Location: Pagaralam, South Sumatra
Sound: Batang Hari Sembilan (Malay for “Nine River Branches’)
Also called gitar tunggal (Indonesian for “solo guitar”), Batang Hari Sembilan is a genre of solo guitar and vocal music common throughout the Southern reaches of Sumatra. Originating in a genre of oral poetry accompanied by a now extinct local zither, Batang Hari Sembilan evolved to use acoustic guitars, most likely brought by the Portuguese in colonial times centuries ago. The guitar is played in a relatively simple fingerpicked style, with the low strings of the guitar playing a rhythmic drone while an accompanying melody is picked out on the remaining strings.
The main focus of Batang Hari Sembilan music, however, is the sung oral poetry called pantun, found throughout Indonesia. Many different areas of Indonesia have their own variety of pantun – in these recordings, the pantun is a variety called rejung, sung in the local Besemah language. The addition of multiple pantuns can stretch songs to epic lengths of more than fifteen minutes, alternating repetitively between verse, chorus, and instrumental interludes.
With the help of local musician Jemmie Delvian, I traveled to Pagaralam, a cool city in the Southern reaches of the Bukit Barisan mountains that stretch across the length of Sumatra. Often mentioned as the source of Batang Hari Sembilan, Pagaralam and its surrounding villages are the ancestral homeland of the Besemah people, a so-called “Proto-Malay” ethnic group that is thought to be one of the oldest cultures in all of Sumatra. The area is scattered with ancient, mysterious megaliths which dot the landscape between coffee and tea plantations.
With Jemmie’s help, we headed to the home of Pak Arman Idris, the most well-known guitarist of the area. We set up in a nearby field full of blooming yellow mustard flowers, with Jemmie arranging his professional recording equipment brought from Palembang, microphone cables running to Jemmie’s laptop through the ridges of tilled farmland ((in addition to being a musician, Pak Arman is also a farmer.)
Later, hoping for a quieter recording environment, we set up in Pak Arman’s simple one-room home, where we recorded three more songs with the slightest ambient background of a nearby irrigation stream running beside Pak Arman’s house. After recording, we sat on the floor and ate vegetables, fish and rice together while Pak Arman proudly told us of his trips abroad to share his music, quite a feat for a local musician.
I still remember hearing this music for the first time, on the “Indonesian Guitars” album from the famous Music of Indonesia series put out by Smithsonian Folkways. This was before I moved to Indonesia and became more familiar with its geography and cultures, and I remember hearing the Batang Hari Sembilan songs on the album and feeling perplexed by how unplaceable they are – the fingerpicked guitar often shares the humble feeling of the folk and country music of America, while the vocals are often full of melismatic flourishes that firmly place the music in a land far from there. Now, having heard this music throughout South Sumatra, it will forever remind me of that place, the people I met, and the experiences I had in those cool mountains and muggy riverbanks.