Location: Cipta Gelar, Sukabumi, West Java
Sound: Angklung dogdog lojor
Tell most folks in Indonesia that you're interested in Sundanese music, and they'll say, "Oh, you mean angklung?" And if you tell them you live in Bandung, they'll immediately ask, "Have you been to Saung Angklung Udjo?" Part educational center, part tourist trap, Saung Udjo has likely done more than any other institution to promote and spread Sundanese music in Indonesia and abroad. As a performance space, it features daily performances, largely for bussed-in tour groups, which feature adorable Sundanese children dancing about in costume while playing diatonicised angklung. This diatonic angklung and a unique, intuitive teaching methodology allows audiences to join in on shaky renditions of songs from the Sound of Music and Elvis Presley tunes in addition to a few Sundanese classics. It's a weird, watered down way of sharing Sundanese music, but it has undoubtedly been successful in making angklung a household name in Indonesia, and the instrument has been adopted by countless public schools as the default choice for lessons in "traditional Sundanese culture."
I mention Saung Angklung Udjo as this is the image of angklung that most urban Sundanese are familiar with, but few people are aware that its ancestor, what Sundanese call angklung buhun or "ancient angklung," is still around, rattling out radically different, ritualistic sounds hundreds of kilometers away. Before I get to explaining what angklung is anyway, let's leave Bandung to fly over the fertile volcanic mountains of West Java to Cipta Gelar, the far off village where the ancestors of Saung Udjo's angklung play on.
Situated in the remote, jungley foothills of Mount Halimun National Park, Cipta Gelar is one of a handful of villages sprinkled through West Java and Banten provinces which still adhere to an ancient social structure its residents call kasepuhan. The village, which is led by a man who is part village chief, part spiritual guru, is home to several hundred inhabitants who live a life that is remarkably similar to the traditional Sundanese way of life as it has been practiced for hundreds of years. While signs of modern life like satellite dishes and even internet have crept in to their remote community, many practices remain that have long been lost in the rest of West Java. Inhabitants still practice a syncretic mixture of Islam and Sunda Wiwitan, the traditional Sundanese belief system which is itself informed by animism and the Hinduism found throughout Java in centuries past. Rice cultivation remains at the heart of kasepuhan society, and the annual Seren Taun ceremony, in which the community gathers in celebration and thanks for the year's rice harvest, is the pinnacle of each year.
Seren Taun is a huge affair, with villagers gathering from all around to take part in the festivities. The event takes place over a few days full of music and ritual, culminating in a procession in which the rice harvest is carried from the fields on the outskirts of the village to a traditional rice barn, where it is kept to be doled out, in a remarkably socialist fashion, to anyone who needs it.
While the chilly nights are full of wayang golek puppet plays and gamelan, the days are chock-full of angklung, or more specifically, angklung dogdog lojor, the genre named after its two main instruments, angklung and dogdog lojor. The angklung played in Cipta Gelar, massive compared to those found elsewhere in West Java, are bamboo frames up to one meter in height with two or three hollow bamboo tubes attached within. With a skillful shake of the frame, these bamboo tubes rattle out one resonant note ringing over multiple octaves. In order to play a melody, multiple angklung are required - angklung gonggong, panembal, inclok, kingking, and loer. With each angklung producing one pitch, the instruments are shaken in interlocking patterns to produce hypnotic, looping melodies. Driving the rhythm are dogdog lojor, long tubular single-headed drums, themselves playing a number of interlocking patterns below the cyclical angklung parts. Occasionally, this percussive pairing is joined by a sung text or by the double-reed wind instrument called tarompet, but generally the angklung and dogdog lojor play unaccompanied.
While in other parts of West Java, angklung has become a quaint, secular symbol of Sundanese identity to be brought out at cultural exhibitions, festivals, and even weddings, in Cipta Gelar the angklung is still inextricably tied to ritual and religion, loaded with meaning. In the days of Seren Taun leading up to the main event, angklung dogdog lojor is played nonstop, the music functioning as an aural offering to Dewi Sri, the rice goddess traditionally revered in Sundanese animist religion. As such, the music is not performative as it is imagined in the Western idiom - the intended audience is none other than the rice goddess herself. Strengthening this association with the harvest, the cyclical rhythms of angklung dogdog lojor are a musical extension of the seasonal cycles which dominate life in rural Cipta Gelar.
I awoke with a start in Cipta Gelar's Imah Gede, a large central building which functions as a guesthouse, kitchen, meeting place, and residence of Abah Ugih, the village head. My body ached: the previous day my butt had been rattled over nine long hours on motorbike following the road from Bandung to Pelabuhan Ratu in Banten, Java's westernmost province, and then for two hours more on a trail that seemed to consist of nothing but small boulders and mud. While my sore muscles called out for more sleep, I must have flown out of bed, as through the woven bamboo walls of the Imah Gede I could already hear the resonant rattle of the angklung nearby. Thinking I was missing an important performance, I threw my clothes on, donning my iket, the Sundanese headband required by all kasepuhan men during Seren Taun, and rushed through the bustling communal kitchen, dark and smokey from water buffalo sate being grilled over wood-burning stoves.
I followed the sounds to a small alcove, a porch-like nook built into the side of the Imah Gede. I was expecting to find an audience, but was surprised to find the musicians playing, it seemed, for no one in particular. An old man sitting cross-legged in the alcove hailed me over with the underhanded wave so typical of polite Indonesians. I felt unsure. Wasn't I interrupting a performance? This was, I should mention, years ago, when I was fresh to Indonesia, and my exposure to Sundanese music so far had consisted of formal concerts played on the stage of Bandung's Taman Budaya, or "culture park."
That morning was my first introduction to something I would grow to love and respect, the diverse and beautiful tradition of non-performative music in Indonesia. Since that day this musical context has become almost banal to me, but on that day, the concept seemed so fresh and marvellous: music without an audience. Were they playing for no one but themselves?
There was, it turns out, an unseen audience: Dewi Sri, the rice goddess. By playing nearly non-stop throughout the day, the musicians were humbly offering their angklung dogdog lojor music as a heartfelt musical gift, a symbol of appreciation for another year's successful harvest.
As I sat down with the musicians, one of them turned, mid-rattle, and said something in Sundanese to my friend. "He told me," she translated, "that this music is like medicine. It keeps them healthy!" With that, the man handed me a dogdog, seemingly perplexed at the idea that I would sit by and act as an audience member. Following his lead, I beat out a simple, repeating phrase. As I became comfortable with the part, I let my listening drift, noting that ghostly overtones seemed to dance above the earthy rattle of the angklung, following the swaying husks of rice tied to the instruments' frames. It was a profound moment, being invited to soak in that musical moment, for the first time experiencing music that is far more than entertainment, something tied up in an intricate web of meaning and belief with deep, deep roots.
Thanks to Pak Dinda Satya Upaja Budi, who I met in Cipta Gelar all those years back and whose research helped greatly in the writing of this post.