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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!