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!


  1. I feel happiness to read the content that you are guitar effects

  2. An acoustic version of Kemayoran has been one of my favorite songs for over ten years. Yet I never knew the name or anything about its origin other than it was "Indonesian". THANKYOU for sharing all your good work!