Friday, October 24, 2014

Over the River and Through the Woods: In Search of Sape' in The Heart of Borneo

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

Location: Sungai Ting, Kayan Mendalam, Kapuas Hulu, West Kalimantan.

Sound: Sape' kayan (Literally "sape' of the Kayan", after the Dayak sub-ethnic group from which it originates.)

Of the various Dayak lutes that fall under the umbrella term sape, the sape' kayan is one of the least known and documented. While the instrument called sape' kenyah or simply sape', sampe, or sampeq is an international symbol of traditional music in Borneo (it is even the highlight of the world famous Rainforest World Music Festival in Kuching, Sarawak), the sape kayan exists on the fringes, rarely recorded or performed. In fact, before my visit to West Kalimantan, I had no idea it existed at all - I was searching for sape' kenyah, and was lucky enough to find it's ancient brother as well.

Despite sharing a name, the sape' kayan is distinctly different from its more well-known sibling in sound and construction. Described by Philip Yampolsky as looking like a "short-necked shovel" (in comparison to the boat-shaped sape' kenyah), it is carved from one piece of wood, with a squat hollow body, open in the back, out of which extends a short neck with three frets scalloped out of the wood. Unlike the sape' kenyah, which has up to five strings, the sape' kayan has only two - one acts as a drone while the melody is played on the other.

The instrument is played exclusively by the Kayan people, one of the myriad Dayak sub-groups found throughout Borneo. Originating in East Kalimantan, the Kayan came to the Kapuas Hulu area of West Kalimantan more than a hundred years ago in a mass migration, bringing their music with them. The sape' kayan seems to be used in the same contexts as its boat-shaped brother, providing accompaniment to dancing as well as for magical healing rituals.

Song notes:

"Lengilin" - Pak Paran described this tune as an accompaniment to a dance inspired a bird he called "manuk haluk", possibly a kind of eagle that lives in the jungles of Kalimantan. The slow, repetitive sound is meant to echo the deliberate, bird-like movement of the dancers.

"Healing Song" - This tune is meant to be played in conjunction with a ritualistic healing ceremony performed by a dukun, something like a "witch doctor." The Dayak believe that the sound of the sape' itself can have a mystical healing effect.


Ever since seeing videos of the massive boat-shaped sape' kenyah and hearing its sweet, droning sound, I'd wanted to go to Borneo to experience it for myself. With a week off for the annual Lebaran holiday, my travelling companion Sinta and I decided it was finally time to head deep into the heart of darkness in search of sounds.

After an indescribably long and arduous journey across the massive island, we finally reached Putussibau, the largest town in the Kapuas Hulu regency of West Kalimantan, an area renowned for its traditional Dayak culture. Renting a motorbike, Sinta and I headed off into the surrounding countryside with no guide or any particular idea where to find music.

A visit to Uluk Palin, a massive 200-year old Dayak longhouse twenty feet off the ground and hundreds of feet long, turned up empty - sape' was no longer played there, they told us. Go to Kayan Mendalam, one man said. There you will surely find sape' music.

Heading towards Kayan Mendalam, we'd occasionally stop and ask locals, lounging on the porches of their wooden stilted houses, where sape' music could be found. They'd point us towards the endless road ahead, saying "There's a musician in a village that's not far!" We'd proceed down endless gravel roads, passing nothing but forest and tall grass for ten, twenty steaming hot minutes, and then reach a riverside, where we'd have to load our motorbike onto a small wooden raft and get ported across and continue the bumpy journey anew. Put-putting across one placid river, I asked the raftsman about sape'. Pak Paran lives nearby, he said - he plays sape'. Was it actually near? Distance seemed to have a different meaning in the sprawling wilderness of this largely unpopulated area.

Finally we reached the small village where Pak Paran was said to live - Sungai Ting. After finding his house, an old man came around the side of the house, wiping dirt off his hands and looking curiously at his visitors. "Looking for sape', huh? Come on in!"

Pak Paran went to get his instrument, and when he returned I was confused - the instrument looked nothing like the sape' kenyah I had seen and heard so much. "This is a sape' kayan", he explained - "I made it myself." Sitting on the floor of his largely empty wooden house, under pictures of Jesus and family members of in traditional Dayak garb, Pak Paran smoked a kretek and told us proudly about the music of his people. "Kids these days don't care about Dayak art anymore - they just watch television and drink", he lamented. "I'm one of the few left here who play this music."

After some small talk and a tune up, Pak Paran played a number of short pieces for us, stopping between each one to explain the meaning - this one is about a bird, this one is for dancing, this one is for healing. One tune, he explained, was even said to be played in the past to raise the dead. The sound was so different from the sweetness of the sape' kenyah - it was minimal, raw, sounding dusty with age. I was enthralled. This wasn't what I'd been looking for, but it was an accidental discovery which made the long trek across rivers and jungles seem like a small price to pay.

