Sunday, June 7, 2015

Lampa Lampa Lombok, Pt. 2: Cotton Candy Music

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

Location: Kembang Kerang, East Lombok

Sound: Gule gending (also known as kecumping)

Indonesia is a loud place. In the city, the air is filled with the honking of horns, the blat-blat of un-muffled motorbike engines, and the regular, deafening battle of mosques pumping their call to prayer through loudspeakers, each one competing to outdo the others in an odd sonic arms race. Even in the village, cicadas buzz like dial-up modems, roosters crow, and the inescapable motorbike blat-blat continues.

It takes a certain craft to even be noticed within this ever-present din. Itinerant salesmen, hawking everything from noodles to brooms, have found unique ways to make their presence known to potential customers: there's the tok-tok of wood on wood, the clang-clang of spoon against ceramic bowl, the donk-donk of a small gong hanging from a food cart. There's even a guy who coasts through my neighborhood with Chinese meat-filled buns loaded on the back of his bike, a recording looping a monotone call-to-eat: "Bakpao, bakpao. Bakpao, Bakpao..." These sounds become like primitive jingles, sonic symbols signifying fast approaching treats.

On the island of Lombok, some cotton candy salesmen have taken this tradition from a pragmatic sales tool to something more like art. In villages across the island, a unique call-to-eat can be heard from far-off footpaths, a sound like gamelan being played on Trinidadian steel drums: the gule gending.

It's a remarkable marriage of form and function, the gule gending. A roughly horseshoe-shaped container curves around the salesman's waist, suspended from the neck by a length of fabric. On top are two caps the size of saucers. Lift one, you find a shallow stash for money - the cash register. Lift the other, and, if you're lucky, you'll find a fluffy, pink mountain of cotton candy (in Lombok called gule) bursting from the hollow hold within.

Gule gending in Pringgasela, E. Lombok - the only one I encountered in use on the street. It was a low-quality zinc version that was completely untuned.

The magic of the gule gending, other than the sweet treat hidden inside, is what spans the curving exterior - six tins, made of the same stainless steel or zinc as the body, and looking equally utilitarian. Indeed, the tin to the farthest right acts as handy storage, but the other five carry the gule gending away from the culinary world and into the musical. With a gentle tap to the top, each empty tin sings with the bright metallic plong of a steel drum. Played together, these five tins, perfectly fitting the five-tone pentatonic scale favored in Sasak music, are just enough to play melodic tunes called gending, borrowed from the reportoire of age-old gamelan pieces. With the gong-like caps being occasionally struck with a spare thumb for a percussive flare, the gule gending transforms into a remarkable, distilled approximation of the familiar gong and xylophone gamelan ensemble.

Like so many Indonesian instruments, the gule gending has a fascinating, hyper-local history. Dating back to pre-independence era of the 20s and 30s, the instrument emerged from Kembang Kerang, a small village in the fertile, tobacco growing lands at the foot of Gunung Rinjani in East Lombok. While so many origin stories are lost in obscurity, the gule gending can be traced confidently by modern-day salesmen to one man: Pak Sahadap. The prototypes that this clever saleman produced were primitive in comparison to today's, literally using cookie and frying oil tins, two or three in all. With only a handful of notes at their disposal, early gule gending players likely just played a rhythmic approximation of gong patterns. In the sixties, however, the instrument evolved to its current form, with five (plus one "dead" tin) purpose-built zinc or stainless steel tins tuned through a mysterious process of adding and subtracting dents and grooves to the tin's flat surface with a wooden stick.

Back in those days, the tunes played by the gule gending had a ritual and meaning that seems to have been largely forgotten. One tune, "Semarang," would be used to announce the beginning of the salesman's rounds. Other songs would be played to fit certain contexts within the a day of sales: "Turun Tangis" ("Beginning to Cry") would be played if a child cried to their mother for cotton candy, while "Tempong Gunung" ("Crossing the Mountain") might be played if a salesman was forced to scramble up a mountain in search of customers.

