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.