Location: Engkurai Village, Melawi Regency, West Kalimantan
Earlier this year, I spent more than an hour in the hot Java sun, circling the three levels of the largest Buddhist temple in the world, Borobodur. Following the stone paths in a clockwise motion, I studied the narrative reliefs on the temple walls with the intensity of a pilgrim, but I wasn’t searching for enlightenment. As I scanned my eyes over millenia-old images of everything from mythical beasts to scenes of daily life, I waited patiently to find the one relief I’d hoped to find. There were plenty of scenes with music: cross-legged yogis playing flutes and barrel drums, even lutes. Only when I reached the top of the temple, exhausted and dangerously close to heat stroke, did I realize that the relief was no longer there.
Had I imagined it? I went back to the source, Jaap Kunst’s Music in Java: Its History, Its Theory, and Its Technique, and there it was, grainy but unmistakeable. Two figures stand beneath a tree, gourds to their mouths, pipes in their hands. The caption: “Barabudur (rel. 0. 39) a. mouth-organs.” The instruments look as fantastical as the birdpeople and goddesses that are strewn about the other reliefs, but they must have been real. Did the sounds of mouth organs once echo across Java?
Mouth organs, by the way, are remarkable instruments found across Southeast and East Asia. They come in many forms, from the khene of Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam to the sheng of China and the sho of Japan, but they all share the same general characteristics: pipes or chambers of various materials are fitted with free reeds which sound when air is inhaled or exhaled through the instrument. The harmonica is the most famous of the mouth organs, and its invention (along with other free reeds from accordions to harmoniums) can actually be traced back to these ancient Asian instruments.
In Southeast Asia, indigenous varieties of the mouth organ abound, but outside the mainland these instruments can only be found in one place: Borneo. This massive island is shared by a handful of countries, with Malaysia (and tiny Brunei) on one side, and Indonesia on the other. The indigenous people of Sabah in Malaysian Borneo have their own variety of the mouth organ called the sompoton, which is fairly well-known in those parts: a friend who visited the area even posted a picture of a huge concrete sompoton statue on the side of the road.
In Kalimantan, the Indonesian side of Borneo, mouth organs are almost extinct. Examples can be found in museum collections, accounts from old colonial surveys, and one (kledi) was even recorded twenty years ago by French ethnomusicologist Dana Rappoport, but until last year I’d assumed this once widespread instrument was no longer played. Then, to my surprise, I saw a video on YouTube of young Dayak musicians playing mouth organs accompanied by a sape’ kayan. The group, Balaan Tumaan, was based in Pontianak, the capital city of West Kalimantan. There was hope for mouth organs in Indonesia, after all. The Borobodur relief flashed back into my mind: the lineage of those ancient gourds and pipes lived on!
After getting in touch with Nursalim Yadi Anugerah, the leader of Balaan Tumaan, I learned that there was still an artisan making and playing mouth organs deep in the heart of West Kalimantan. His name was Pak Bunau, his instruments kadedek. I wanted to hear for myself, but when would I get a chance to venture into the heart of Borneo?
In a twist of fate, a chance to return to Kalimantan fell into my lap. As part of a residency program for the Europalia International Arts Festival, a young German musician named Jan Schulte (aka Wolf Müller) was looking to go to Kalimantan in search of sounds, and I was to be his guide. Jan fills his music with the psychedelic twang of mouth harps and was eager to hear the Borneo variety. Luckily, Yadi had told me that Pak Bunau also makes mouth harps called taruntung, an instrument which is also nearly extinct in Kalimantan. Fate was leading us towards Pak Bunau, so we made our way there.
After meeting Yadi in Pontianak, we headed on the long journey to Pak Bunau’s remote corner of Kalimantan. This meant a flight to Sintang, a regional capital in the interior, followed by renting motorbikes and heading out into the countryside. Don’t imagine a trek into the jungle: I’d warned Jan before we arrived, primary rainforest is nearly all gone in this part of Kalimantan. Instead we drove through palm oil plantations and dusty villages, passing smoke-belching trucks while avoiding potholes in the asphalt.
