Location: Batuputih, Sumenep Rgency, Madura Island (East Java Province)
There are many musical stories to be told on the island of Madura, a flat mass of land jutting from the north coast of East Java like a broken off peninsula. The Madurese people who hail from this dense, infertile island are known across Indonesia for their toughness and piety, and you’re likely to meet them in all corners of the archipelago: one of the largest ethnic groups in the country, there’s more of them spread outside their home island than on it. Their character and ubiquity as sate salesmen is well-known, but few folks outside of Madura could tell you about their music. It’s a shame, as Madura is packed with musical surprises, homespun village ensembles and modern musical movements.
Hoping to learn and hear more, I recently headed to Madura from the Javan port city of Surabaya, driving a rented motorbike across the massive and fairly new Suramadu bridge from the Javan port city of Surabaya. A few hours drive led me to Sumenep, a city and regency on the island’s far eastern tip famous for once being the site of a royal kingdom. While the city’s royal palace has stood empty for hundreds of years now, this corner of Madura is still known for the relative grace and refinement of its people (especially, Sumenep folks told me, compared to those cattle thieves in the west!)
In the countryside to the east of the city, distinctive Madurese musical traditions still thrive. Most surprising to me was okol, a kind of idiosyncratic gamelan played most often to liven up events featuring ojhung, or Madurese whip fighting. Similar to the glundhangan group I’d recorded amongst the diasporic Madurese of Jember, okol is an ensemble rooted in rough-hewn wood. While it seems there are only a few okol groups in existence (all centered around this corner of Sumenep), they all seem to gain their percussive power from huge, oddly-shaped slit drums or kentongan. These organically shaped barrels, carved from the soft wood of local palm trees, are the ancestors of similar instruments like the glundhangan’s dhungdhung and the pimped out kentongan of Jember’s funky musik patrol bands.
French ethnomusicologist Hélène Bouvier can back me up: the only foreigner to take an in-depth look at Madurese arts, Bouvier coincidentally spent some time in this corner of Madura as well, writing about okol in her book (Indonesian and French only!), Lebur: Seni Musik dan Pertunjukan dalam Masyarakat Madura [Lebur: Music and Performance Arts in Madurese Society.] Bouvier writes that the okol group she encountered also featured these huge kentongan (sometimes called dhuk-dhuk depending on the village). The largest one, she writes, was called egghung, possibly a Madurese take on the name I was given, gong. A musician sits to the side of this huge drum and divides musical cycles with a drawn out pounding of the top with a soft mallet. This sound, dry and bassy, is meant to evoke the resonant ring of a gamelan's largest gong. The other two kentongan are smaller and similarly stout. The musician straddles one of them and plays both of them together with two huge mallets, one wrapped with rubber and one pure wood. Wacking these various mallets on the side of the drum’s slits and on little protuberances jutting off of the drum’s end like a tail, the musician is able to summon a wide range of sounds, from bassy booms to dry taps. Together, this polyrhythmic arsenal of sounds is meant to mimic the sound of the Madurese ghendhang or barrel drum, so these twin torpedoes are likewise called ghendhang.
When Bouvier was around in the 80’s, the okol ensemble was relatively paired down: a set of small cymbals or kerca, (borrowed from the Madurese saronen ensemble, probably) rounded out the rhythmic side of things, while the melodic additions were simply the xylophone called ghambhang (gambang in Java) and maybe a flute (suling.) Nowadays the ghambhang has been paired with metallic instruments from a village gamelan: the metallophones peking and saron and even an old-fashioned gong (used to punctuate the spaces between the boom of the wooden “gong.”) In the group I saw, the kerca was also there, together with a busy cowbell-like instrument, kendokdok, made from the plantain-shaped root of the bamboo plant.
Madura has neither shadow puppet plays (wayang kulit) nor trance dance (kuda lumping or kuda kepang), so when gamelan is played, it is usually associated with loddrok, a kind of dance and theater form found across East Java (where, on the “mainland”, it’s called ludruk.) As a creative take on a village gamelan ensemble, the okol ensemble’s repertoire is borrowed from this loddrok tradition, with short, lively pieces stitching together melodic loops played in Madura’s favorite scale, the pentatonic slendro. In the group I saw, half of the pieces featured vocals or kejhung, with a man singing in a feminine voice in a high register. Other pieces seemed to be borrowed from the saronen tradition (maybe because the leader of this okol band also heads a saronen group), with that double reed wind instrument taking the lead while the usually melodic ghambhang switched over to imitating the looping gongs of that style.