These decades past were likely gule gending's heydey - the instrument became so popular, it would even be played outside of the context of sales, with three musicians leading the traditional Sasak wedding procession called nyongkolan. Countless Sasaks I spoke to told me with nostalgic smiles that the sound of the gule gending brought them back to their childhood, when the candy and its music could be found regularly all across the island. These days, like so many other traditional arts, gule gending is receding into the shadows. A dozen or so musicians still make their rounds, with only a handful able to make and repair the instrument as well.

Tuning the gule gending with a specially carved wooden tool

As rain poured down, I carried my gule gending through claustrophobic footpaths lined by homes and informal housefront shops. I played as I walked, leaving a wake of confused smiles, amused laughter, and disappointed children expecting candy. After one final turn, I made it to what seemed to be the informal headquarters of a union of cotton candy salesmen. Pak Lalu Satrun was outside, stooping with a sarong wrapped around his waist. He looked surprised to see me. "What are you doing here?" he asked. My instrument had a worrying buzz, I told him. "Come on in."

Inside, his home was stark with poverty - cold concrete floors were covered by a single bamboo mat, a handful of gule gendings strewn about. Pak Satrun and his roommate, another old, impossibly weathered man, had just returned from their daily rounds at sundown. They were already preparing for the next hard day, with molten sugar boiling in a large wok in a corner, giving off a delicious aroma of caramelization. Apologizing for bothering him, I explained my issue to Pak Satrun - I was going home to Bandung the next day, and my gule gending was already broken. He was the only man I knew who could repair it, so I'd hunted him down.

This was not the first time I'd searched for Pak Satrun. Days earlier, on the other side of the island, I'd rolled into Kembang Kerang, the tiny epicenter of gule gending. Armed with just his name and an exceedingly helpful guide, I'd managed to find his family's home. Bemused but proud to have someone come to him, Pak Satrun had sat on the floor of his living room with me and satisfied my curiosity with stories of the history of gule gending. In his seventies, Pak Satrun was the fourth generation of musician salesmen to come out of Kembang Kerang, and he was said to be the most skillful player. After recording a few tunes, my fascination turned to obsession and I had bought his instrument right there for an embarrassing sum.

That should have been our last meeting, but after a few local friends loose with rice wine beat it a little too hard, my gule gending came down with a worrying buzz. Pak Satrun had explained that three weeks out of the month, he lived with other candy salesmen in a community near Mataram, Lombok's capitol, in order to be closer to a larger customer base. It was there that I found him again, smiling and confused.

Using the fiercely hot flame under the wok of molten sugar, Pak Satrun heated a metal tool till it was firey red, then aimed it at the crease between the problem tin and the body, closing a hole that had been responsible for the buzz. Working with a steady focus, he looked as assured and skilled in welding as he did in playing his homemade instrument.

After fixing my problem, I assumed Pak Satrun would send me off and take a rest. Instead, he and his partner took the next half hour to demonstrate the ingenious, hand-spun method of making their cotton candy product. I ended up sitting beside a massive pile of pink cotton candy, Pak Satrun playing gule gending by my side, soaking in the same two questions that often enter my mind in my adventures: 1) How the hell did I end up here? and 2) How have these brilliant, hardworking men become so forgotten?

Special thanks of course to Pak Satrun, but also to Fathul, whose fantastic blog post led me to him, and Fathul's friend Salman, who acted as cheerful guide and intermediary in the awkward negotiations of buying a big, rare instrument.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Lampa Lampa Lombok, Pt. 1: Genggong in Gunungsari

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

"Lampa lampa" is the Sasak language equivalent of bahasa Indonesia's "jalan jalan", which means wandering or exploring an area. This is the first in a series of recordings I've made on two wandering music-hunting trips to the fascinating island of Lombok.

