Location: Susulaku A, Insana Regency, North Central Timor
Sound: Ratapan/Lagu inkulturasi
The first time I attended a Catholic church service was in Yogyakarta, Central Java, early one Sunday morning. The pews were filled with pious Javanese in their Sunday best, all florid batik and lacey kebayas. On the right side of the altar, a small Javanese gamelan played, the sound of gongs and struck metal keys filling the air, as the congregation stood and sang “hallelujah” in the distinctive pentatonic scale called pelog. It was a remarkable fusion of Catholic liturgy and Javanese musical tradition, one that I assumed at the time to be wholy unique.
As it turns out, such fusions, often termed lagu inkulturasi or “inculturation songs,” are widespread in Catholic areas of Indonesia. Such areas are few and far between in majority Muslim Indonesia - even in Jogja, where I attended the gamelan church, Catholics are in the vast minority. The majority of Indonesian Catholics live in the area of eastern Indonesia called East Nusa Tenggara, where a history of Portuguese colonialism lead to Catholicism becoming widespread on islands like Flores and Timor.
Lagu inkulturasi, it turns out, can be traced back to the widespread changes in the Catholic church stemming from the Second Vatican Council (often called Vatican II) in 1965. In broad terms, one of the greatest changes brought about was an emphasis on making Catholic religious practice and liturgy more accessible to the common people, with local languages largely replacing Latin in the liturgy, and a new permissiveness towards contemporary Catholic liturgical music, with new musical forms gradually replacing older, stiffer musical traditions like Gregorian chant.
Such changes must have had a huge effect on far-flung corners of the Catholic world like Timor - suddenly, Catholic liturgy and music could be essentially indigenized, with local language and customs mingling with the very European Catholic traditions that had lingered in the islands for centuries. Lagu inkulturasi, I imagine, must have seemed to be a remarkable chance for local people to, ideally, link their ethnic and cultural identities with their religious lives.
Rather than being an act of creative empowerment from within local communities, however, “the impetus for the creation of inkulturasi songs comes from the outside.” (Philip Yampolsky, personal comm.) Specifically, most of this new repertoire is systematically created by an institution affiliated with the Catholic church called the Pusat Musik Liturgi, or Center for Liturgical Music, which is based in Yogyakarta. Not only is the organization responsible for the gamelan hymns I experienced that day in Jogja, but also for most lagu inkulturasi around Indonesia, from Papua to North Sumatra.
As Yampolsky explained to me, “[PML’s] method is to organize workshops with the aim of developing new songs for use in church, based on the musical traditions of the regions where the workshops are held.” This usually involves taking suitable melodies from local traditional music and re-formatting them for church music, adding four part harmonies and even notated keyboard parts. The ideal result is the creation of a new song that can be added to the buku umat, a congregational hymnal widely published in Indonesia, to be sung by Catholics across the archipelago. (Ibid.)
This is where the inclusion of local musical idioms becomes limited, as the idea is that these new lagu inkulturasi should be singable by all Indonesian Catholics - so, for instance, Catholic Bataks in North Sumatra will be able to sing lagu inkulturasi from Java, Timorese Catholics can open their hymn books and sing local hymns from Sumatra, and so on. The issue with this is that these local traditions are worlds away from each other: Bataks in Sumatra may be familiar with Western church music and melodies after years of exposure and practice, but the traditional music of Flores, on the other side of the archipelago, would be entirely foreign to them - how would they begin to sing it? To deal with this issue, lagu inkulturasi must by their very nature be smoothed out, so to speak, of any musical elements that may be considered too foreign to be sung and accepted by Catholics around the country.
This is all to say that this style of music, if you can call it that, ends up a bit samey, just by virtue of the system in which it is created and the needs for which it is created to fulfill. This also means that, when it comes to my tastes, none of it is particularly interesting. It turns out that to get to the good stuff, it helps to get out of the center (Jogja and it's Liturgy Center) and out to the periphery, to the eastern stretches of the country where, it turns out, Catholics are doing lagu inkuturasi their own way.
