Thursday, August 21, 2014

Music of Mandar, Pt. 1: Gongga Lawe

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

Location: Tinambung, West Sulawesi

Sound: Gongga lawe (also called gongga labe or jarumbing)

As part of my work in collaboration with the Indonesian Mouth Harp Association (Asosiasi Harpa Mulut Indonesia), I've tried to seek out as much mouth harp music as I can throughout this great archipelago. For an enthusiast of the buzzing, earthy sound of the mouth harp, Indonesia is a wonderland: there are dozens of varieties scattered across the islands, taking myriad forms and connected to varying traditions.

After seeking out the karombi of Tanah Toraja, I headed towards the sunbaked coastal area called Mandar, home to the only other mouth harp tradition in South or West Sulawesi that I'm aware of. In form and function, the gongga lawe is almost identical to the Torajan karombi and a number of other string-pulled mouth harps around Indonesia. For a description of the form and playing technique, you can check out my description in the karombi post linked above.

Gongga lawe has not reached the level of revitalization of other Mandar folk instruments like calong, nor does it have the mystical, socially significant role of the Mandar kecaping. Like many other Indonesian mouth harps, gongga lawe is as much as simple diversion as it is a musical instrument: it was traditionally played, like the calong, as a way for Mandar farmers to amuse themselves while taking a break from the heat and toil of labor in the crops.

These days, very few people can still play gongga lawe, largely because such traditions have been left by the wayside in the face of a progressively modernising society. As usual, I was delighted to meet a craftsman and player of this instrument, as its future, like so many traditional musics, is in jeopardy.


The main inspiration for my trip to Mandar was this YouTube video highlighting a variety of Mandar musical instruments, including the gongga lawe. Excited by the find, I shared the video with my friends in the Indonesian Mouth Harp Association, who despite their meticulous cataloguing, knew nothing of the instrument. It seemed to me like a challenge: I had to go there.

A few months later, I found myself in Mandar, meeting with Muhammad Ridwan, the uploader of the YouTube video. An expert in traditional Mandar culture, Mas Ridwan hooked me up with some friendly local artists who helped me get in contact with Ka Musa, the gongga lawe player in the video.

When we first stopped by the wooden stilted home of Ka Musa, we found that he was not home at all, as he was out working in the fields. Ah, I thought, my narrative of crushing modernity in Mandar is being complicated!

We came back the next day and I was happy to find Ka Musa greeting us at the tiny portal. Wrapping a sarong below his red t-shirt and peci cap, Ka Musa proudly showed us his assortment of instruments, from the calong to gongga lawe and the related gongga lima. He proceeded to sit humbly on the planks of the wooden floor and share them with me. The gongga lawe he had made himself - later he showed me his method, carving the thin instrument from a long piece of bamboo. Just as Ka Musa was proud, I too was honored to meet and help document the work of this craftsman who is playing a vital role in keeping this endangered tradition alive.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Cigawiran in Cigawir: Devotional Sundanese Singing in the Countryside of West Java

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

Location: Cigawir, Garut Regency, West Java

Sound: Cigawiran

Living in West Java is a delight for a guy like me with a taste for the unique and obscure, as the music of this part of the island is mindbogglingly diverse: I've read some sources that state that there are upwards of 200 Sundanese musical genres scattered about the area. The phenomenon which allows such diversity in a relatively small place is how hyperlocal music can be here - often musical styles exist or survive in only one small village of the Sundanese countryside.

Cigawiran is one such hyperlocal treat. Named after Cigawir, the small village (kampung) in the sprawling rice paddies of Garut from which it comes, Cigawiran is an a cappella style of devotional Sundanese singing. The tradition can be traced back three hundred years to 1713, when the style first began to be developed in the pesantren (Islamic boarding schools) of Cigawir. Since then, Cigawiran has been passed down from generation to generation in a select few families in Cigawir.

While Cigawiran resembles the more widespread a cappella folk style called beluk and to an extent the vocals of the tembang Sunda genre, it is, as far as I know, the only such style that is centered on Islam. While beluk is more related to the mysticism of traditional Sundanese religion (Sunda wiwitan), Cigawiran is purely devotional music in content, with each song functioning somewhere between preaching and prayer.

