Location: Juruan Laok, Kec. Batuputih, Kab. Sumenep, Madura
Sound: Saronen (also spelled sronen, seronen, sronenan)
“Busy noisiness.” I like this interpretation of the Indonesian concept of rame (or ramai), a notion which has been explored by countless ethnomusicologists and anthropologists. That translation was provided by ethnomusicologist Anne Rasmussen; elsewhere Rasmussen quotes ethnomusicologist R. Anderson Sutton’s translation of “busy, noisy, congested, and tangled.” It’s not just a word but an aesthetic and a feeling, one which is almost always positive. What can be an aural cacophony to Western ears can resound as pure, bustling excitement for an Indonesian.
When an occasion calls for rame music, few sounds match the busy noisiness of drums, gongs, and reeds. In North Sumatra, the Irish wake-like celebration of a Toba funeral calls for gondang sabangunan, with its buzzing sarunai reeds and pitched taganing drums, while the Sundanese of West Java get worked up into possessed trance states with reak’s wailing tarompet and pounding dogdog. These musics fill the air with rame sounds at every frequency, from the sub-bass of drums and gongs to the shrill upper-register whine of a double reed.
In Madura, an island just off the north coast of East Java, the famous bull races or karapan sapi call for rame sounds to match the thunderous rumble of hooves kicking up dust. Saronen fits the bill perfectly: it’s all booming drums, ricocheting gongs, and that sweet, reedy buzz.
All of these rame drum and reed styles likely share a common ancestor, with the instruments spreading across the archipelago in centuries past and molded to local tastes. The lineage is clear if you take a look at that primary instrument, the double reed (sometimes tagged, in Eurocentric shorthand, with the name of the most similar Western instruments, either oboe or the Medieval-sounding shawm.) Sunda’s version, tarompet, has an etymology also pointing to the West, but the saronen’s name (and the Sumatran sarunai) points towards its ancestor, the Persian-Arabic surnai. These instruments spread across the world from this Middle Eastern locus, heading west to become the Turkish zurna and east to China, where it became the suona.
The Madurese saronen takes the piercing buzz of two lontar reeds (pepet) and shoots it through a teakwood pipe and out through a bulbous bell. The instrument's mouthpiece is secured not only by a bronze fixture (lale), but by a coconut shell mouthpiece (sangot) meant to mimic an aristocratic mustache. The instrument has seven fingerholes, six in the front and one in the back. The Madurese, though, count nine holes (including the top and bottom openings). Why? As the saronen maestro Pak Sudiro explained to me, the saronen is just like a human. We, too, have nine orifices - just count!
The saronen varies even across the Madurese world: instruments in Pamekasan and Sampang, in the center of the island, are longer and louder, while the Sumenep style (recorded here) has a higher pitch and more delicate tone. Uniquely, Sumenep saronen bands often play with two saronen (a practice called rampet), with the instruments playing roughly in unison with some variations between the two. Compared to the wild, wailing sounds often found in Java, the Sumenep style is controlled and precise, an aesthetic stemming from the aristocratic grace leaking from Sumenep's once powerful keraton or royal palace.
Saronen is such a key instrument that it gives its name to a whole ensemble. The other instruments are pure percussion: you’ve got a family of gongs, from biggest to largest: cor, gempul, cak mong, pancer, and kennong. These are all colotomic time-dividers in the gamelan tradition: the large cor plays most infrequently, dividing long musical cycles, while the smallest pancer and kennong are played by two musicians in a very rame interlocking groove which never quits. The two remaining instruments are able to play more freely: the clashing silver cymbals or kerca and the Madurese barrel drum or ghendhang. Traditionally, saronen bands played with only one ghendhang, and still do when playing in marching formation. Starting in the seventies, perhaps inspired by the busy excitement of dangdut bands and their multi-drummed ketipung and kendang Sunda, saronen bands started using a set of three ghendhang tied together.
The music, of course, is pure rame: after a solo saronen opener or pirama, the percussion kicks in, with the gongs setting up those cyclic divisions and that insistent tempo. Soon, the twin saronen sing out piercing phrases in the pentatonic slendro scale, taking frequent breaks to catch their breath and let the gongs, drums, and cymbals fill the space. Some slower pieces fill these spaces with sung poetry or khejhung, a tradition with links to the gamelan-filled theater style called loddrok.
Saronen bands also frequently plays in marching processions, recalling Balinese beleganjur marching gamelan or the gendang beleq marching bands of Lombok. As some musicians play with gongs hanging off their shoulders, the saronen players show off graceful choreographed dance moves. Because of these dance breaks, marching songs have a different character, with long cycles where the reeds fall silent as the musicians strut their stuff.
Despite the growing presence of modern musical alternatives like the national dangdut pop style, saronen remains a favorite at events across Madura and Madurese East Java. The music is particularly tied to animal entertainment: in addition to those bull races, saronen also provides a musical backdrop to bull beauty contests (yes, you read that right) called sonok sapi, and for a tradition called kuda kencak where trained horses are clothed in elaborate costumes and forced to prance and dance to the music. Other than the animal realm, saronen is also played for those typical life cycle events, from circumcision parties to weddings, and for rokatan, a kind of annual ritual where a village is cleansed of bad spirits.