I was on a late-night YouTube trawl, as I’m wont to do, when I came upon a video that immediately gave me goosebumps: it was a cell phone video, as usual, a bit shakey and with rough audio (not vertical video, thankfully), called “PROSESI JUMAT AGUNG - GUA BITAUNI-INSANA-TTU-NTT” (Good Friday Procession at Bitauni Cave, Insana, North Central Timor, East Nusa Tenggara.) In the video, women in tenun sarongs and purple habits convene outside a cave in Timor, at the foot of a statue of Jesus. As the women move in procession, Timorese melodies come in canonical waves, with Western harmonies mingling with a distinctively different aesthetic, all firm female voices and wailing falsettos. I’d never heard anything like it in my life. And, of course, I immediately knew I had to go there and hear it for myself.
The story of how I got there and finally met those women in ikat and habits comes next, but first, the story of this music, what I later learned is called simply ratapan, or “lament.” Timor, it turns out, is rich with funeral music, musical laments that are filled with a kind of stylized melodic wailing. Lamenters called peratap, always women as far as I know, are hired to wail musically at funerals, the effect at once solemn and cathartic. The traditional style of ratapan is a world away from Western liturgical music, but the context of expressive mourning allowed this style to find its way into the world of lagu inkulturasi in the context of Good Friday, the most solemn and mournful day of the Christian calendar.
Pak Barnabas Funan Haumein was a young man when Vatican II shook the Catholic world. He was in seminary in Kiupukan, Central Timor at the time, immersing himself in his faith. Two years later, his world shook again: his young child died, and it was in that period of mourning that Pak Barnabas first wrote that gorgeous piece, the Ratapan. Upon meeting and working with Karl-Edmund Prier, the German director of the Pusat Musik Liturgi, in the late 70s, this ratapan, once a lament for the death of his child, was reconfigured as lagu inkulturasi to lament the death of Jesus Christ.
Good Friday is now marked yearly in Pak Barnabas’s neighborhood by a ritual rendition of his Ratapan, usually performed at a holy spot near a cave in the village of Bitauni. The hymn accompanies the veneration of the cross, a ritual wherein the congregation gathers before the cross and kisses the crucified feet of Jesus. A choir of women is led by two soloists, one singing as Mother Mary (Bunda Maria), one as Mary Magdelene (Maria Magdelena). Verses lamenting Jesus’s death are sung in the local Dawan language are repeated until all members of the congregation have had the chance to solemnly kiss the feet of their lord.
I think of Pak Barnabas’s Ratapan as lagu inkulturasi done right, at least according to my tastes. Crafted almost entirely by Pak Barnabas himself, it has little of the smoothness necessitated by the PML way of doing things. Featuring unique stacatto vocalisations, high falsetto cries, and firm, largely vibrato-less singing, it is so very clearly a product of Timor (an island rich in choral singing and even vocal polyphony), and of a Dawan man immersed in both Catholic and traditional Dawan culture. Elements of those traditional wailing ratapans sung at funerals as well as music for the local circle dance called bonet are there, but so are Western harmony and polyphony, not to mention those haunting canons (present in the video but mysteriously absent at our recording session.) It may never be accessible enough to get into the liturgical music big leagues of the buku umat, but it doesn’t have to be. For the people of this corner of Timor, it serves its beautiful purpose just fine.
I’ve mentioned Denny before: he is the young Dawan YouTuber who offered to fly to Timor from Jakarta with me, just to help me and my crazy dream of chasing down string bands and Catholic choirs in his homeland. I’d gotten in touch with him by commenting on a video of a cultural festival near his hometown in Insana, North Central Timor. What were the chances that his village would be right next to Boni, the headquarters of good old Pak Barnabas and his wailing choir?
Denny had never met Pak Barnabas but we knew where to find him - Boni’s not the biggest village, just a stretch of dirt road lined with small houses in front of which sit thatched lopos, open-walled hangout pavilions where locals sit and sweat out the day. Heading into Boni for the first time, we were directed to Pak Barnabas’ house by a local who told us, “just look for the zinc-roof lopo.”
We found Pak Barnabas under his metal lopo, grinning his betel-nut grin. “Nice to meet you!” he said in charmingly stilted English, a hangover from his days in the seminary with a British priest. We joined him under the lopo, flopping into plastic picnic chairs. As we chatted, Pak Barnabas immediately wowed me with the surprising sharpness of his memory, listing off precise dates from forty years past as if they were yesterday. He is now 78, his ratapan more than fifty years old, but he talked about it with remarkable clarity and with a gentle pride. As I mentioned in my post about Pak Barnabas and his feku, I was immediately smitten.