Location: Gelangsar Village, Gunungsari District, West Lombok

Sound: Genggong Sasak

The musicians sat cross-legged in the beruga, that ubiquitous bamboo hang-out hut found throughout every corner of Lombok. A single bulb cast light on their weathered faces from above - all outside of the hut was dark, chirps and echos coming from the fish ponds and forests nearby. From the darkness came a sound: croak. A solitary frog in the night, singing out. Croak croak. Another frog joined nearby, filling in the gaps. Croak croak, croak croak. Suddenly, a single cry became a chorus, the rhythmic bubbling of frog calls becoming a wall of sound in the night.

The musicians seemed not to listen, but surely they knew: this was the genesis, it's been told, of their craft: genggong, the mouth harp of the Sasak people of Lombok. Perhaps inspired by the bubbling, interlocking sounds of their amphibian neighbors, the Sasaks of centuries past had crafted this beautiful instrument, so similar to other mouth harps found throughout Indonesia, yet also so beautifully rooted in its place of birth.

I've encountered other nearly identical mouth harps in my travels, from the karombi of the Toraja people to the gongga lawe of the Mandar people of West Sulawesi, but none have been so exquisitely crafted: its handle (called ekor, or the tail) is made of folded, dried Lontar palm leaf, bound by rattan string and tied to the body of the instrument, which is carved from the wood of the enau palm. Delicately carved from this main body is the lidah, or tongue, whose vibration supplies the fundamental tone (the musicians gleefully described the long, thin tip of this vibrating tongue as kemaluan laki - literally "male genitals"!) This tongue is set into motion by a firm tug on a string, itself crafted from pineapple leaf, which is attached to the body of the instrument. The string is cleverly attached to a handy stylus, carved from bamboo, which allows for firm and steady pulling.

Similar to many other musics from Java to Lombok, the music for genggong is built from interlocking parts - a single melody is split up and shared by at least two instruments. Because of this, formal genggong tunes (called gending) require at least two musicians to be played. These two root instruments are conceptualized as ibu and anak - mother and child, with the mother playing the lower, louder tones and the child filling in the rest. Together this familial duo splits six tones, described to me as "dang, ding, dong, dung, deng, and ting." Each tone has a special character and role - for instance, I was told that dong is similar to the tone of the gong in gamelan music.

In a story that is tied with bizarre consistency to mouth harp music around South East Asia, from West Java to Vietnam, the genggong was originally a tool for courtship - any boy who wanted a chance with the girls back in the day had to have a genggong and the skills to woo the ladies. Even girls could make and play genggong, showing that this mouth harp courtship went both ways. In its ensemble form, genggong music has always been purely for amusement, with no sacred properties, although I was told in the past it was tied in with lunar eclipse rituals and wedding ceremonies.

The current status of genggong is of a quiet, hesitant revival - the elders are getting together to play in a way that they hadn't in years past, but the young folks still show little interest. While in the past genggong could be found across the island, it is now found in only a handful of villages around West Lombok (the group I recorded claimed to be the last in Lombok, although that claim was later contested by other musicians I spoke to elsewhere on the island.)

Song Notes:

The songs (called gending in Lombok) that make up the reportoire for genggong are unique to the instrument - there are sixteen in total. While there are obviously no lyrics, each melody is paired with a title and an accompanying story. The first track here, "Layang Senang" (Happiness), has an accompanying story that was told to me like this: Long ago, there was an old man who lived in the forest, acting as the guardian of the place. One day, while the old man was in the forest playing genggong, a young man approached and, drawn to the sound, asked its name. The old man replied that the music was called genggong. The young man was so delighted by the sound, he was moved to give a name to the tune the forest guardian was playing: "Happiness."

The next track, "Petemoan" ("Heritage of the Ancestors") tells the story of two groups of Sasaks, one from the western mountains, one from the eastern mountains. The groups heard each other playing genggong across the island and came together in the middle to meet. In this way, the music of genggong was able to bring the ancestors together.


