Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Street Zither in Solo

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

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.

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