Monday, November 24, 2014

Tarawangsa: Sacred Strings in the Hills of Sumedang

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

Location: Ciwindu, North Sumedang, West Java

Sound: Tarawangsa

In distinct contrast to the gamelan Sunda, with its elaborate array of gongs and xylophones, tarawangsa music is a shockingly spare art form, pure and minimal. The music is played on just two instruments: the tarawangsa, a two stringed fiddle played upright like a rebab or small cello, and the jentreng, a seven-stringed zither (confusingly, the names of both instruments can be used to signify the musical genre as well.) These instruments are unique and inseparable - unlike other Sundanese instruments like suling or kecapi, the tarawangsa and jentreng are only played together, and only in a small handful of villages scattered throughout West Java, most famously in villages on the outskirts of Sumedang, a city to the west of Bandung in the heart of the highlands of Sunda.

Tarawangsa is often described as sacred music, and rightfully so - it is not the kind of Sundanese music that one might hear in a hotel lobby or a wedding party. The music is inextricably wrapped in elaborate ritual, and is almost always paired with an upacara adat, or traditional ceremony, usually connected to ancient animistic rituals related to spirits, fertility, and agriculture.

An integral part of this ritual is the trance dance which accompanies the tarawangsa music - men and women take turns getting swept up in the web of melody and rhythm that the two musicians weave, swaying and bobbing with long colorful scarves in a beautiful freeform dance which often results in the dancers becoming possessed. This possession takes many forms - I've seen old women stagger and sway as if drunk or having a seizure, and I've seen men transmit messages from the spirits within to the audience of friends and family members, sometimes through wailing and tears.

Tarawangsa compositions unfold as a captivating ten-to-twenty minute crescendo, beginning slow and melodic, the simple plucked strings of the jentreng providing a rhythmic and harmonic base for the soaring melodies, built on the typical Sundanese pentatonic scales of pelog, salendro, and madenda and played on one steel string of the tarawangsa. As the dancers fall into trance, the music becomes droning and percussive as the tarawangsa player begins simultaneously drawing his bow in harsh strokes across one string while plucking the drone string with his free hand. Just as the music and possession reach their peak, the musicians suddenly cut the trance short with a pluck of the jentreng, and the dancers awaken from their altered state.


It was nearing midnight when Kang Krisna stopped his motorcycle on the dirt road ahead of me, the sound of the motor and the glare of his headlight abruptly cut off. "Listen," he said in Indonesian. "You can hear it already."

We were only half an hour or bumpy driving from the main road with its truck convoys plowing through the night, but it already felt like we were in another world. I peered through the moonlit hills, searching for the source of the sound: an amplified keening of steel string pierced the cool air, floating over rice paddies and frogs croaking in the dark.

"Everyone is very excited that you are coming. The ceremony is over, but the music is just beginning."

The ceremony Kang Krisna had invited me to that night was called bubur suro, a ritual of thanksgiving for the rice harvest. Village women had spent the day preparing bubur, a kind of rice porridge steamed in a packet of leaves, the food representing both an offering to Dewi Sri, the goddess of rice fertility, and a symbol of past and future prosperity for the village. Now the midnight dance session would begin.

We drove on into the village, pulling up at a sparely lit wooden pavilion with village elders lining the outer edges. At the far end of the pavilion sat the two tarawangsa musicians, nearly invisible behind a massive display of offerings, from effigies and bamboo trays of vegetables to clusters of plastic water bottles (the energy of the music and ritual throughout the night would, I was told, supercharge the contents into holy water.) A cloud of thick, sweet smoke drifted from a bowl of incense, smelling of lavender.

After offering a humble two-handed handshake and greetings to every man in the room, I was asked with smiles and beckoning hands to sit on the bamboo mat surrounding the "dance floor" while being plied with coffee, snacks, and questions.

Meanwhile, the musicians played on, the sounds drifting amplified through the air as slow and sweet as the incense. As the piece continued, men would rise from conversation and drift from the perimeter, prostrating before the offerings, saying a prayer, and wrapping long, colorful scarves around their necks. Some men merely swayed in place, grasping at the ends of their scarf, while others moved about the room in the firm, aggressive yet graceful dance so particular to Sundanese men. Women watched and waited on their side of the pavilion, folded scarves rhythmically bobbing in their outstretched hands.

As the night wore on, the music worked its way through my ears and into something deep inside me. After numerous calls to join the dance, I found myself unable to refuse - suddenly I was scarf-wrapped and swaying with the others. While no spirit possessed me, the music somehow seemed to, my feet following the slow tempo of the jentreng's plucking, my arms, scarf in hand, rising and falling to the sound of the tarawangsa. I felt both self conscious and delighted as kneeling grannies giggled at me from the sidelines and men approached me again and again, draping me in more and more brightly colored scarves (a gesture, I can only hope, of welcoming, not ridicule.)

While the spirits may have felt reluctant to enter this bule's body, they seemed to readily enter others. My friend Kang Krisna spent hours in a glacial orbit around the room, eyes closed, as if some far off place. Other men had dramatically different reactions - at one point, an older man approached the pile of offerings and grabbed a kris, a kind of twisted dagger thought throughout Java to be loaded with mystical spirits. Shaking and grunting with wide eyes, the man pranced about the room, shaking the sheathed dagger over the heads of prostrated women as if squeezing a fruit of its juice. The women, clearly flustered, beckoned other men to sit between their side of the room and the dancing space, buffering them from the intensity of his possession.

Suddenly, one of these men, having taken a puff from a cigar from the pile of offerings, broke into a wailing sob, flinging his feet forward while women prayed over his body, holding his head in their arms. As powerful energies seemed to swirl through the room, the women took a batik sarong and held it over their heads as if cowering under a torrential downpour. The women too began to cry, palefaced and shaking. I hesitantly perched on the small stage's edge a safe distance away, confused, disturbed, and entranced all at once.