After a month languishing in Bandung dreaming of adventure, I began dreaming of returning to Lombok, an island I'd visited twice in years before. On those earlier trips, I'd found it to be absolutely brimming with amazing music, and couldn't wait to go back and see what I'd missed.

With the name of a village and nothing more, I flew to Praya International Airport in the center of the island, shared a taxi with some Bandung bros on holiday to Senggigi, then rented a motorbike and sped off into the countryside as fast as the little scooter and unpaved roads would allow. After a short drive on roads winding through massive groves of bamboo and followed by the low mountains neighboring Mt. Rinjani, I pulled up on a muddy, rocky path into the village of Gelangsar. A friendly local brought me to the village head, who gave me my blessing and sent me on the way to the home of Pak Baharuddin, the head of the village's genggong group.

A saronged and smiling old man, Pak Baharuddin sat me down in his bamboo beruga while I tried to explain how I'd heard of his obscure little genggong group (how to explain YouTube to an old man who's probably never used a computer?) He was delighted with my interest and immediately offered to fetch the elders who made up his ensemble, some from neighboring hamlets.

As the day turned to night, the elders assembled, equally saronged and smiling. Genggongs and glasses of hot, bitter coffee were spread amongst them while I quizzed them on their tradition, with a friendly intermediary translating from their Sasak language to Indonesian. While Pak Baharuddin whipped out a guestbook and bragged off the foreigners who had come to investigate their agriculture and development, he insisted that I was the first soul to come searching for genggong.

With the frogs gurgling in the background, the musicians eventually picked up their tools, put them to weathered lips, and with firm, syncopated tugs of the string, unleashed a strange and amazing cloud of melodic overtones. Between songs, they would turn and spit enthusiastically into the dark, then, placing the genggong to lips, resume again. In those brief, spitting interludes, you could hear - the frogs had gone silent, that burbling slot in the soundscape occupied by a new, wooden croaking.

Special thanks to the musicians, Pak Sahman, Pak H. Jalaludin, Pak Rafi'i, Pak Darmali, and Pak Jemurah, as well as their leader Pak Baharuddin, the helpful Pak Mahri, and Mas Dedy for letting me sleep in his beruga. 

Monday, April 27, 2015

Central Sulawesi Sounds: Solo Karambangan

Photo Credit: Greg Ruben

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

Location: Leboni, Poso, Central Sulawesi

Sound: Karambangan

For a description of the history and sound of karambangan music, check out my previous post on karambangan here. As I mentioned in that post, karambangan music began in Central Sulawesi as a solo guitar music played by young men to woo girls (sound familiar?). While through the decades it flourished into an ensemble artform, the stripped-down original sound, just voice and guitar, can still be heard as well.


The house in Leboni was full of manly, manly men. Pak Adris, the patriarch of the household, wore a policeman's moustache on his lip and a machete on his belt. He regaled me with stories of spearing wild boars in the nearby jungle, carrying them back home over two mountains on his shoulders. His relative, Pak Yordan, seemed equally tough, with a thick body and a tough looking face. He had, his family members boasted, singlehandedly built the house in which we were staying. He had even led the village of Leboni as village head in years past.

He also, it turned out, had the voice of an angel.

I was taken aback when I first heard it. I'd already heard him play countless songs with the group, sitting back and strumming on his comically small homemade kulele, looking like a bear playing a tiny guitar while trying desperately not to break the thing. His voice, then, had blended invisibly into the hymn-like harmonies. Later that night, after the recording session was over, Pak Yordan sat forward with his guitar and began to sing on his own, his voice surprisingly high and sensitive. I was taken aback. What is that song? I asked. It's about a man who has to choose between two girls, he told me. He was singing in the Pamona language, so I didn't catch a word, but his tone had told me so much already.

