Location: Krakal, Kebumen Regency, Central Java
Sound: Angklung Kebumen
We are living in a beautiful time for armchair ethnomusicology. Pop the right keywords into YouTube, and you can find musical treasures that are rarely heard outside of their home territory, mostly lo-fi videos taken on first generation smartphones and uploaded with simple descriptive titles. It’s a beautiful thing for the uploaders - it's remarkably revolutionary how music, traditional or otherwise, can now be shared, unmediated by the middlemen of traditional mass media, with anybody in the world. But its also beautiful for us sound searchers, those folks always on the hunt for something fresh and beautiful and new.
Just last month I was crawling through YouTube videos of kuda lumping (the mostly Javanese horse-themed trance dance - see ebeg) and found myself watching a variety from Kebumen, a quiet region on Central Java’s south coast between the distinctive Banyumas area and the autonomous region of Yogyakarta. I’d never heard of anything very distinctive coming out of the area, so I was surprised when I heard the distinctive sound of bamboo rattles coming out of my speakers - is that angklung? The video was focused on tranced out young boys riding hobby horses, so the band was not in sight, but it was unmistakable - people were playing angklung in Kebumen.
I’m a real sucker for angklung - I’ve travelled from Banten to Ponorogo in search of its rattley sounds. The instruments essentially take the same general form no matter where you find them - tuned bamboo tubes secured in a frame which is shaken, allowing the tubes to rattle out a tone. Sometimes the instruments are big and huge and mystical, like those used in dogdog lojor, while some even play four distinct tones (most angklung play just one note, in octaves - to play a melody, cooperation between multiple instruments is required.) The instruments are almost always associated with Sundanese West Java, where they’ve really flourished - the region features a dozen different varieties. But throughout the rest of the island, it turns out, lie neat Javanese variations which have gone largely ignored.
The angklung in Kebumen, it turns out, have their origins in nearby Banyumas. Angklung is almost non-existant in Banyumas these days, but in the past it was a major part of Banyumasan music, serving as the precursor to the popular bamboo calung ensembles. At some point a variety of Banyumas angklung was brought to Karanganyar, a cluster of villages in Kebumen, where it was used to accompany badhut, a kind of folk theater involving dance and masked clowns.
What I’d seen on YouTube, though, was kuda lumping (also called ebeg, ebleg, or kuda kepang in the area), and I’d assumed that there was some ancient angklung kuda lumping tradition that nobody was talking about. Turns out kuda lumping groups in Kebumen only just started using angklung (together with kendhang, the common Javanese barrel drums, a sindhen, or singer, and gong) to accompany the trance dance in the 21st century - previously, and even now in most parts of Kebumen, gamelan was the preferred accompaniment. It’s a great example of how even art forms with “traditional” instruments and music can be transformed through recontextualization without succumbing to the call of the keyboard.
I can see why some groups switched to angklung - the instruments have a firm, resonant sound, perfect for the minimalist loops required of Javanese trance music. Differing quite a bit from the Sundanese variety, where one person holds one angklung each and shakes it at the appropriate time, the Kebumen variety features ten or eleven angklung hanging from a large rack. The angklungs span two octaves in the pentatonic slendro scale, with the lowest notes big and bassy, with a single angklung roughly a meter in length. All of these angklung are played by just two people, who sit on the floor behind the rack and rattle five angklung each, deftly switching between notes with a unique grip using all ten fingers. The melodies are not interlocking like other angklung styles - the five lowest angklung are used to play a kind of bassline equivalent to the bonang barung (kettle gongs) in Javanese gamelan, while the higher five play a similar part, slightly ornamented, roughly equivalent to the bonang penerus. The songs or gending are the short, slendro-based tunes of the Banyumas reportoire, complete with the lively vibe and dynamic drumming of the area.
It was a pleasure to find this one - I’d been in Banyumas the week before and gone to meet the last known maker of this kind of angklung there, only to find that he’d sold his last set to a university in Jogja, meaning that they had no more instruments to play (plus, only four musicians remained who could play them anyway!). The situation, clearly, was dire there. But in Kebumen, I found a scene where a new, young generation, always so attracted to kuda lumping even now, were also finding their way to angklung. Already a good dozen groups in Kebumen, maybe more, were using angklung to liven up their kuda lumping sets, and the music was flourishing in a way unlike anywhere else in Central Java. Still, there’s nothing out there outside of YouTube to suggest that this flourishing regional tradition exists - no papers, no articles, no books. We don’t need academia to know that something exists, though - just dig through the Javanese corner of YouTube and you’ll find dozens of primary sources in all their pixelated glory.
Speaking of ethnomusicology in the era of social media, I finally made my way to the right village in Kebumen by following a hashtag: #ebegkebumen. A local guy using the Instagram handle @sumbogonuraji_ had uploaded tons of pictures and short videos to his account, some of them featuring angklung. I hit him up and he suggested that if I wanted to hear the best angklung in Kebumen, I’d better head to the village of Krakal and hunt down the group called Turonggo Mudo (“Young Horse”).
I drove to Krakal based purely off of that hint, with no information or contacts to speak of other than the group’s name. I followed the time-honored Indonesian tradition of finding a person or place whose location you’re not quite sure of: I drove to the general area and started asking people on the side of the street. Little by little I was pointed in the right direction until I found out that I was looking for a Pak Nasri, just up the hill.
I found Pak Nasri squatting in a construction site, wiping cement dust off his fingers. He was visibly baffled at the sight of a random white guy showing up and asking for him, but when I explained that I was looking for angklung, he smiled, stood up, and led me into his dirt-floored home. I gave him my shpiel, asking if there happened to be any performances coming up - I’d just missed one a few days before! - and he gave me his, proudly telling me that his group was famous in the area for their angklung. I maybe have missed the performance, but I could go see the instruments if I wanted.
So I hopped on the back of his motorbike and we sped to another member’s house, where the angklung were sitting in a small room together with a bunch of tractor attachments. Luckily enough, some local kids had spotted the bule and followed us over, and they had been just started playing this past year - would I like a demonstration? There wasn’t a sindhen, the melody-carrying vocal part, but this would do, so they dragged the angklung and kendhang out into the light of the front porch (the gong dragged awkwardly to the doorway) and busted out a few numbers as I filmed and recorded.
After they played, I said “That was great!” and Pak Nasri responded with a humble “It was okay” - he clearly wished his senior perfomers had been around to wow me with some more technical playing, but I was just happy to hear that unique tonal rattle firsthand, un-filtered by the blown-out microphones on an old smartphone. After I had Pak Nasri listen to the fresh recordings on my headphones (“So clear!”, he said with a smile), he insisted I come back for their next performance - he’d let me know when it was. Hopefully I can make it - I’ll be sure to tag any resulting pics or vids with a new hashtag: #angklungkebumen.