Nothing is pure, however. While prayers are usually recited in Arabic, Cigawiran uses Sundanese, with bits and pieces of Arabic thrown in when a term may lose its specificity in Sundanese. The singing style too is full of Sundanese flavor, with the lyrics intoned in the unmistakable pentatonic scale called pelog. The style is unique for the range it requires, jumping octaves from low tones to notes that are unusually high for a male singer (Cigawiran is usually sung by men, but there are female singers as well.)


Strangely enough, I first heard of Cigawiran when I was in far off Sulawesi. An amazingly helpful Sundanese guy named Asep was living in Mandar helping with a community theater program, and he helped introduce me to some sayang sayang musicians in the area (more on that one in a later post!). One night as we talked about our homes back in West Java, Asep told me about a unique style of singing near his hometown of Garut. I was immediately curious, and Asep offered to help me seek it out as soon as we were both back in Sunda.

Last month, my girlfriend Sinta and I took a trip out to Cipanas, a hot spring resort area in the hills outside of Garut. While most ordinary folk would be content to bask in the romance of the natural hot springs and enjoy the quiet ambience of Garut's volcano-specked scenery, I have conditioned myself to equate holiday with music, so it was not long after we arrived that we were on the back of Asep and his friend's motorbikes, zipping into the countryside in search of Cigawiran.

After a few miles through glowing green rice paddies and down progressively awful roads (from asphalt to gravel to rocks and clay), we made it to Cigawir and the home of Pak Iyet Dimyati, the torchbearer of Cigawiran in the 21st century. After being invited into his surprisingly cushy home (comfortable couches in an Indonesian living room, what a surprise!), we settled in and chatted with Pak Iyet, who had emerged wearing a white peci cap and rubbing his eyes - we'd awkwardly interrupted a nap!

After Pak Iyet woke up a bit and graciously answered our questions (through a mad relay of Sundanese, Indonesian, and English), he sat cross-legged on his couch, put his hand to his ear, and sang for us. It was a rare occasion for me - there in his snug living room, all the usual sounds of motorbikes, chickens, and buzzing insects were absent, letting the remarkable weaving of Pak Iyet's singing voice fill the small space.

Terima kasih banyak Asep Holidin for the amazing help and translation and Sinta Dwi Mustikawati for diligent notetaking.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

The Bena Sunday Church Choir

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

Location: Bena, Central Flores

Sound: The Bena Sunday Church Choir (see below)


With most music I record and encounter in Indonesia, I have a sketchy knowledge at best about the music at hand, but in this encounter I'm left with presenting the reader a near total blank.

I recorded this track in the village of Bena, one of the most traditional Ngada villages in Flores. It's a fairly popular spot on the backpacking trail, and thus sees a fair amount of visitors, most visiting to see the ancient complex of megaliths at the heart of the village. While nearly all Ngada have been converted to Catholicism, the megaliths betray their animistic past and syncretic present - while the villagers sing "Hallelujah" on Sundays, they also occasionally sacrifice animals to the ancestral spirits and leave them at the megalithic stone altars.

I happened to stop by on a Sunday morning, just in time to catch a Sunday church service in one of the rugged thatched-roof houses for which Bena is famous. The villagers sat on the ground and in plastic picnic chairs and sang sweet hymns about which I know nothing: do they have a special Ngada character to them or are they stock Indonesian hymns? Especially in the second hymn on this recording (which sadly was cut off due to low disc memory on my recorder), I hear harmonies that seem to have a special something: Flores is famous for its polyphonic singing - could there be a connection?

As always, anybody who actually knows what they're talking about, please chime in with a comment! Everyone else, just enjoy the lovely sounds...

Searching for Sasando

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

Location: Ba’a, Rote

Sound: Sasando

A traditional tube zither of the Rotenese people, the sasando is embraced throughout Indonesia as a unique piece of cultural heritage. However, this unique instrument is found only on the small island of Rote, off the western coast of Timor in East Nusa Tenggara province. Famous as much for its appearance as for its sound, the sasando is made up of a bamboo tube with strings stretched from top to bottom, the strings raised with bridge-like wooden wedges which allow them to be tuned. The distinctive appearance of the sasando mostly comes from the half-shell of dried lontar palm that surrounds the tube and acts as a resonator.

Sasando is meant as a platform for oration – oral poetry sung in the local language, Bahasa Rote. As such, the playing is not flashy or even particularly melodic – it merely functions as a rhythmic and harmonic support upon which the player can lay down line upon line of lyrics.