It was raining too hard that night, the sound of showers on the wooden roof drowning his quiet voice out, so we arranged to record his song the next day. The following afternoon, we met in the living room he'd built with his bare hands so many years ago. It was dark and swarming with bees, and cicadas screamed from the jungle outside. While the relentless cicadas could not be stopped, the family - gossiping mamas and rowdy kids, all stopped and were silent as he played his sad song again, the melody looping as he intoned countless poetic refrains about love in a language I'll never know.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Central Sulawesi Sounds: Karambangan

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

Location: Leboni, Poso, Central Sulawesi

Sound: Karambangan

Of the twenty albums released as part of Smithsonian Folkways' seminal album series Music of Indonesia (probably the inspiration for my ongoing musical quest), one album has stood out as a popular favorite: Indonesian Guitars. Forsaking the exotic gongs and lutes of other albums in the series, it shines a spotlight on the variety of ways this quintessentially western instrument has been appropriated to brilliant affect by Indonesian musicians, from Batang Hari Sembilan music of South Sumatra to the kroncong-esque Sayang Sayang of Mandar, West Sulawesi. I still remember listening to this album on repeat before my move to Indonesia, transfixed by the simultaneous accessibility and total foreignness of the music heard within.

Driven by a fascination by all things that slip between the cracks, I became obsessed with researching other indigenous guitar styles left off that album. One such genre immediately grabbed my attention: karambangan. While there is little information on the internet about the style (and literally, last time I checked, nothing in English), I found YouTube to be littered with gems like this, little windows into a part of Sulawesi where men fingerpick sweet melodies on guitars to haunting vocal harmonies. I had to go there and find it for myself.

"There", it turns out, was quite a trek away from my home in Java: Poso in Central Sulawesi, that floppy-limbed island that hugs the Philippines as much as it does Borneo. Poso is a name that all Indonesians know for all the wrong reasons: sectarian violence tore the region apart at the turn of the 21st century, with Christian and Muslim militias terrorizing each other for years with dire consequences. Hundreds of people were murdered, with the violence finally ceasing, for the most part, by 2005.

It's hard to imagine something as sweet as karambangan, with its humbly picked guitars and sweet harmonies, coming from a place haunted by such darkness. Perhaps its sweetness comes from simpler times, with its roots being traced back by its current practitioners to the early decades of the 20th century. It started simply enough, with locals picking up guitars brought by Portuguese traders and using them to woo girls with heartfelt love songs.

From there, the history (as usual, it seems) gets sticky - the chords and melodies are undoubtedly Western in origin, but from what direction it seems hard to prove. The Western tonality is probably Portuguese in origin, but whether that came straight from the traders in Central Sulawesi or from the Javanese-Portuguese hybrid kroncong music that swept the nation starting in the 20s and 30s is not entirely clear.

Similarly tangled is the origins of the karambangan's homemade ukeleles (the group I met in Leboni played two, one they called juk and one they called kulele, both of which were fretless, with the kulele being constructed ingenously out of the bottom of a tin can with a hand-carved wooden neck nailed to it's side!) While it's likely that these, too, were inspired by the nation's keroncong craze, it's also possible that they were inspired by the later Hawaiian music boom of the 60s and 70s.

In the 70s, three part harmonies, almost unheard of in most Indonesian music, came to dominate the sound, likely brought in from the hymns sung in the area's hundreds of churches (the Poso area is Christian by a large majority.) Later developments include the adaption of local folk instruments like the geso-geso, a one-stringed bowed instrument played by the local Pamona people, and the seruling, a bamboo flute.

While it is this thick instrumental tapestry that first catches outsiders' ears, those who play and enjoy karambangan music in Central Sulawesi see this instrumentation as a plate on which to serve the main course, the kayori poetic verses which sometimes stretch the songs, three chords repeating cyclically, into the 10-minute territory. The topic, I was told, can be anything from love to faith to fate. For those of us who don't speak the local Pamona and Rampi languages, we're simply left to soak in the harmonies.

(This video was shot by myself and my good friend Greg Ruben, who skillfully edited it with some footage of the surrounding area.)


