Photo Credit: Greg Ruben
Location: Leboni, Poso, Central Sulawesi
For a description of the history and sound of karambangan music, check out my previous post on karambangan here. As I mentioned in that post, karambangan music began in Central Sulawesi as a solo guitar music played by young men to woo girls (sound familiar?). While through the decades it flourished into an ensemble artform, the stripped-down original sound, just voice and guitar, can still be heard as well.
The house in Leboni was full of manly, manly men. Pak Adris, the patriarch of the household, wore a policeman's moustache on his lip and a machete on his belt. He regaled me with stories of spearing wild boars in the nearby jungle, carrying them back home over two mountains on his shoulders. His relative, Pak Yordan, seemed equally tough, with a thick body and a tough looking face. He had, his family members boasted, singlehandedly built the house in which we were staying. He had even led the village of Leboni as village head in years past.
He also, it turned out, had the voice of an angel.
I was taken aback when I first heard it. I'd already heard him play countless songs with the group, sitting back and strumming on his comically small homemade kulele, looking like a bear playing a tiny guitar while trying desperately not to break the thing. His voice, then, had blended invisibly into the hymn-like harmonies. Later that night, after the recording session was over, Pak Yordan sat forward with his guitar and began to sing on his own, his voice surprisingly high and sensitive. I was taken aback. What is that song? I asked. It's about a man who has to choose between two girls, he told me. He was singing in the Pamona language, so I didn't catch a word, but his tone had told me so much already.
It was raining too hard that night, the sound of showers on the wooden roof drowning his quiet voice out, so we arranged to record his song the next day. The following afternoon, we met in the living room he'd built with his bare hands so many years ago. It was dark and swarming with bees, and cicadas screamed from the jungle outside. While the relentless cicadas could not be stopped, the family - gossiping mamas and rowdy kids, all stopped and were silent as he played his sad song again, the melody looping as he intoned countless poetic refrains about love in a language I'll never know.