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.