In one of my long, late night treks through YouTube in search of musical gold, I came upon this video of a karambangan group sitting around a table playing and singing their hearts out. As soon as I saw it I knew I had to meet them, and after dropping a YouTube comment and getting an enthusiastic reply, I had been invited to do just that. The uploader of the video got me in touch with the group and told me that they were making plans for our arrival (I was travelling with my friend, Greg, who was visiting from the states) - all we had to do was choose where we wanted to stay - in the village or next to the waterfall? It wasn't a hard choice.

After a drive from Palu to Poso made tense by news of a recent presence of ISIS in the mountains nearby, Greg and I arrived safe in sound in Leboni, a small, scrappy village stuck to the edge of the massive Lake Poso. After we met our new hosts, we were sped on motorbikes to our new home for the next few days, a charming, stilted wooden house situated in a cacao farm within spitting distance of the area's famous Saluopo waterfall.

Leboni, our hosts told us, was made up almost entirely of transmigrants from a nearby regency, members of the tiny Rampi ethnic group who were nearly all literally one big family, cousins marrying cousins and all. The karambangan group, unsurprisingly, was itself a family band, with two generations of fathers, sons, uncles and nephews playing together.

After serving us up some hearty babi hutan (wild boar) and squash stew, the family almost immediately broke out their instruments and, settling along the porch that stretched the length of the house, broke out in song. Palm wine flowed and those three chords cycled endlessly into the night as my dreams of karambangan were finally realized.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Musical Eavesdropping in Banyuwangi

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

Location: Kemiren, Banyuwangi Regency, East Java

Sound: Kenthulitan

From the large metallic slenthem of Javanese gamelan to the bamboo calung of West Java, xylophones are everywhere in Java. Rarely, however, are they played unaccompanied - almost always they play a supporting role in a larger tapestry of sound. In a small village near Banyuwangi, East Java, a mysterious xylophone can be found, it's sound and construction possessing an austere, simple purity: the kenthulitan.

The kenthulitan is an instrument that has only recently emerged from the humble obscurity of the paddy-side huts of Banyuwangi. I heard of it first from Pak Aekanu, a government employee working in the Department of Culture and Tourism in Banyuwangi city. A passionate researcher, Pak Aekanu proudly proclaimed himself as the "discoverer" of kenthulitan - before he stumbled upon the instrument, it was perhaps known only to those farmers who played it in the small villages outside of Banyuwangi, unresearched, undocumented, and unappreciated.

The kenthulitan is remarkably simple in construction: a small, hollowed out log, functioning as a base and resonator, is lined with keys made from slivers of bamboo, nine notes forming the pentatonic salendro scale favored by the Osing people of the area. In form it is very similar to a number of other simple xylophones, from this seemingly extinct instrument found by Randy Raine Reusch in the mountains of Bali, to children's "sarons", small, toy-like instruments constructed of cheap metal and sold in souvenir shops around Java.

According to Pak Aekanu, what sets it apart from other similar instruments is the way in which it is played: rather than using the one handed technique so common amongst other Javanese xylophones (with the other hand used to dampen the resonant metal bars), the kenthulitan is played with two wooden hammers simultaneously. In gamelan ensembles, the manual damping required to reduce a xylophone's resonance has led to a system in which melodies are shared between two instruments in a hocketing pattern, making up for the relative slowness of one-handed playing. With the kenthulitan, the sharp, dry sound of wood on bamboo allows for this shared melody to be played singlehandedly, so to speak, with two hammers - no damping necessary.

Just like the angklung paglak I encountered in the same village, kenthulitan music has its roots in hot, lazy afternoons spent paddy-side. Farmers wile away the hours beating out simple tunes, some drawn from the reportoire of barongan music. Their venue: austere thatched huts called gubug; their audience: the birds, the trees, perhaps their fellow farmers. It is an introverted, unpretentious tradition, music for music's sake.