Thanks to Jesse Clark for lending his mixing expertise to the problematic recording of Pak Paran's healing song!

Friday, October 10, 2014

Tingkilan: Gambus Fusion in East Kalimantan

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

Location: Samarinda, East Kalimantan

Sound: Tingkilan

In the long list of Indonesian music instruments, the gambus is something of an outlier - it is played across the lengths of Indonesia, from Sumatra to Solor, a uniquely massive stretch for a country with such heterogeneous musical traditions. And then there is its foreignness: in tone and shape, the gambus closely resembles the Middle Eastern oud, the classic pear-shaped lute so common in Arabic music. In fact, musicologists have traced the gambus back to the qanbus, a similar instrument originating in Yemen which spread across the Arabian peninsula. Because of these Arabic roots, the gambus is largely thought of as a "Muslim" instrument, even when the music has no religious content. Interestingly, the ethnomusicologist Philip Yampolsky has suggested that it is often allowed by conservative Muslims when other secular music is forbidden.

In East Kalimantan, the coastal people called Kutai have played the gambus for as long as anyone can remember. Combined with drums and singing, the Kutai call their gambus music tingkilan, or when accompanied by dance, jepen (also the name for the dance itself.) I came to Samarinda expecting to meet a traditional tingkilan group, but what I found was perhaps even more interesting.

The group I met, while proud of their music and heritage, were not purists. The style of tingkilan they played was distinctly modernized, but not via synthesizers and drumkits. Rather, the gambus had been combined with ukulele, cello, and Javanese kendang drums in a synthesis with kroncong, the syncretic Portuguese-influenced early pop music originating in Java. Asfi, the leader of the group that I recorded, explained that tingkilan had been fused with kroncong music as early as the 1950s, with the notion that the added rhythm and harmony would make for a more interesting sound.

The combination was like something I'd never heard before - gambus has often been played in ensembles called orkes gambus in a style that very closely mimics Arabic music - orkes gambus tapes even regularly feature Indonesian men wearing thawbs on their covers. It was odd and amazing, then, to hear it in this distinctly de-Arabized fusion, with the rhythmic ukulele, percussively slapped cello, and crooning vocals so strongly recalling the Portuguese-Javanese flavor of kroncong.

Through a cooperative effort with my school here in Bandung, I quite suddenly found myself teaching English at a natural gas refinery in East Kalimantan for one month. Before my trip, I looked into the music of the area - I was curious whether there was any culture at all in this part of Kalimantan, famous for being a province utterly engulfed by industrial behemoths like mines, oil rigs, and palm oil plantations, not to mention the refinery for which I'd be working. I was happy to stumble upon tingkilan music, and made it my mission to track some down while I was working.

Upon making it to Bontang, however, I found that perhaps this was not the perfect place for a culture lover. The industry of East Kalimantan has made it a melting pot of ethnic groups from all over Indonesia - Bugis, Banjarmasin, and Javanese people all make their way there in search of riches. While this sounds great, for a music hunter it spells trouble - none of these folks brought their music with them, and the local Kutai population has diminished, along with their traditional music.

Luckily, I met Asfian Nur Gusprada, a young musician based out of Samarinda, the capital of the province. One bored weekend, I made a promise to Asfi (as he prefers to be called) that I would come out to meet him and record his tingkilan group.

My students from the natural gas company dropped me off at Asfi's families house, and although it was my first time there, I knew instantly that we'd found the reight place: the sounds of electrified gambus was booming out of the house and into the neighborhood. A dance rehearsal was in full swing, with young girls playing dancing in unison in a large mirrored room full of instruments. The gambus was playing along with electric bass and a modified drum kit decked out with frame drums. I was intrigued but mildly disappointed - was this tingkilan music?

After the rehearsal, I talked to Asfi and he explained that he had an acoustic ensemble that would be more to my liking - they just had to rehearse and then they'd be ready to perform. Asfi introduced me to his group - all very young, probably still teenagers (Asfi himself is only nineteen) and quite a few not even Kutai - one was from Banjarmasin, another Javanese. Asfi explained that his is a musical family - his mother is a dance teacher, his father also a musician. His generation is keeping the spirit of Kutai music alive, while also playing, curiously enough, Dayak music, even travelling to Europe to share Dayak music and dance (but, oddly enough, not the Kutai music - is it not exotic enough for European audiences?)

