[Due to some complications with the recordings on this one, I'm forced to share this without audio as I usually would. Check out the videos for a peek at the sound and feeling of the music.]
Location: Benteng, Selayar Island, South Sulawesi
Sound: Batti’-batti’ (also spelled battik-battik, with both the k and the apostrophe representing a glottal stop)
Batti’-batti’ has an air of sex and scandal about it. Even the name explodes sensually out of the mouths of the Selayarnese, the double-t’s letting the tongue linger behind the teeth, those silent apostrophes a small, hot puff of air. This is only natural, as it’s a music that revels in the power of words: the power to seduce, the power to hurt, the power of creation in each spoken phrase.
The music is rooted in the idea of berbalas pantun, or call and response. One male and one female singer take turns exchanging improvised verses in the strict metric form called kelong. It’s often a kind of musical flirting, with the singers complimenting and teasing each other in equal measure before a delighted crowd. In the old days, these verses were in a formalized, poetic version of the Selayar language, rich in metaphor and nuance. These days, it’s more to the point. Take this popular example: the man sings a boasting verse about how he’ll buy his precious a new motorbike. The woman responds, how could you buy me a motorbike when you can’t even pay your phone bill?
Sounds innocent enough, but this improvised bickering has been known to end in disaster. Sometimes the male singer’s teasing will go too far, and the woman will take it to heart. “The singers will often fight,” one batti’-batti’ fan explained. “She’ll say ‘That was rude before!' and pour tea on him!” Audiences too, will take offense, with a woman’s family ready to battle it out with the man or his crew if he took his teasing too far towards shaming. The music was even banned by the local government for years, with few playing all throughout the 70’s and 80’s for fear of creating more of an uproar.
For those of us who don’t speak the Selayar language, the power of batti’-batti’ may seem to live not in the words but in the instrumentation. Batti’-batti’ groups feature droney melodies picked out on the common lute called gambus, an oud-like instrument with roots in Yemen. Modern groups, though, sub out the typically half-pear shaped gambus for instruments that look like miniature wooden Stratocasters, flaring “horns” and all. In true rock and roll fashion, pairs of gambus players will strum the six double-coursed strings with a kind of showy intensity that they call atraksi (“attraction”), bouncing in their seats and windmilling their arms around, even playing the instrument behind their back (these moves might have been stolen from local kacapi players who are also known for their crowd-pleasing “Hendrix moves.”) In addition to the twin gambus lutes, one or two rebana frame drums (smaller than those used in Selayar’s ritual dide’ music) are also a must to hold down the rhythm.
Nobody in Selayar can agree on where exactly batti’-batti’ comes from, as it has a very different sound from more ancient, indigenous Selayarnese musics like dide’ and ganrang. Selayar is a sliver of island hanging off the southern tail of South Sulawesi, an area historically rich in trade with everyone from the Malacca Sultanate to the Portuguese making a swing through its narrow strait. The origin stories abound: my friend Sarbini insisted it has roots in Batam, an island in Sumatra’s Riau archipelago who, he said, once had a similar Malay gambus style. Malay music is full of similar call and response pantun traditions, not to mention gambus. Could batti’-batti’ have made its way to Selayar from far-off Malacca? Or, one historian suggested, perhaps there was an intermediary step, with the Malacca-aligned Kingdom of Gowa in South Sulawesi giving birth to the style? With little to no documentation, we can only guess.
Whatever its roots, folks in Selayar instisted that batti’-batti’s battle-of-the-sexes format couldn’t be too ancient, as having a woman singing boldly like that would have been unthinkable even before Indonesian independence in the 1940’s. It makes sense: in a lot of ways, batti’-batti’s female divas have a lot more in common with pop stars than with your typical traditional musician whose ego and status is secondary to the music itself. Batti’-batti’s female singers (like Diana on this recording), are household names in Selayar, renowned for their linguistic prowess as much as for their beauty. Even folks I met in “mainland” South Sulawesi knew Diana’s name, hinting that to hire her to play shows across the strait, you’d better be ready to pay top dollar.
