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.