We came unsure of whether we’d hear the ratapan at all: Good Friday had just passed the month before, and it seemed so holy that it would be possibly sacreligious to perform it at any other time. Pak Barnabas insisted, though, on sharing it with us anyway, ritual and all - he was clearly proud that we had come from so far to hear his creation, and as long as we documented it with respect, he and his choir would be happy to share it with us.
The next day was an epic production, with Pak Barnabas spoiling us with a true smorgasbord of musical riches, from his bidu band to leku sene gong and drum music (to be shared later!) and bonet circle dances. It all took place outside the village’s sole church and chapel, with the ratapan performed, naturally, within.
Documenting the ritual was an experience in frantic improvisation and working with the conditions at hand. Greg, my friend and videographer (also known as: the guy who knows what he’s doing) suggested we shoot as the day neared sundown: the sunlight would burst through the church’s open front doors, basking the whole ritual in light. It didn’t all work out quite like that: the church ended up being rather dark anyway, and we scrambled to find good positions to film the procession without getting in the way. Motorcycles zoomed by in the distance and pop music came in through the windows from some far-off car at some point, but the feeling was there, despite the ritual being a self-aware recreation. It was holy music sung in a holy place, sung with humble passion.
The video shoot was great, but the sound was less than ideal, so we planned a separate recording session later that night - that’s what you’ll hear above. Philip Yampolsky himself, an ethnomusicological hero of mine who I’ve quoted and referenced enough that you should know him by now, joined for that session, having driven all the way from his field site in the south of the island to hear the ratapan for himself (I was full of a strange pride when he’d told me that he’d never heard anything quite like this before - this coming from a guy who’s made more field recordings around the entire archipelago than anybody else in history.)
I’m learning as I go along with this whole project, but Philip is a total pro, both on the research and recording sides, and having him around was both a learning experience and a kind of zenith of my Indonesian ethnomusicological nerdery, the equivalent of a a Led Zeppelin fan getting up on stage to shred with Robert Plant. Rather than deal with the headache of trying to record a moving procession, we asked for the choir to arrange themselves at the altar as we stood before them on chairs, stretching to reach the digital recorders placed high on tripods to catch the voluminous waves of choral sound.
Just as we were set to record, the power went out in the church, a profound darkness filling the space. As we’d gotten the video out of the way before, we carried on anyway, a small flashlight casting shadows of the choir behind their heads. It was an unreal experience, sitting in the dark of a Catholic church in Timor, the noise of crickets coming in through the windows, a field recording legend listening carefully by my side. The women, now decked out in tenun and t-shirts, were remarkably professional despite never having sung in such a context. Their voices, ringing out through the dark, were pitch perfect.
I got a masterclass in form and field recording soon after when, after the first take, Philip requested, in impeccably polite Indonesian, that the choir repeat such-and-such verse again, as a motorcycle had driven by at that moment in the piece. He had remembered exactly where in the piece it had happened while I, on the other hand, had been sitting there in clueless revery, zoning out to the powerful sounds in the dark. The group graciously repeated the verse, and the recording I’m sharing now features that clever edit, something I’d never though to do before - how many roosters and crying kids could I have excised over the years?
All throughout the recording session, Pak Barnabas stood at the front of his choir, conducting with the wave of his arm. How wonderful it felt, then, to be in that dark church, hearing a song with fifty years of history and ritual, sharing those sounds with Pak Barnabas, Pak Philip, Greg, and a scattering of locals who filled the pews. And now, to be sharing this music with you, the world premiere of Pak Barnabas’ Ratapan.
A huge thanks to Denny, whose generous hospitality and local pride made the trip possible, to Greg and Marianne, who made the video something really special, to Pak Philip for his expertise, advice, and support, and of course to Pak Barnabas ("God bless you!") and the Susulaku choir: Fransiska Moni (as Bunda Maria), Lidwina Taekas (as Maria Magdalena), Ester Taek, Maria Goreti Sau, Maria Bui, Yasinta Angket, Wilhelmina Tubani, Yohana Wilfrida Lau Tuames, Dominggas Leu, Odiana Meki, Frida Tanesib, Maria Bano, Fransiska Tanmenu, Rosina Eno, Helena Bona, and Maria Alas.