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.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Endless Bamboo Flute in Tana Toraja

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

Location: Toda Panggala ', Tana Toraja, Sulawesi

Sound:   Suling Lembang

Suling lembang  is a long, six-holed bamboo flute of the Toraja people of South Sulawesi. What sets it apart from other suling (Indonesian for flute) throughout the archipelago is the addition of a conical piece of water buffalo horn at the flute's end, which acts as a resonator similar to a trumpet's horn. Also interesting is that playing suling lembang requires circular breathing, a playing technique that allows the musician to create a steady stream of sound without requiring breathing breaks (the musician in this recording uses this technique, but perhaps because he is getting old, he occasionally takes a break to breathe as well.)

Torajan culture is largely based around massive and extravagant funerals, so it comes as no surprise that  suling lembang  is usually used to accompany these ceremonies, playing songs of grief and mourning.


With the help of a new generation suling player I had befriended, I was able to meet Nek Amir, an old suling lembang player who lives in a small hamlet about twenty five minutes from Rantepao, the center of tourism in Tana Toraja. Driving up a narrow dirt track, I arrived with my friends in a cluster of beautiful, massive tongkonan , the unique traditional houses which are ubiquitous in Tana Toraja. Young children scattered from the dirt courtyard at the center of the cluster, staring in curiosity and giggling at the strange foreigner.

My friend introduced me and my plan to Nek Amir, who, upon realizing I would be taking photos, insisted on putting on a sarong and his military camouflage jacket, as I was told he was a proud military man. We settled on a bamboo platform under a small rice barn and Nek Amir played away, stopping only a few times to take a breath or make a joke. For more than half an hour, the only sounds in the air were the lonely sound of the flute and farmyard animals - grunting pigs, crowing roosters, and barking dogs. Maybe I should have been bothered by the intrusion of these other noises, but I just sat back and smiled, enjoying the privilege of listening to the rare tapestry of Torajan sounds.

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.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Grandpa Karombi Carrying the Mouth Harp Tradition in Batutamonga

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

Location: Batutamonga, Tana Toraja, South Sulawesi

Sound: Karombi (also called Pa'karombi)

Karombi is the bamboo mouth harp of the Toraja people of Tana Toraja, in the highlands of South Sulawesi. Similar to many other mouth harps found throughout Indonesia such as the the genggong of Bali and Lombok, the kuriding of South Kalimantan, and the rinding of Central Java, the karombi consists of a small length of carved bamboo - the bamboo is placed to the player's lips, and an attached string is pulled, setting a "tongue" in the center of the instrument to vibrate. The pitch of the buzzing vibration is then manipulated using the mouth as a resonator - tongue, throat, and breathe working together.

The karombi seems to be nearly extinct, with only a few instrument makers capable of producing the instrument, and what seems to be an equally small number of people who are able to play it. Like most jew's harps, it is not an instrument that is used for performance or ritual, merely for personal entertainment. I've found one source, however, that suggests that in times past, the karombi was played by parents of children sick with smallpox, its sound soothing the children to sleep and recovery.


As I travelled around the area of Tana Toraja on motorbike, I would occasionally ask locals if they know anyone who could play karombi. Most people had heard of the instrument, especially if I mimicked the playing style with my hands, but none knew anyone around their village who played - as one man said, "everyone who played karombi is already dead."

However, my previous research on the internet had turned up a promising lead  - a man nicknamed Ne'Karombi, living in the village of Batutamonga in the hills above Rantepao, had already been featured in an extremely low-quality YouTube video, and I'd found one single web page, created by the uploader of the YouTube video, containing some photos and a sketchy biography of sorts. When I showed the video to my friend Frans, a local artist who kindly hosted me in Rantepao, he laughed, pointing at the screen, and told me if I looked behind the musician in the video, I could see Frans himself sitting in the background. Go to Batutamonga, Frans told me, and Ne'Karombi will surely play for you.

The next afternoon I headed to Batutamonga, a village popular with tourists for it's panoramic views of the valley below and its proximity to treks and cultural sites such as graves carved into massive boulders. Upon finding a simple homestay, I asked Mama Yos, the owner, about Ne'Karombi - she seemed confused, but one of her kids piped up and said he knew the place. She insisted I walk to his home escorted by her small child, who shyly practiced English with me along the way.

When we got to his house, Ne'Karombi was outside picking coffee berries from a nearby tree. His house was a typical rumah panggung, a kind of raised, wooden house found all throughout that part of Sulawesi. I'd read that Ne'Karombi had previously had signs outside his home advertising his skills as a musician, perhaps hoping to attract backpackers headed down the small road to Rantepao. At the time of my arrival, he seemed to have given up that scheme.