Nearing Pak Bunau’s hood in Melawi Regency, the asphalt gave way to gravel, which gave way to sticky red soil and narrow paths with channels running down the sides like dried up riverbeds. At one point, the path curled down a hill and plunged straight into a wide river. With no bridges in these parts, the only way to get across was to ferry our bikes across on narrow wooden motorboats, paying roughly a dollar for the convenience. The road we were taking was new, locals told us, built for the nearby palm oil plantation. If folks wanted to go in or out in years past, the river was the only way.
After hours slipping and sliding in the red mud and splashing through the runoff from nearby mining operations, we made it to Engkurai, a village which seemed to emerge out of nowhere from the sparse brush. The mud was replaced by a broken-up concrete footpath, a blessing after the mud and puddles we’d just splashed through. It led us right to Pak Bunau’s house, a humble concrete house on the edge of town.
Pak Bunau greeted us at the door, a gaunt man in his fifties with betelnut stained teeth and a short, boyish haircut. He welcomed us with a smile into his furnitureless living room and was soon politely whisking our exhaustion away with coffee and tea. The room was lined with his kadedek, the instruments hanging by plastic twine from nails in the wooden support beams. We’d ordered some to take home before arriving, and within minutes Pak Bunau was taking them off the walls and plopping them into our hands. Yadi had ordered an extra large one for his group, a giant we came to call the mega kadedek. Surely more than a meter and a half in length, the mega kadedek shook the house when Yadi played. Pak Bunau laughed: he’d never made one that big before.
As we stayed in Pak Bunau’s house for a few days, we got to know the man as much as we became familiar with the kadedek. Pak Bunau, we learned, is a rarity as an Indonesian instrument maker and musician in that he strives to make a living from his craft. Since he was young, he’s devoted his life to spreading the instrument, making frequent trips through the province and into Pontianak to sell the instruments to anybody who’d buy one, from dance studios to curious musicians. In Engkurai, Pak Bunau would spend his time tending to his small crops of cassava and green beans, heading into the countryside when necessary to gather materials for the kadedek.
The kadedek is a beautifully organic construction, almost identical to the mouth organs found in the Borobodur relief. While the environment in this part of Kalimantan is rapidly shifting as deforestation spreads across the island and palm oil plantations and mines take over, Pak Bunau’s kadedek construction is a look into another mode of living with nature, its components pointing to a deep understanding and relationship with the bounty of the land. No part of the kadedek, Pak Bunau proudly says, is bought from the store. Rather, it grows almost whole from the earth, with Pak Bunau simply assembling the pieces and giving it breath.
We start with the labo, a kind of gourd. Pak Bunau has a plot of land specifically for growing these gourds, their spherical bodies and phallic stems making the perfect windbox and mouthpiece respectively. In order to hollow them out without breaking them, Pak Bunau submerges the gourds in water, a process which dislodges the flesh from the hardened skin of the vegetable. This whole process is an art in itself, and one which Pak Bunau was exceedingly proud of.
The six chambers or pipes of the kadedek are themselves made from a special kind of bamboo, collected and cured in the sun. Within each pipe is a single reed or lidah (literally “tongue”), the “free reed” which gives mouth organs their distinctive sound. While most mouth organs in other parts of Asia now use reeds made of a metal like brass or silver, Pak Bunau keeps it old school. His reeds are painstakingly carved from the palm mid-rib of a tree he calls apin. Not only does it take incredible skill to carve these palm reeds (the mouth harp-like tongue of which must be both tuned correctly and able to produce sound on inhale and exhale), but the material is also increasingly difficult to find. On a walk outside the village one day, Pak Bunau pointed to forested hills in the distance, explaining that he had to walk there for hours to reach the last apin trees in the area. Others weren’t brave enough, he said, to go to those parts: shapeshifting spirits haunt the area, turning into a tiger and eating you if you’re not careful. Pak Bunau is both careful and brave: “the shapeshifters and I have an agreement”, he said, “so I can get the apin.”
