Location: Palu, Central Sulawesi
Sound: Karambangan Palu
To learn about the history and sound of karambangan, head over to my posts on the genre's Poso iteration here. The sound of karambangan in Palu, the capital of Central Sulawesi a long seven hour's drive from Poso, is not drastically different. More often a solo affair, karambangan Palu is sung in the local Kaili language, with inspiration, I was told, being drawn from the ancient sounds of the local kecapi, a kind of two stringed lute found all Sulawesi, mostly in the south.
The song in the recording above, "Irama Dero" or "Rhythm of Dero," is actually, I have to admit, technically from Poso, according to Rocky - it references the dero, a kind of traditional circle dance common in the Poso area (but not Palu) accompanied by group singing. However, Rocky imbues it with enough of his style that I think he's Palu-fied it. Plus, to be honest, it's just my favorite song of his that he played. In the video below you can see two more tracks that more faithfully represent the karambangan Palu sound.
As the sun went down on the steaming bayside sprawl of Palu, things got tense. We'd just been told once again, with looks of real concern, to reconsider going to Poso the next day. "Kacau di sana." It's getting crazy there.
Before we'd flown off to Central Sulawesi, I'd given my friend Greg, who was joining me, a quick lesson on the violent history of the area. Around the turn of the 21st century, simmering tensions between the area's native Christian majority and Muslim immigrants from around the vast island had escalated into full-on sectarian conflict. That phrase, sectarian conflict, so beloved by the media, does little to convey the unprecedented viciousness of the fighting at that time. Sparring in a largely gunless country, militias blasted each other with crude homemade firearms or, more commonly, hacked each other to bits with parangs, machete-like knives across the country in farming country. Innocent citizens, teenagers, were beheaded, their bodies left on the street. Houses were burned.
I'd had the impression, though, that this was history, smoothed over by a decade's worth of healing following the signing of treaties years back. Now a new menace was said to be moving into the former terrorist hotbed of the Poso area: ISIS.
It seemed unlikely - Indonesia's moderate Muslims largely hate ISIS as much as those in the West, and radicalism has not shown itself in a massive way since the Bali bombings more than a decade ago. Some quick searches on our smartphones told a scary story, though, with recent sensational reports of village heads kidnapped by terrorists in the middle of the night, and impromptu road blocks causing trouble on local roads in the middle of the night.
I began feeling seriously foolish - was I really planning on leading my friend into ISIS territory? And for what, to record some guitar music? The whole trip, which had started dreamily with a jaunt into a nearby village to record a quaint group of lutes n' flutes, was now seeming to veer towards nightmare.
Nevertheless, we had an appointment to keep: Rocky was coming over. The new friends we were staying with, an amazingly hospitable group of academics and artist types, had heard of our search for karambangan and promised to hook us up with a local treasure. He was a street musician, they told us, with a remarkable local take on the genre.
That night, we sat in unease on the floor of the bare living room of our new friend's place, a half-constructed house on the edge of town. Greg was looking seriously ill with fear and bad vibes, and I kept replaying the image in my mind of our bus getting stopped, our heads chopped off in the streets of Poso.
Then Rocky showed up, an infectious smile on his face, a guitar in his hands, and a cloud of good vibes hanging around him like an aura. We all sat on the floor together, chatting about karambangan, my project, America, anything but ISIS. Eventually Verry, a fixer of sorts who was the one to have invited us to Poso, came over to, he said, assuage our fears. Everything was going to be okay, he told us as he joined us and Rocky on the floor. The cops had rounded up most of the ISIS guys the month before. Any stragglers were far off from Poso in the nearby mountains. Plus, the area we'd be staying was far from Poso, he'd told us - we merely had to pass through. Greg may have stayed skeptical, but I breathed a sigh of relief and dove into recording Rocky.
The lighting wasn't great in the living room, so we set up on the tiny porch, beside an even tinier, bubbling fish pond. Rocky was such a treat, fingers dextrously picking idiosyncratic, folksy patterns while his voice rang out with a surprising sweetness. The past few hours, full of fear and portent, began to seem like a nightmare vanishing in an amnesiac cloud. The present was happy and bright, full of Rocky's smile, good vibes, and sparkling karambangan music.
Special thanks to Greg Ruben for again providing a fantastic video featuring Rocky and some special footage of the beautiful, bizarre sights of Palu, including its magical floating mosque. Terima kasih banyak juga buat semuanya di Palu yant bantu kami cari musik karambangan di sana, saya tidak akan lupa kalian :)