As explained by Pak Sudiro, the okol group’s leader, and backed up by Bouvier, okol is played for a variety of ritualistic happenings at the heart of rural Madurese life. In the past it was often played for rokatan, a kind of annual spirit cleansing in the village, and also for rituals (minta hujan) where magic is used to summon rain during dry spells. Bouvier mentions that, just like glundhangan, it was also sometimes played to accompany popular pigeon racing events. Most commonly, though, okol is the backing band for the ritual whip fighting called ojhung. Set up on a tiny stage in a village clearing, the band sets the lively mood in between bouts where ballsy men get in a ring and beat each other vigorously with rattan whips. In other parts of Madura, okol is actually the name of a kind of wrestling, perhaps proof that the style, or at least the name, may be inseparable from this context of ritualistic showdowns.
It was a beautiful day for a whip fight. The afternoon sky was a bright blue as we weaved our way through irridescent rice paddies on a narrow dirt path, my motorbike struggling to keep up with the musicians ahead. The path led us through a thicket of bamboo and palm trees and finally into a small village where the air was already filled with the distorted voice of a sound man, “cek 1 2, cek 1 2.” Pulling my motor onto the side of the road, I followed Pak Sudiro to a bamboo veranda stacked with those wonderful slit drums, bulbous kentongan painted a festive red and white. I grabbed a smaller one by the slit and helped Pak Sudiro lug it over to a tiny, meter-high stage in a grassy clearing. To the side of the stage, I saw the sound guy leaning over a primitive mixing desk, cables leading through the grass to a motorcycle stacked high with speakers like some kind of Mad Max battle bike.
The ojhung crowds had not yet begun to gather as the band arranged their set-up, cheap mics swung over kentongan from low-hung rafters, wooden knocks and booms blasted from those motorcycle stacks across an empty field. On the other side of the ring, an odd team of transgender women and old ladies where setting up shop at some improvised warungs where they would sell ginger coffee and fritters.
Despite the lack of a crowd, the band launched into their set with an instrumental opener called “Lamongan.” Pak Sari, an older man in a short-sleeved batik shirt and red headband, immediately seemed to be stealing the show. Straddling one of the red and white kentongan like a seasoned cowboy, the man unleashed a flurry of mallet hits on the twin drums, a polyrhythmic storm weaving around the measured flourishes of the ghambhang and metallophones.
This was exciting stuff, but so far it was failing to attract an audience beyond me and a gang of naughty kids who seemed in it more for the white dude high-fives than the okol jams. People started to whisper that the ojhung whip fight wasn’t going to happen - nobody was ready to get whipped today. I’d heard boasts of big crowds at these shows, but so far I was beginning to doubt the vitality of this tradition.
After the band drummed up excitement with a few upbeat numbers, though, a crowd started trickling in, and soon enough the first fight seemed to be on. On one side of the ring, an older mustachioed man with a handsome grin started to prepare for the showdown, stripping down to a sarong tied tight around his groin like a loincloth. On the opposite side of the grassy field, his opponent emerged, a tough looking young man with small eyes and a fresh, nasty-looking wound on his knee. Both were outfitted with homemade armor: their left hands were wrapped in a tight, protective fabric, or tangkes, while their heads were squeezed into woven burlap helmets or bukot which made them look bizarrely like ill-equipped astronauts.
Soon they converged in the ring, a raised rectangle of earth surrounded by a spare wooden fence. Each was handed a lopalo, short rattan whips threaded with yellow string. The okol band had been pumping up the growing crowd, but as the referee brought the men together in their fighting stance, the band fell silent. It was time.
Right legs forward, the men leaned forward and simultaneously lashed out, their whips landing immediate blows on bare chests and backs. There was little chance to defend, it seemed, with the strategy seeming to be to get as many blows in as possible before the referee rushed back into the ring. Less than half a minute of lashing passed before it was over, the men turning and walking proud out of the ring.
Who won? I asked my friend, confused by the whole thing. Oh, he laughed, there’s no winner. You just get to show off your scars!
And so it continued, three rounds of fierce whipping, the downtime filled with the busy, percussive sound of okol. As the sun sank lower in the sky, the show was declared over, and the crowd dispersed once more. The fighters walked off with fresh scars to show, masculinity coolly asserted and confirmed. The okol band hauled their kentongan back to storage, they too having fulfilled their purpose in the ritual. We headed back through the paddies just as the light began to turn golden, a flock of pigeons tagged with wooden whistles whirring through the air. It was a beautiful day for a whip fight.
Recordings, Photos, and Video by Palmer Keen
Music by Bintang Keramat:
Peking/Saronen/Vokal - Pak Sudiro
Ghambhang - Pak Oda
Ghendhang - Pak Sari
Saron - Pak Nini
Kerca - Romdan
Gong - Pak Suroto
Vokal - Pak Risdem Muliadi