Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Musical Eavesdropping in Banyuwangi

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

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.