[Recordings recorded and produced by Dijf Sanders as part of his Europalia-sponsored residency, thanks Dijf!]
Location: Ds. Banceuy, Kec. Ciater, Kab. Subang, Jawa Barat (West Java)
The Sundanese instrumentarium is a broad and beautiful thing. These people living in the Western highlands of Java have a bamboo-centric musical arsenal stretching back hundreds of years, from angklung rattles to the celempung and rural rareties like the aseuk hatong. This is not a static set of musical tools, though: the musical ingenuity of the Sundanese has continued with new additions in the modern era, innovations like the songah, a modern take on the bamboo gong tiup or “blown gong” played in Sumedang, and the celempung renteng, a mimetic fusion of bamboo zithers and Sundanese percussive style. One of my favorites, an instrument that deserves our special attention, is the toleat.
Toleat is a kind of single reed bamboo instrument hailing from Subang, a region of West Java which stretches from the province’s hot, dry northern coast to the highlands around Tangkuban Perahu, one of Sunda’s most sacred volcanoes. Unlike most traditional instruments, the toleat’s invention can be confidently traced back to one man, a humble buffalo herder by the name of Maman Suparman, or as he’s most often remembered today, Mang Parman.
The details of Mang Parman’s life and death were sketchy at best until this past decade, when Subang-based ethnomusicologist Nandang Kusnandar began investigating the toleat’s origins. As Kusnandar writes in this excellent article, Mang Parman was born in 1938 in an area called Ciasem, a district hugging the northern coastal road in Subang’s steaming littoral lowlands. His parents were artists: his mother performed as a ronggeng, a singer and dancer, while his father played music. Mang Parman grew up in the rice fields, tending to his water buffalo and helping his familly during the routine rice harvest. As a child, he learned to make ole-olean or empet-empetan, instruments made from the hollow stalk of the rice plant. These ole-olean were a favorite of the young buffalo herders: a couple slits in the still green straw transformed it into a wind instrument. One slit made a variety with a single vibrating reed still attached to the straw, a feature organologists call an idioglot reed. Another variety required making multiple slits, allowing for a brasher sound stemming from multiple vibrating reeds.
As fun as they were to play, these instruments were as ephemeral as the rice harvest: you’d make one, play it all afternoon, then toss it. They were more noisey than musical, too: without fingerholes, changes in the ole-olean’s sound were limited.
Around the late 70’s or early 80’s, a now-grown Mang Parman came up with a new take on the reedy instruments of his youth. Taking the wild tamiang bamboo that grew around his fields, Mang Parman fashioned an instrument which aimed to harness the brash power of those childhood ole-olean and make it both more musical and more sustainable. He fashioned a single reed from the berenuk calabash tree and lashed it to the bamboo with rattan. This separate single reed is unheard of elsewhere in Indonesia - my guess is it was inspired by the Western clarinet played in the Sundanese marching bands called tanji, then still popular across Java’s northwest coast from Bekasi to Sumedang. Meanwhile, the toleat’s seven or eight fingerholes (with one hidden in the back for the player’s thumb) were spread along the instrument’s bamboo body, a construction likely inspired by the ubiquitous bamboo flute or suling.
The resulting instrument has been called a “bamboo sax,” and is actually amazinginly similar to the modern Western invention, the xaphoon. Just as he did as a boy, Mang Parman would take to the fields, playing his toleat for his own amusement - a practice the Sundanese call kalangenan. It was only in the late 80’s that officials in Subang’s cultural department began reaching out to Mang Parman, hoping to “elevate” the instrument from kalangenan to a performance art. As he began to play weekly shows together with kecapi zither, Mang Parman and his toleat soon found a quiet kind of fame in Subang.
Around this time, the toleat guru began to take on students, passing down the sounds of toleat to a new generation. Decades later, only two of Mang Parman’s disciples are still active: Asep Nurbudi (often called Mang Aep or Aep Oboy) and Mang Amar. Both men have taken the toleat in different directions. Mang Aep, a graduate of Bandung’s arts academy (then STSI, now called ISBI) has taken his own formal music education and the toleat’s experimental heritage and run with it. This experimentation is on full display in this video, where Mang Aep’s crew combines experimental bass toleat, single-note panpipe-like toleat, and 7/8 rhythms into a heady modern Sundanese stew. When I met Mang Aep at his workshop in the city of Subang in 2014, he was just putting the finishing touches on an entire saxophone made of bamboo; when he played a show later that day, his setlist combined kecapi zither and a toleat cover of “My Heart Will Go On.”
Mang Aep’s toleat technique is clearly inspired by his experience playing the Sundanese flute called suling: he gets a subtle, breathy tone out of the instrument by angling it away from his mouth like a Persian ney. In the hands of Mang Amar, though, the instrument has a very different sound. One of Mang Parman’s first disciples, Mang Amar would walk miles across Subang every day as a young man to study with the maestro. He later took up the clarinet after hearing it played in tanji marching bands in Subang, and would soon begin to make not only his own toleat but also handmade clarinets (Mang Amar’s klarinet Sunda are remarkable, featuring a system he invented that allows him to lengthen the instrument to play with differently tuned ensembles, from jaipong to bangpret). This world of reeds has clearly inspired Mang Amar’s playing, which cribs both from tanji-style clarinet playing and the Sundanese double reed tarompet which tanji-style clarinet emulates. It's a style built on old Sundanese tembang songs, pieces in the salendro and pelog scales full of ornamentation and improvisation.
It’s Mang Amar’s toleat I’m sharing with you today, both in solo kalangenan style and with his neighborhood ensemble, the celempungan group Gentra Wiwitan whose music I shared with you last month. Mang Amar explained that toleat and celempung make a good spiritual fit: in the old days, Mang Amar and friends would sit in paddy-side bamboo huts or saung and mix the reedy sounds of ole-olean with celempung. Today, the modern variations of these instruments mingle beautifully, with Mang Amar’s toleat melodies gliding smoothly over the polyrhythmic sounds of the assorted celempung.
Toleat is now in a new kind of renaissance, riding the wave of the “bamboo revolution” I mentioned in my post on celempungan. Because of its rural origins, the toleat is now romanticized as an “agrarian art” (budaya agraris), an attractive association for young urban Sundanese looking with rosy glasses from their globalized present to an imagined rural past. I first came upon toleat in this revival context, when I was gifted a simple toleat mini (a kind of idioglot toleat made popular by karinding maestro Abah Olot) by a karinding metal band I’d befriended in Bandung. As the toleat has been embraced by young artsy Sundanese guys in Bandung, it has also been embraced by youth in Subang happy to claim the toleat as a unique piece of cultural heritage with deep roots in this corner of West Java.
Mang Parman, I like to think, would be proud. In the nineties or early 2000’s, the godfather of toleat seemingly disappeared from Subang. After his popularity in the 80’s had waned, he’d moved to Karawang, a neighboring regency closer to Jakarta, looking for work. He died poor and almost entirely forgotten not long after. As toleat became popular once again with the “bamboo revolution,” though, the legend of Mang Parman was revived once more. Now, every toleat player I met can repeat the legend of Mang Parman, the buffalo boy from Subang who invented toleat.