Upon telling him of my project and politely asking if I could record his music in a quieter area, Ne'Karombi led me up into his simple home, through a room with creaking wooden floorboards and no furniture except a television. We settled in a relatively well-lit corner (one dim lightbulb lit the house) and he proceeded to show me his instruments.

His name, he told me, was Pelipus Randan, but people called him Ne'Karombi, or "Grandpa Karombi." Few people, he lamented, could play his instrument anymore - even a son of his who could make the instrument was unable to play it. Together with his wife, Ludia Sombo allo, he kindly played for me over the sound of passing motorbikes, giggling grandchildren, and roosters.

An informal instrument by nature, the karombi doesn't even have songs, merely certain patterns that can be played. For a few "pieces", Ne'Karombi's wife joined in on a differently pitched karombi, playing patterns that sometimes matched up, and sometimes didn't. I realized that, like other mouth harp music I've encountered here in Indonesia, it is not a serious artform, with structured compositions or deep spiritual meaning. Rather, it is played merely for the joy of playing.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Blue Jeans Batang Hari in Tanjungsakti

Location: Tanjungsakti, South Sumatra

Sound: Batang Hari Sembilan (see my earlier post about Batang Hari Sembilan in Pagaralam)

Context: After recording Pak Arman Idris’ tracks at his home the previous day, Jemmie and I continued on towards the village of Tanjungsakti in search of the traditional Besemah flute called serdam. While that search did not end up yielding the results we had hoped for, it did lead us to another great find.

While sitting in a friend of a friend’s house waiting for information on serdam, we asked the locals whether there were any Batang Hari Sembilan players we could meet. They all seemed to agree that that was one man that we had to meet: his name, we were told, was Sepri.

Sepri arrived minutes later, and was instantly handed a guitar. He made a different impression than Pak Arman – while the former had been a seasoned professional who made an effort to put on traditional garb and present himself as the face of the Besemah Batang Hari Sembilan tradition, Ka Sepri (Ka is the preferred Besemah honorific) was more of an everyman, dressed in blue jeans and a white t-shirt. When asked, he told us he had never performed for an audience, never recorded, and played for personal enjoyment. He seemed a bit perplexed and taken aback that we wanted to record him, but he agreed with a kind of quiet amusement.

When he first began to sing, however, we were blown away, as he had a powerful, unusual voice that seemed to pour heavily from his throat. Sitting in the living room of the house, he played four songs for us, one of which I’ll share with you here. With this song, he told us he couldn’t remember the pantun, so another man in the room, something of an amateur musician as well, wrote down some lines (again in the local language, Bahasa Besemah) from memory. When asked, this man told us he had written the pantun himself, which is fairly unusual in this traditionalist kind of genre.


Meeting Ka Sepri was an inspiring moment - here was a musician with so much to offer the world in terms of sheer invididualism and talent, but he had probably only performed for a handful of people. It was also a reminder that Batang Hari Sembilan is a very individualistic style, perhaps unlike any other I've experienced in Indonesia in that each individual musician leaves an idiosyncratic, impossible-to-miss mark on the songs he plays.

 Often upon hearing a group or musician play a previously unheard style, I feel the need to mentally check it off this big list of Indonesian Music in my head. However, Ka Sepri reminded me that every individual musician or group has something incredibly unique to offer, and it's absurd to begin to think otherwise. The search is never over - there are always amazing musicians, well-known or obscure, in every corner of the world, just waiting to share their music with the world.

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.

South Sumatra Blues in the Highlands of Pagaralam

Location: Pagaralam, South Sumatra

Sound: Batang Hari Sembilan (Malay for “Nine River Branches’)

 Also called gitar tunggal (Indonesian for “solo guitar”), Batang Hari Sembilan is a genre of solo guitar and vocal music common throughout the Southern reaches of Sumatra. Originating in a genre of oral poetry accompanied by a now extinct local zither, Batang Hari Sembilan evolved to use acoustic guitars, most likely brought by the Portuguese in colonial times centuries ago. The guitar is played in a relatively simple fingerpicked style, with the low strings of the guitar playing a rhythmic drone while an accompanying melody is picked out on the remaining strings.
            The main focus of Batang Hari Sembilan music, however, is the sung oral poetry called pantun, found throughout Indonesia. Many different areas of Indonesia have their own variety of pantun – in these recordings, the pantun is a variety called rejung, sung in the local Besemah language. The addition of multiple pantuns can stretch songs to epic lengths of more than fifteen minutes, alternating repetitively between verse, chorus, and instrumental interludes.

Context: With the help of local musician Jemmie Delvian, I traveled to Pagaralam, a cool city in the Southern reaches of the Bukit Barisan mountains that stretch across the length of Sumatra. Often mentioned as the source of Batang Hari Sembilan, Pagaralam and its surrounding villages are the ancestral homeland of the Besemah people, a so-called “Proto-Malay” ethnic group that is thought to be one of the oldest cultures in all of Sumatra. The area is scattered with ancient, mysterious megaliths which dot the landscape between coffee and tea plantations.