Finally we have the glue that holds it all together, an element that I would have glossed over if I hadn’t received a fascinating and informative e-mail from mouth organ musician and bee enthusiast Sarah Peebles. Rather than try to reword it, I’ll quote Sarah’s original message:
“In Indonesia and elsewhere on the mainland, mouth-organs make use of the wax-resin combination called cerumin, which is created by stingless bees to build portions of their nests. Stingless bees gather plant resins and gums, and secrete wax through specific glands, and then they mix these things together to form cerumen, which they then apply to specific areas of their nests. Cerumin is only produced by stingless bees such as those in the genus Trigona and Mellipona (which are distant cousins of honey bees, Apis), and is known in Laos as maeng kisoot. Forest peoples gather cerumin from stingless bee nests and boil it down to form maeng kisoot, which is applied to mouth-organs, drums and other cultural items in various ways. People interacting with their ecosystems form the aural archipelago!”
It may seem like but a small piece of the puzzle, but it's exactly these elements which add layers of beauty and meaning to instruments like kadedek and their traditions. Sarah’s point of emphasizing how “rainforest ecology comes into play” (literally!) is an important one, as humans' role in that ecology and our relationship with the earth continues to shift. Even Pak Bunau’s organic methods have begun to change: at one moment, he took me into the forest and showed where he’d collected the cerumin from the nest of the stingless bee or kalulut; at another moment, he showed me how he uses a stinky, petroleum-based oil (minyak solar) to coat the surface of the beeswax joints of the kadedek, making it less sticky. The gasoline-like smell is overwhelming, and as you play his newly crafted kadedek, the odor becomes a taste in the mouth. My memory of playing kadedek will always have this disjunctive element, the feeling of bamboo in your hands and gourd on your lips while the synthetic fumes fill your nose and coat your tongue.
LIke any instrument, the kadedek is not just an object. Most of its magic comes from the way people play, think about, and mythologize it. In these aspects, too, the kadedek is wonderfully rich. As Pak Bunau held the kadedek tenderly in his hands, he told me the name of each pipe and its meaning: the longest pipe with the lowest note is induk, or the parent (it could be the mother or the father, Pak Bunau jokingly explained, but there’s never both: this is a single parent family.) The next longest pipe is the serunding kiri (left serunding), thought of as the first child. The family is fleshed out with the other pipes in descending order: serunding kanan (right serunding), seruling (the Indonesian/Malay word for flute), and perabong (the final child and the octave of the induk.) Hand this bundle of pipes to a flautist to see real confusion: the arrangement of fingerholes defies the linear logic of a flute. Covering a fingerhole makes the pipe sound, and these holes are distributed such that three are higher up the length of the pipes and three are closer to the gourd. The lower holes are even arranged in such a way that one of them must be closed not by a fingertip, but by the palm of the hand! The layout is idiosyncratic, for sure, but it points towards the skill necessary to play the kadedek fluidly.
While I speak about the kadedek as the realm of one man, this is, of course, a simplification: Pak Bunau has a few brothers who can also make and play the instrument (and even his wife plays a bit), but not to his level of mastery. The family and most of the other locals in this part of Melawi are Kebahan, an ethnic subgroup of the indigenous people of Borneo called the Dayak. The Kebahan have a pretty unique ethnic identity for Borneo: while all Dayak peoples were once animist, millions have converted to Christianity after some very successful missionizing in the past few centuries. Those who convert to Islam, meanwhile, are often thought of as no longer Dayak; rather, they are called “Malay” or are given a different name entirely, such as the Kutai of East Kalimantan. What’s unique then about the Kebahan is that many of them have converted to Islam but have maintained their Dayak identity.
