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.