Kenthulitan, like other under-appreciated folk musics around Indonesia, is in remarkable danger of dying out. Pak Aekanu estimates that there remain only five to ten old men who can play it in all of Banyuwangi. Alarmed by this figure, he has taken measures to ensure its survival: taking the first kenthulitan he encountered, he has had duplicates created, allowing the instrument to be played as a duo (as I encountered it), and opening the doors for young people to encounter the instrument and learn to play from the old generation.

Notes on the Recording: The afternoon of recording, I heard two arrangements for kenthulitan: the original solo configuration, and the more recently invented kenthulitan duo. I'm sharing the solo in order to give a sense of what the music sounded like in its original context. If you listen closely, though, you can hear a drum play along at times - this is the kendang player from the angklung paglak ensemble in the hut above us, who it seems couldn't resist lending a rhythmic hand to the breakneck kenthulitan!


I had come to Pak Aekanu in search of angklung paglak, but as soon as we sat down in his office in Banyuwangi, his pride and passion was clearly aimed towards kenthulitan, an instrument that I had never heard of until that moment. Pak Aekanu kindly arranged for a private "performance" of both musics in the village of Kemiren, a short drive into the hills outside Banyuwangi.

As I described in my previous post about angklung paglak, we arrive to find four musicians jamming away in a treehouse-like hut called a paglak, nestled amongst trees on the edge of a vibrantly green field of rice. Below them, on a bare platform, sat two more musicians - Pak Sareh and Pak Suradi, two kenthulitans before them, mallets at their bare feet. After I ascended into the paglak and recorded the angklung, I returned to earth and was met by the spare, measured tick-tock of the kenthulitan, played in unison by the old men.

It seemed fitting that they had been playing before their "audience" had arrived from up above, as the unfamiliar context of "performance" thrust upon them by my arrival seemed to hang on the music like a poorly fitting costume. This was not music designed for the ears of others - it was a conversation between musician and instrument, and I was merely evesdropping.

Postscript: Pak Aekanu contacted me in December to let me know that Pak Suradi had passed away. This is a heartbreaking reminder that musical traditions such as these are hanging on by a thread - as soon as the few musicians who play this instrument pass, it is possible that this artform will be lost forever. This post is dedicated to Pak Suradi: thank you for sharing your music with me - I will never forget it.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Songs After Dawn: Drone and Trance in Banyuwangi

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

Location: Banyuwangi, East Java

Sound: Jaranan Buto/Gandrung (?)

In a tradition that stretches the length of Java and into Bali, groups of young men straddle hobby horses and ride them deep into trance, galloping upon a wave of propulsive, gong-driven music. This artform, often called jathilan (also known as kuda lumping, especially in West Java) stretches back centuries and has continued into the 21st century largely unchanged.

The music that accompanies the dance is raw and unrestrained compared to the slow, graceful sounds of Javanese music cultivated in the royal palaces of Surakarta and Yogyakarta (a comparison I've made before, but it bears repeating as that music has been planted so firmly in the public imagination as prototypical of Javanese music!). The typical ensemble across Central and East Java features kendang drum together with the gongs known as kempul, kenong, and kethuk; melody is provided by the reedy buzz of the tarompet, a kind of single-reed wind instrument.

The musicians I met in Banyuwangi called their art jaranan buto, as it also features a dance in which men dress up in costume as Buto, a hairy giant famous in Javanese folklore. The music as I encountered it took two forms: in some songs, especially during the trance-dance segment, the tarompet was used, giving the music a character more typical of the jathilan music found throughout Java.

In other songs, however, the instrumentation made it very clear that we were in Osing country: as I mentioned in my previous post on Osingnese bamboo music, this far eastern corner of Java has a unique ethnic group all its own, distinct from the dominant Javanese, with a musical tradition that is likewise very distinct. The artform for which Osing are most well known is the dance and music called gandrung, which uniquely features two Western instruments creatively adapted into the Osing musical lexicon: the violin (here called biola and played in a radically different style from the Western classical tradition), and the triangle.

