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.

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