Despite the relative popularity of batti’-batti’ in Selayar, the future of this fascinating music seems uncertain. Weddings, the bread and butter of batti’-batti’ musicians, are slowly beginning to feature more dangdut pop instead, with batti’-batti’ mostly being enjoyed by the older generations. Tied into this is the dearth of proper batti’-batti’ musicians on the island, especially singers. Anybody with a decent voice can sing pop or dangdut, but it takes a special talent to be able to come up with improvised, perfectly syllabled verses on the fly. Diana, who’s in her thirties, is a rarity for being a batti’-batti’ singer under forty. If batti’-batti’ is to survive, it’s got to solve this singer shortage. Come forth, young people of Selayar! Harness the power of words, and you too may one day be a Selayar household name.
Batti’-batti’s been flying under the radar for years. It failed to feature in Philip Yampolsky’s otherwise remarkably comprehensive Music of Indonesia volume, South Sulawesi Strings, and even the local Makassar tape industry seems to ignore it. Head to the tape shops of that buzzing South Sulawesi capital and you’ll find all sorts of old-school recordings, from Bugis kacapi to Mandar sayang sayang. Outside of that peripheral island in the south, it seems nobody knows or cares about batti’-batti’.
I wouldn’t even know about this music if it weren’t for YouTube. I found the great video below on one of my late night YouTube trawls, a wedding video shot, as most Indonesian videos are, on a smartphone camera. I immediately fell in love with the amazing guitar-shaped gambus and the musician’s flashy moves, with the gorgeous, unrestrained voice of the singer (Diana, it turns out), and the informal vibe. Just great musicians, sitting around a table and playing beautiful music.
I left a comment below the video, as I often do: hey, drop me a line if you can help me find this music. Most people don’t respond, which is okay. Almost immediately, though, I got an answer: Sure, just come to Selayar! I’ll help you!
A few weeks later I was on the way to Selayar with my friends Jo and Logan, adventurous collaborators who’d already joined me on a few Aural Archipelago expeditions. We had flown to Makassar, rented motorbikes in the big city, and driven hours and hours down the southern tip of Sulawesi, finally ending at the picture-perfect white sand beaches of Bira beach at the very terminus of that great peninsula. A two hour ferry ride took us and our motorbikes across to Selayar, that mysterious island floating low and green out on the horizon. We drove off the ferry and straight down the island’s western coastal road, passing precarious stilted houses and trash-strewn beaches (the ocean currents litter each side of the island for six months out of the year.)
Benteng was a quiet little port town. It seemed the most exciting thing to do was play dominoes and drink intensely strong Malay style coffee in humble warkop cafes, so we got straight to the mission. Soon enough we were meeting up with Mawang, the YouTube uploader, who laughed and told us he thought I was just trolling him when I told him I was an American coming to Selayar in search of batti'batti'. Mawang was true to his word, though, quickly setting up a recording session with the musicians I'd seen in his video.
That night, we met the batti'-'batti' group in a big government meeting hall, the only place in town where we could get away from both the rain and the ever-present sound of motorbikes on the streets of Benteng. It was kind of an odd, sterile place to film and record, but we made the most of it, setting up microphones on a table to replicate that wedding party vibe we'd seen in the video. The singers, Diana and Sapriadi, sat opposite each other like rivals, Sapriadi wielding his rebana drum, Diana responding with her powerful voice. In between them sat two remarkably shy gambus players whose temerity slipped away as soon as they started getting into the jam, bouncing in their seats and plucking away at the strings with gusto.
Halfway through the last song, the power went out mid-verse and the band played for a moment in the pitch black before all falling into laughter. Sitting in the dark, we called it a wrap: we'd come to Selayar for batti'-batti', and we'd been lucky to meet the best group on the whole island. The flirtatious fun of the lyrics may have been lost on us, but the infectious spirit of the music was not. I knew in that moment that I had to make these guys a big offer: How'd you like to come play in Belgium?
That's right, batti'-batti' is going international. Starting with a show tonight, the 1st of December in Brussels, the batti'-batti' crew Turikale are joining the Aural Archipelago showcase across Belgium as part of the Europalia International Arts Festival. Together with Ata Ratu from Sumba and Thambunesia from Kalimantan (plus Belgium's own Dijf Sanders), Turikale will be bringing batti'-batti' to Europe for the first time. Check here to see more information about these exciting events going on this weekend. I hope to see you there :)