After a quick rehearsal, we headed up to the now empty dance studio and Asfi's group, shy but exceedingly professional and talented, went through a number of their unique kroncong-influenced songs. As I watched them play, I felt proud: while I love meeting ancient musicians with one boney foot stuck in the past, I have to stop myself from seeing old folks playing old music as the image of "authentic" Indonesian music. Here were six young Indonesians, undoubtedly bumping Rihanna on their cellphones and going to the mall in their spare time, but nonetheless putting their heart and time into keeping a shrinking tradition alive.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Sayang Sayang - Guitar Music of West Sulawesi

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

Location: Outside Tinambung, Mandar Regency, West Sulawesi

Sound: Sayang sayang

When it comes to traditional music here in Indonesia, it can often be hard to get the facts straight, even if you ask the musicians themselves. There is little information about the origins of sayang sayang, a style based around the uniquely fingerpicked guitar played by the Mandar people of West Sulawesi. The name itself comes from the typical refrain of a sayang sayang song - "sayange, sayange!" (Darling, darling! in the Mandar language.)

Other than that, things get sketchy. The musicians I met said it all started when the Spanish brought guitars to Sulawesi more than a hundred years ago. But wait a second, the Spanish? The Portuguese all well-known to have spread the guitar around the archipelago, while the Spanish mostly stayed away from the colonies. Nonetheless, the musicians were adamant- it was the Spanish.

Next, how did such a style emerge? All it takes is an open ear and a decent knowledge of Indonesian music to hear similarities to the hybrid Portuguese-Indonesian kroncong music of Java, with it's rhythmic string instruments and syncopated basslines. Did sayang sayang come from kroncong, I asked? No, connection, they said. The style, they said, started spontaneously in the beginning of the 20th century. But one of the main songs/picking styles of the sayang sayang reportoire (and the song I share with you here) is called "Kemayoran", also the title of a well known kroncong song, named after a neighborhood of Jakarta! It must be a coincidence, they said. After some confused queries, the group leader was willing to concede that their bass player may have individually been influenced by kroncong basslines, but no more than that!

These days, I was told, all sayang sayang groups have gone electric to better accommodate the large wedding parties and other gigs - gone are the days of acoustic guitar (what they call gitar angin - literally wind guitar.) A typical group consists of two electric guitars - one strumming rhythmic cords, while the other melodically fingerpicks - one bass and at least two singers, preferably a man and a woman. The fingerpicked guitar is the true heart and soul of the music - sayang sayang music is even categorised not by song, per se, but by picking style or pattern - there are, according to the group we met, around eight picking styles/patterns in all, each requiring a unique tuning.

While the intricate picking style may be my favorite aspect of sayang sayang, surely the most unique ingredient is the singing - the male and female vocalists trade off improvising lyrics about the audience in a stream of consciousness designed to get folks to come up to the stage and throw down some bills for the musicians. This back and forth, because of its improvised nature, can stretch sayang sayang songs into all-night affairs - the group I met bragged that sayang sayang music features the longest songs in the world -sometimes hours and hours of endlessly looping instrumental parts and refrains.


Just like Batang Hari Sembilan, I first heard the Mandar guitar music of sayang sayang on the amazing Indonesian Guitars album from the legendary Music of Indonesia series recorded and curated by my ethnomusicological hero, Philip Yampolsky. Yampolsky and his crew had headed out to Mandar in the nineties and laid down some great tracks (acoustic, interestingly enough!), but as far as I know, no other foreigners had bothered to head out to those parts and look for more. The Mandar regency is an obscure corner of a massive island more famous for the death-obsessed Torajans of the south and the world class diving of Bunaken in the Nortth - few people make the trek to experience a hot, steamy coastal fishing area with no tourist attractions other than sailboats.

What Mandar is missing in concrete tourist destinations, it more than makes up for in rich cultural heritage. The Mandar are a proud people, and they've stuck to their culture and music more than most ethnic groups that I've met in Indonesia. It was surprisingly easy to meet a sayang sayang group - my friend Asep (who later introduced me to Cigawiran music in Garut) introduced me to the group Siasayangngi, said to be one of the best in the area.

After stopping by unannounced at the leader's wooden stilted house, the group's leader kindly invited us to record them a few days later in his living room. Coming on schedule at the appointed time, we felt the disorienting affects of what Indonesians call jam karet - rubber time, the flexible approach to time found all across the archipelago. After a few hours sitting on the wooden slats of the living room floor, munching on cookies and listening to chickens fight down below, the group had been assembled.

As the band played, sound booming through the too-large soundsystem in the cramped living room, the mic was passed back and forth between the singers while the singers traded off improvising lyrics about Asep and me. As they were singing in the Mandar language, I didn't catch much more than "Amerika" and the Indonesian phrase kaca mata (glasses), but it was later translated roughly for me as something along the lines of "Hey there, American guy, hey guy in the glasses! Welcome to Mandar, we hope you enjoy it! Please marry a Mandar woman and settle down here!" It was a moment I'll never forget - sitting in that living room, listening to this delightful music that just so happened to be all about me!