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.


  1. what a great... i am really happy read you article, our hometown also has many beautiful places Enrekang. thank you so much for visiting our hometown anyway.

  2. They sound like they are having the best time ever! I love this!

  3. Hello Palmer, you have a great blog. Compliments! As yourself, I am a big fan of Indonesian music, from traditional to classical, pop, rock and contemporary. Have a large collection of music cassettes/CD's from all over Indonesia and my own field recordings from the 80-90ies: Java and Bali when I worked for Dutch radio..
    I can't find an emailaddress or even a followerbutton on your blog. Don't know how to contact you but via this comment. I hope to get in touch with you and exchange thoughts, music and knowledge. At this moment I am part of the art komunitas Rumah Kahanan in Depok. I would really like to invite you here if you are in the neighbourhood to share your knowledge to our inhouse percussion music group Svara Samsara. They/we explore Indonesian traditional musik and instruments for their modern compositions as did the founder of our community mas late percussionist/drummer/composer Innisisri. (see for some of his compositions our youtube channel.
    Our email address is and on FB you can find us as Rumah Kahanan. On youtube as Rumah Kahanan aswell.
    I hope to hear from you soon. Best regards and keep on doing your great work. Terima kasih banyak Arjan

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