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.

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