As the music reached its percussive crescendo, the man who had been parading with the kris collapsed as well, his friends hovering above him, holding his hands as his legs trembled before him. Suddenly, the music stopped, the silence somehow louder than the frogs outside. The men slowly sat up, as if from a dream, or a nightmare.

After Kang Krisna had awoken from his trance, I approached him and asked him about what I had seen that night. "Honestly, I'm not usually the type to fall into trance, but recently I've been feeling it's power more and more." He explained that when in trance, he feels as if something his moving his arms and legs for him, puppetlike. When asked to explain the crying, he suggested that perhaps the people were possessed by spirits of their ancestors, and that it was also possible that they were expressing regret for failing to obey adat, or traditional law and custom, in their daily lives.

While Krisna tried his best to help me make sense of that evening, I left feeling bewildered, as if I had stumbled upon something beyond my capability to understand. Maybe I wasn't meant to understand at all, and maybe I never will.

Notes on the recording: This recording isn't as "perfect" as I'd instinctively like it to be - the tarawangsa and jentreng are amplified through a primitive sound system, and more obviously, there is the sound of conversation throughout - you can clearly hear one of the village elders quizzing me on my life in Indonesia and my experience in Sumedang behind the sound of the tarawangsa. But I have to remind myself, and I'd like to remind you too, that the reason I don't record in the studio is because I want to record the sounds of Indonesian music as they exist in their natural habitat, in an aural environment as "natural" as possible. For much Indonesian music that is performative, the audience does not sit enraptured and silent as in a Western opera house - they chat, joke, and come and go as they please. Even for music as powerful and sacred as tarawangsa, the villagers in attendance can verge from chatty inattention to dancing entranced themselves, sometimes within the space of minutes. Something to keep in mind as you hear voices dance around the sound of fiddle and zither...

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Sounds of Sundanese Street Musicians, Pt. 1: Busking on the Fringes of Bandung

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

Location: Taman Hutan Raya, Bandung, West Java

Sound: Pop Sunda/Musik Jalanan (lit. Street music)

In Indonesia, sometimes you follow the music, and sometimes the music follows you. As I've previously discussed in my post detailing siter music in Central Java, the practice of busking takes quite a different form here as compared to the West - while Western buskers pick a spot in a well-trafficked public area and hope to catch the attention of passersby, Indonesian buskers make money on the move. These musicians usually work by roaming from warung to warung, playing a snippet of a song and then offering around a hat a plastic cup to the discretely disgruntled diners, who usually cough up a few hundred rupiah just to get the riff raff out of their hair.

Because of this technique, street musicians (or pengamen in Indonesian) have no particular imperative to be good - in fact, as I mentioned in my previous post, their technique is often to be so bad as to make their audience bribe them to go away. This leads to countless punks half-heartedly strumming Oasis songs on painfully untuned guitars and old beggar men walking from car to car at red lights, repeating the same sad, flat suling riff to each window.

Nonetheless, there are gems in the world of Indonesian street music. While cities like Jogja are more famous for the variety and nostalgia of their street music (keroncong groups and traditional instruments like siter are more likely to be found there), Bandung still has its occasional diamond in the rough, from surprisingly virtuosic violin and guitar players playing weirdly countrified duets to roving dangdut duos with electric guitar and handmade portable kendang, sometimes made from PVC pipe and tire rubber.

Wherever a crowd is to be found, undoubtedly pengamen will follow, whether it's a warung, a traditional market, or a volcano. This recording was made in a large, forested park on the northern fringes of Bandung, which shows that this street music needn't be on the street at all - the only requirement is large crowds of people willing to be pleased or annoyed enough into letting go of some coins.

While street music can vary from Western ballads to dangdut, this particular musician opted to play something with some local flavor - a song from the pop Sunda repertoire. Pop Sunda is a form of popular music, sung in the Sundanese language, usually heavy on synthesizers and other Western instruments but maintaining Sundanese melodies and often featuring Sundanese kendang and synthesized versions of traditional instruments.

In this stripped down acoustic cover of a song by pop Sunda artist Doel Sumbang, the musician transforms the upbeat, synth-driven track (extolling the virtues of Sumedang, a small but well-known city to Bandung's east) into a slow, almost mournful piece. It's interesting to note how in it's acoustic setting, the guitar performs its own emulation of other musical forms -  in the short melodic runs, the guitar sounds distinctly like a kecapi, the Sundanese zither, while in it's syncopated strumming, the nostalgic acoustic strumming of old time keroncong comes to mind. This clever street musician is clearly hitting his audience with something he knows they will respond to - nostalgia and ethnic pride.


Living on the northern outskirts of Bandung, it's comforting to know that peaceful, green respite is just a few minutes drive at any moment. One weekend a few months back, some friends and I decided to escape the traffic-clogged streets and head for the hills, hiking through the nearby pine forest and into the tourist favorite Taman Hutan Raya, a protected natural area popular with likeminded city folk looking for some fresh air and natural vibes.

As I wrote before, where there are crowds, buskers will follow, and on this day a few scrappy young men with even scrappier acoustic guitars were walking along the green paths of the park, approaching strolling groups and trying their luck. I'd wanted to start recording street music in Bandung for quite some time, but had always felt that the deafening environs and "play until they pay" technique of the musicians I usually encountered in the city never leant themselves towards an attempt. When I heard a musician playing this haunting, distinctively Sundanese song, I worked up the resolve to ask him to play it for me in full. After a short bemused conversation ("Where are you from? You like Sundanese music??"), he happily agreed.

Note: I regretfully forgot this guy's name after asking him, as I so often do. If any local musicians know him, please let me know!