Pak Bunau (and much of the rest of Engkurai) is Christian, but the fact that many fellow Kebahan have converted to Islam points to a history of close contact with the Malays (Melayu) of Kalimantan. You can see this acculturation in everything from the Kebahan’s adoption of pencak silat martial arts to their language, Bahasa Kebahan, which is not too far off from Malay/Indonesian. The music of the kadedek shows signs of this Malay contact as well: Many kadedek tunes are instrumental takes on the sung poetic couplets called pantun. Pak Bunau demonstrated this for me, singing a couplet and then playing the same melody on kadedek. Hearing the sung pantun, Pak Bunau’s kadedek style suddenly made sense: the subtle ornaments and broken rhythm, even the instrument’s range, are all in reference to the pantun vocal style.
The Kebahan’s Malay acculturation points to their position (whether literally or figuratively I’m not sure) on the borderlands of the forest, rubbing shoulders with the coastal Malays. Pak Bunau's pantun pointed towards this: The tune's name, Ile' Kayaan, or "Upstream on the Kayaan [River]" is a reference to past meetings with the Malays who lived upstream, meetings which must have drastically shaped Kebahan culture.The kadedek’s origin story, though, points deep into the forest, right to the mythical forest-dwellers called the Punan. Punan is, like Dayak, a rather vague term pushed on a huge variety of folks by outsiders, but in Kalimantan it is often used as a catch-all term for nomadic tribes, especially those living deep in the jungle.
As Pak Bunau tells it, his great-grandfather was a man named Abang Onyo’ (himself quite likely a Punan, Pak Bunau muses.) One day when Abang Onyo’ was in the forest collecting firewood, he came upon a group of Punan in a treehouse. The Punan seemed to be celebrating a wedding, with festive tunes supplied by a strange new instrument. Abang Onyo’ asked if he could try and play, but found he could not make a sound. After spending the night there, he awoke the next night to find the whole tribe gone. He would have thought it was all a dream, but in his hands he found the kadedek.
Even now, the kadedek is played for festive occasions and especially for gawai, a massive, ritual-filled festival celebrated each year across West Kalimantan. Other than that, though, kadedek is simply played as Pak Bunau played for us: in the home, relaxing, playing for the sake of playing, music for music’s sake. It seems to have a romantic element, too: Pak Bunau boasted how he used to play kadedek to get the girls. When we met him, Pak Bunau was together with his sixth wife, so it seemed to have worked, if only for a limited time.
While we spent a lot of time in the living room, talking about music and playing, it was decided that it would be best to record Pak Bunau’s kadedek outside, away from the sounds of passing motorbikes and the distracting motoric hum of the generator. Pak Bunau led us away from the village, following the broad red soil until we could no longer hear the passing motorbikes. We had inadvertently brought a crew: almost Pak Bunau’s entire family had followed down the path, his grown children and excited young grandkids coming along to see what we were up to. As we recorded, the kids splashed and played in a muddy puddle nearby, their yelps mingling with the buzz of insects in competition with the close-miked sounds of the kadedek.
Before we left to return to the city once more, we sat with Pak Bunau as he wrapped up our kadedeks to spread far and wide: Yadi’s to Pontianak, mine to Bandung, and Jan’s to Germany. Jan and I promised to share the kadedek with as many people as I could, bringing more attention to the instrument and tradition that Pak Bunau loves so dearly. As we sat on the floor of the living room, kadedeks strewn about, Pak Bunau shared one last pantun with us. It ended with a poetic flourish: “Kalau kita akan bercarai, janganlah kacang lupa kulit.” If we are to part, let not the peanut forget its shell.” It was a couplet handpicked for the occasion: maybe we were the peanuts, and Pak Bunau the shell, or perhaps the peanuts were the kadedek, born from Pak Bunau’s loving hands. Whatever the case, I made sure not to forget Pak Bunau and his kadedek. Even now, listening to his reedy songs brings me back to those days in Engkurai, to those river baths and muddy paths and hours spent with music.
Many thanks to Yadi for his friendship, guidance, and passion in sustaining the kadedek tradition; to Christoph, Europalia, and Jan for making the trip possible; and to Pak Bunau and family, who so generously hosted us and shared the beautiful music of kadedek with the world.