Saronen continues to evolve even as it holds onto its centuries-old roots. Starting in the seventies, saronen groups starting playing dangdut songs in addition to the old-school gamelan-influenced repertoire. As mentioned before, drums were soon added to better play the lively dangdut rhythms. Now, the band I recorded even has another format called campursari, a name commonly used to describe Javanese music which combines gamelan, dangdut, and Western instruments like keyboard. This campursari, though, takes the full saronen ensemble and throws out the saronen, replacing it with metallophones from a village gamelan. This format is used to play dangdut and pop Madura tunes. What’s clear is that while the style may continue to evolve, the rame character at its heart remains.
I arrived in Madura with no contacts at all, simply a desire to hear saronen firsthand. In the end it was just a matter of meeting the right people, never too big of a challenge in a country full of ridiculously generous and helpful locals. Finding a saronen group turned out to be a musical game of six degrees of Madurese separation: my friend Hewod, a colleague from the Indonesian Mouth Harp Association, introduced me to Pak Yanto, a wealthy government worker and lover of the arts in Sumenep. Pak Yanto generously took me into his home, where I set up camp for a few days while searching for sounds. From Pak Yanto, I met Pak Jamin, an older man living on the rural outskirts of the city who often did odd jobs for Pak Yanto’s family. Pak Jamin became a valuable fixer and natural guide: his roots in the kampung in the countryside of Sumenep led me straight to an area ripe with music.
It was a blue sky Tuesday when Pak Jamin and I headed out into the countryside, the two of us smooshed onto the motorbike I’d rented way back in Surabaya. With Pak Jamin playing navigator, we weaved our way through the surprisingly gorgeous interior of the island, whipping through neon green rice paddies ripe for the harvest and past stands of lontar palms. The asphalt soon turned to rocks and soil as we headed deeper into the villages, Pak Jamin greeting every other farmer on the side of the road as they pointed and asked in Madurese about his pasty white driver.
At Pak Jamin’s direction, we pulled up into a humble courtyard hemmed in by lontar palms, an outdoor mushola, and a garden guarded by a timid brown calf and a caged persian cat. We were greeted by Pak Sudiro, a man sporting severe cheekbones above a short patchy beard and the requisite Madurese uniform of a peci cap and checkered sarong. As we sat down for hot tea and boiled peanuts, Pak Sudiro and Pak Jamin made small talk in Madurese. It wasn’t long before Pak Sudiro was proudly explaining that I wasn’t the first foreigner to stop by: French ethnomusicologist Helene Bouvier and her anthropologist husband Glenn Smith had stayed in the village for months back in the eighties or nineties as Bouvier studied loddrok theater and Smith researched the Madurese phenomenon of carok, a brutal tradition of revenge killing.
To the side of the courtyard was a small patio where Pak Sudiro’s band would play. The members streamed in one by one on foot and motorbike, swapping out their clothes for the band’s uniform: silky, shin-length pants, green and black striped t-shirts, and fitted batik headdresses. The group had a practiced cool as they set up their space, hanging a theatrical backdrop in the background, a handpainted facade of a temple-like building rich with neon colors and flowery filigree.
It was a tight fit with eight musicians: four on the various gongs, one on cymbals, one on drums, and two, Pak Sudiro and his nephew, leading the ensemble on saronen. The group started the set with a piece called “Sarka Rangsang,” an opener famously played to accompany the bull races. It was a tight sound, with Pak Sudiro’s tightly played saronen rhythms piercing the air. His nephew would try to mirror those lines exactly, but imprecise control of the double lontar reeds meant some notes would squeal flat or sharp, adding an odd dissonance to the busy sound.
The band played nearly non-stop for more than twenty minutes, playing classic saronen pieces like “Lorongan” and pieces borrowed from the Javanese gamelan repertoire like “Gending Puspa.” After this varied set, I went to check on the recording, putting my headphones to my ears as I played the file back on my ZOOM. To my dismay, I heard the file instantly glitching, skipping like a scratched CD. I hoped it was just a playback error, but when I checked the recording later that night, I found the whole session had been ruined by this mysterious glitch in my digital recorder. From the whole session up that point, all I could salvage was the recorded soundcheck, marred as it was by rumbles as I adjusted my tripod - this is what I’m left to share with you here.
After a coffee break, the band went into processional mode, gong-racks hauled onto shoulders and two drums abandoned for a streamlined sound. With the saronen guys in the lead with graceful white scarves around their necks, the band played through an extended take on “Sarka Rangsang,” with long percussion-only cycles where the saronen players and the cymbal man ran through measured movements, smiling as they lifted their sandaled feet into the air in slow motion. Just as the gong cycle wrapped up, a light rain began to fall, a perfect sign to wrap it up.
The day was far from over: Pak Sudiro would lead us on motorbike back through the rolling hills to the afternoon ojhung whip fight, where his other group would knock out some beautifully different okol music. While I lamented the glitched recording, it was a day where everything else went beautifully right, the kindness of strangers and the beauty of music filling my soul and reminding me why I love to do what I do.
Saronen Irama Baru are:
Saronen: Sudiro, Totok
Can Mong: Subaedi