beatles-esque rock band that was hugely famous beginning in the 1960s. Musik Bambu groups do not really play "folk" songs - most of the songs I heard were covers of nationally popular pop music.


After a few days of hunting flutes and mouth harps in Toraja, I headed to Baraka, a city in the rarely-visited province of Enrekang, two hours or so south of Rantepao. I knew nothing about it's people, the ethnic group called Duri, or about its music. I was willing to guess, however, that I could find Musik Bambu, as I had learned through my reading that it has become something of a Pan-Sulawesi genre, found throughout the twisting peninsulas of the massive island.

Luckily, my host and incredibly helpful guide, Tamar Jaya, knew of dozens of  Musik Bambu groups in the area, but he insisted on taking me to what he called the best group in Enrekang, a Musik Bambu ensemble at the top of a nearby mountain, a place he called "negeri di atas awan", or "the land above the clouds. "It's far," he warned me, "and the road is really bad. Are you sure you want to go?"

The next day I found myself clinging for dear life to the back of a motorbike as we strained up and over rocks and slick mud along the worst mountain road I have ever experienced (if you can even really call it a road at that point. ) Maybe it was the lack of a helmet (when I asked why we were not bringing any, my friend cheerfully shrugged and said "there are no police here!"), but the way up to the village was perhaps the most terrifying and uncomfortable ride of my life. The sun set as we ascended,  leaving us chugging our way up slippery slopes in the eerie dark, the headlamps of the bikes bouncing off of the clouds clinging to the chilly mountainside.

Finally reaching the tiny village of Wai Wai, we stopped in for some coffee, dinner, and about an hour of listening to my hosts chat away in the local language (Bahasa Duri) as I began to wonder whether the music would really make the trip worthwhile . Finally I heard the bizarre bass toot of bamboo in the distance, and we headed towards the practice space.

We arrived to a traditional wooden, stilted house to find villagers of all types - tiny old ladies in jilbabs, rugged saronged men, and sweatshirt-wearing teenagers - tooting away under the dim light of a single bulb. In the middle of them all a man paced back and forth enthusiastically, signaling the musicians with grand and joyous gestures and shouts. His enthusiasm was infectious, and I found myself enjoying the bizarre and sometimes harsh sound of the group far more than I imagined. The booming bass of the largest instruments shook the wooden planks of the floor for more than an hour as the group cycled through local and national songs, some that sounded like dangdut , others that sounded like some mutant strains of European marching music. I sat and listened quietly the whole time, trying to figure it out, to get to the bottom of its sound. I never really did.