Here is where things get confusing: when asked what they called their music, they responded with "jaranan buto", and when the tarompet was in full swing it sounded quite like other jathilan music I've heard from other parts of Java. But when the biola came out and the sinden started singing in the idiosyncratic melismatic style typical of the Osing, the music sounded remarkably similar, if not identical to gandrung music. Minor variations could be heard: only one violin played, rather than the two typical of gandrung, but that fascinating drone, played on two strings of the violin in imitation of the rebab that typically accompanies Javanese gamelan, had all the hallmarks of that quintessential Osing ensemble.

With that in mind, I'm tempted to call this music gandrung, but as someone who is very much not an expert on this particular music, I'm going to defer to the musicians! This is definitely something that deserves further research and investigation: are there other groups that merge jathilan and gandrung in this way? In what ways, imperceptible to my amateur ears, is this music different from both of these forms? Is it a previously undocumented hybrid? More research by people more qualified than me is begging to be undertaken!


It was dawn when the train from Surabaya finally pulled into the station in Banyuwangi, the final stop in the rail system that stretches the length of Java. The sun had not quite risen, but the air was somehow still hot and damp as we walked into the night, becak drivers accosting us from all sides. Nearby, in a small tent, a performance was being pumped through a primitive sound system, sounding like wayang, the traditional puppet theater found throughout Java. Pulled between these sounds and the bed I knew I'd find in a nearby motel, I hesitated, tired but curious. After the long, sleepless train ride, the bed won that contest.

I awoke in the foul, damp motel hours later, light and a bizarre drone pouring in through the small window. The sound was alien and unplaceable: was there an ensemble of musical bees outside? And what was that unfamiliar voice, floating distorted into our room? My girlfriend laid next to me, groggy and confused. What is that sound? I asked her. It sounds Mongolian, she said.

Disoriented but with curiosity piqued, I threw my clothes on, grabbed my sound recorder and camera, and went to investigate. Outside, the sun was already reaching high into the sky, pounding down onto the dusty road outside. I squinted into the light, across the way, and saw the tent from dawn, amplified music persisting from within, that weird drone, that unfamiliar voice.

I reached the tent, walking past the fat stacks of the soundsystem and into the shade of the tarp, taking a seat on dry grass next to curious kids sipping juice from bags, seeming to draw the attention of nearly everyone, including the musicians. They sat on the ground in front of me, a man sawing away at a violin - that was the drone! - , a woman sitting in a chair, caked in makeup and belting out melismatic lines, a man spinning a stick rhythmically along the three sides of a large musical triangle. No doubt about it, I realized, hearing these gandrung-esque sounds: I had arrived in Banyuwangi!

In a break between songs, I shyly approached the musicians, quizzing them on their product: what was this music? As I mentioned earlier, they answered with curious smiles: jaranan buto! Jathilan! Their leader beckoned me into another nearby tent, where boys were sitting scattered on the ground, applying dramatic makeup to their young faces, readying themselves for the dance, for their ride into trance.

Taking a seat once again in the audience, I watched these kids emerge, astride their woven horses. They looked bored as they slowly pranced about in practiced formation, swaying to the sound of the tarompet. But as the music escalated, their looks changed, eyes becoming feverish. Some abandoned their horses to crawl on the ground themselves, possessed, it seemed, by the spirit of some unknown animal. Some boys crawled to a corner to take in whifs of incense and eat raw, unprocessed rice. Another took an elaborate wooden dragon mask and began to gnaw on its wooden face.

As the gong beat on, the boys crawled on hands and knees across the dry grass, eyes bugging and darting left and right. One by one, a man with the look of a shaman would approach them, push them down and with a firm move of his hand, seem to push the spirits out of their bodies, after which they would go limp, sit up, and walk dazed back to the tent with a look of pure bewilderment, as if they had no idea what just happened. As the musicians brought the song to a close, I couldn't help but feel exactly the same way.