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.

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