For weeks as I traveled throughout East Nusa Tenggara, I had my eyes set on the small island of Rote, fueled by dreams of finding this unique instrument in its native habitat. Upon reaching West Timor, I boarded a ferry to Rote and a few hours later ended up in Baa, the port and largest town on the island. Not quite sure how to proceed in finding the music, I stuck my bag in a cheap hotel room and headed down to the quiet main street of the town. Grabbing some mie ayam (chicken noodle soup) at a small warung, I struck up conversation in Indonesian with another customer who, when told of my quest for sasando, offered to bring me to a local musician.

I clung to the back of his motorbike as we drove to the outskirts of town, pulling up in the yard of a home with goats gnawing on grass out front. An older man emerged from inside and, after exchanging a few words in the local language with my new friend, brought out a dusty old sasando. I was excited but skeptical, as the instrument seemed in pretty bad shape. As the man tried for ages to tune the unruly instrument, the trip began to seem like a bust – all I would find would be old men with broken old instruments, nearly forgotten. Eventually the man gave up on tuning his instrument and suggested we head to another nearby musician who was more likely to give us what we were looking for. After profuse thanks and apologies, we headed off again to another potential sasando player.

We pulled up outside a simple cinderblock home and, after a quick exchange between the locals in Rotenese, a musician brought his sasando out onto the porch and started tuning up. After offering some palm wine from a water bottle, the young man, whose name I regretfully did not record, sat down and shared a few short songs with us. Realizing at one point that I was taking pictures as well as recording, he went inside and came back in traditional costume, with a Rotenese sarong, simple blue shirt, and the bizarre sombrero-like ti’I langga, the traditional Rotenese hat, also made from the ever-important lontar palm. I found it interesting that music is often part of a larger cultural package including traditional dress, sombrero and all.

While I left fairly underwhelmed by the dry, simplistic sound of the sasando, I was nonetheless dazed by its bizarre construction. How could such fantastical looking instrument sound so dull? However, I was forced to remind myself of something ethnomusicologist Christopher Basile had warned me of before my trip: Rotinese art is oration based, so unless you've been working on your Rotinese, you're probably going to be missing a whole lot. With that said, there's only one solution - whip out your English-Rotinese dictionary and get to work!

Street Zither in Solo

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

Location: Surakarta (also known as Solo), Central Java

Sound: Siter

One of few stringed instruments found in Java, the siter is an 11-13 stringed box zither often used in traditional Javanese gamelan music (gamelan jawa.) The strings are plucked with the thumb nails while the other fingers follow along, dampening each note after it is played (although in this recording, the musician seems to allow the notes to ring free, which has a hazy, twangy effect.)

Usually siter is used as accompaniment for gamelan, but it is not uncommon to see it played as a solo instrument by street musicians (pengamen) in the cities of Central Java. The siter often acts in this context as a foundation for one or more singers (sinden) singing slow and graceful melodies in Javanese. In this recording, the sinden also provide a percussive foundation of rhythmic, interlocking clapping (keplok) as is often heard in Javanese gamelan and campursari music.


Sometimes you come to the music, and sometimes the music comes to you. On this balmy night in Solo, I was sitting in a humble warung enjoying some wedang ronde (a kind of ginger drink with peanut-filled dough balls), watching as one street musician after another came through and tried their hand at milking some rupiah out of their unreceptive audience. The street musicians of Indonesia, unlike in America, rove from place to place (usually stringing along from warung to warung), so their modus operandi is often to play so terribly that annoyed diners will be bothered enough to pay them to go away. Your usual act is street kids screaming along to an untuned ukelele or an old man apathetically playing a worn out bamboo flute.

This night was no different until in walked three older women, all wearing the traditional Javanese outfit of kebaya (blouse) and sarong. Two of the women wore a thick mask of makeup and their hair in the traditional fat bun called sanggul, while the third carried a purse under one arm and a siter under the other.

Sitting down amongst the tables of the warung, the women launched into song, the siter player flanked by her clapping, singing companions. Their technique was not to hold their audience hostage with atonal strumming until they could cough up some 100 rupiah coins. Rather, they seemed to aim towards pure nostalgia, hopefully awakening memories in the older diners of the times when such music was more commonplace, before the era of punk guitarists and dangdut music videos.