With Jemmie’s help, we headed to the home of Pak Arman Idris, the most well-known guitarist of the area. We set up in a nearby field full of blooming yellow mustard flowers, with Jemmie arranging his professional recording equipment brought from Palembang, microphone cables running to Jemmie’s laptop through the ridges of tilled farmland ((in addition to being a musician, Pak Arman is also a farmer.)

Later, hoping for a quieter recording environment, we set up in Pak Arman’s simple one-room home, where we recorded three more songs with the slightest ambient background of a nearby irrigation stream running beside Pak Arman’s house. After recording, we sat on the floor and ate vegetables, fish and rice together while Pak Arman proudly told us of his trips abroad to share his music, quite a feat for a local musician.

Thoughts: I still remember hearing this music for the first time, on the “Indonesian Guitars” album from the famous Music of Indonesia series put out by Smithsonian Folkways. This was before I moved to Indonesia and became more familiar with its geography and cultures, and I remember hearing the Batang Hari Sembilan songs on the album and feeling perplexed by how unplaceable they are – the fingerpicked guitar often shares the humble feeling of the folk and country music of America, while the vocals are often full of melismatic flourishes that firmly place the music in a land far from there.  Now, having heard this music throughout South Sumatra, it will forever remind me of that place, the people I met, and the experiences I had in those cool mountains and muggy riverbanks.

Celempung Variations in the Jungle of West Java

Sound: Celempung varation

The rhythmic foundation of a thriving movement of revitalized Sundanese bamboo music in West Java, the celempung is an instrument that nearly defies classification. A hollow bamboo tube with two to three differently pitched “strings” of the bamboo’s skin raised off of one side using small bridges, the instrument is played as both a zither, by hitting the strings with a simple stick called tarengteng, and as a drum, by hitting one end of the tube with the hand.

 It’s fascinating to pick apart the multiple rhythmic roles the celempung simultaneously plays – the two higher pitched strings play a rhythmic pattern mimicking the ketuk of Sundanese gamelan, while the lower bass string is played less frequently, mimicking the role and sound of a gong. The construction is worth noting – while the two higher strings make a short, dry sound, the lower string has a sustained boom enabled by an ingenious addition – a bamboo flap attached to the string, under which is a small hole in the body of the celempung. When the string is hit, the flap vibrates as well, and this sound/energy is transmitted through the length of the tube through the small hole, allowing for an impressively loud resonance.

By tapping the open end of the instrument, the resonance of the bass note can be controlled in something of a “wah-wah” effect. In addition to being used to manipulate the sound of the bass string, the open end of the instrument is hit in an improvisatory rhythmic style seemingly influenced by the Sundanese kendang drum. 

In this sample of typical Sundanese musical ingenuity, the instrument maker Pak Rosid has modified his celempung with a novel addition - three more lengths of bamboo, with one end of each covered with the rubber from a motorbike tire’s inner tube.

With this modification, coupled with a simple shaker made of wood and clashing metal disks, Pak Rosid is able to extend the sound of the celempung to something like a one man band – wordlessly humming and singing traditional Sundanese melodies along with his celempung, he singlehandedly sketches the sound of a full ensemble.

Note: In doing research for this post, I was able to find practically no information on Sundanese celempung on the internet (there is an identically named Javanese zither, which makes things even harder), so the details here are based largely off my own observations and intuition. If any real experts have any more substantial information on the history, construction, and music of celempung, or any corrections, please let me know…

Context: About an hour’s walk into the jungle near Ciater (a rural area north of Bandung), curious hikers cross a small stream to come upon a mysterious sight: a well-maintained complex of irrigated gardens and sturdy bamboo and wooden huts nestled in the surrounding greenery. If the hikers are lucky, they might meet the man who singlehandedly built it all: Pak Rosid, a small, grinning, delight of a man who spends much of his days at this site as caretaker and spiritual guardian of Curug Cibareubeuy, the thundering waterfall nearby.

After doling out hot drinks made from palm sugar tapped from the trees overhead, Pak Rosid will often invite you to sit down for a welcoming performance: bringing out his large celempung, he sits down and humbly shares a Sundanese tune or two. On a recent hike to Pak Rosid’s camp, I was lucky enough to talk with him and record his simple, endearing music.

Making his intentions clear, Pak Rosid explained that he was not a professional nor did he really consider himself a musician – he merely played music for guests to break the awkwardness of first meetings and to cheer up hikers after a muddy slog through the forest. Nonetheless, the ingenuity of his homemade instrument and his candid, endearing personality made his simple, barebones performance something to be treasured.