Location: Sindangkerta, Tasikmalaya Regency, West Java
Sound: Aseuk hatong
Do you whistle while you work? From sea shanties to African-American work songs from the deep south, it seems to be a nearly universal impulse to take the monotonous grudgery of physical labor and transform it with music. There's something magical about the way the rhythm and soul of song can imbue the harshest of labor with an enlivening spirit.
You can find examples of work songs all over Indonesia, from the communal work songs of Minahasa to the ubiquitous rice-pounding music, mortar-and-pestle jams played across the archipelago. Such music is often endangered, however, when ways of work change, for example when mechanical rice threshers begin to replace the manual pounding of the lesung.
In Sindangkerta, a remote area on West Java's southern coast, I found a kind of work music unlike anything I'd seen or heard before: the Sundanese rice farmers of the area took a tool used for making holes in the ground (the English word is "dibble"!) and modified it in that ingenious way so common in Indonesia, transforming work into song. They did so by taking the dibble, a long spear-like wooden tool (aseuk in Sundanese) and fixed a small cylinder of bamboo (hatong) near the base. When the aseuk smacks the soil, the hatong rattles with a dry, angklung-like tone.
In that time, most rice was grown in what the Sundanese call huma, a style of dry farming connected to the shifting of crops called swidden agriculture. When it came time for the annual planting season, farmers in Sindangkerta would quickly craft some aseuk hatong and set to work, dibbling in groups with the interlocking patterns so ubiquitous in this part of Indonesia. As the men rhythmically thwacked holes into the ground, women would follow close sowing seeds.
The huma seems to be a musical world of its own, with its own rules and conventions. For one thing, the rhythms are and patterns are dictated by the physical realities of the work: too fast, and you get tired, while beats must be evenly spaced in order to maintain a certain momentum. With that said, there seemed to a certain flexibility to the available rhythms: Pak Hawa, an aseuk hatong expert in Sindangkerta, explained that the rhythms were bebas, or "free." The tones rattled out by the hatong were likewise fairly loose, tuned roughly to the local bamboo xylophone called calung rantay. Over the interlocking rhythms of the aseuk hatong, farmers would sing texts in a peculiar scale Pak Huma simply called huma - a pentatonic scale with aspects of both the pelog and salendro scales common to music in Java.
I'm forced to write about this tradition in the past tense as this tradition, at last in its original context, is essentially gone. The music didn't have an intense cultural significance to begin with - it was functional, not sacred. Pak Hawa explained how after the work was finished for the year, the instruments would simply be thrown away - kids would pick them and play around with the rhythms, and interestingly it was this way that the tradition was continued. However, the end of aseuk hatong came with the end of huma agriculture - as the ancient huma method was replaced by sawah, or wet rice cultivation, the aseuk hatong became functionally obselete. There was literally no need to play anymore.
And so the aseuk hatong was effectively extinct, living on only in the memories of the elders and their stories of the old days when life revolved around the huma. Only within the past few years has the aseuk hatong been exhumed from its extended slumber, re-formatted into a quaint performative art by a nostalgic younger generation looking to get in touch with their agricultural roots. The music's a bit different now - none of the young folks can sing the old huma songs, and the older generation is simply too old to play that part. The tips of the aseuk have been dulled, no longer needing a sharp point to dibble. The new generation, mostly young kids, play the music with a kind of hesitant sloppiness: the muscle memory of repetitive hard labor is simply not there. Still, it's neat to see the aseuk hatong played once more, even if it's just as a quaint symbol of local pride to be brought out for New Year's and Independence Day processions. Although the days of huma are long past, the community has found a way to keep the rhythmic beating of those old work songs ringing on into the future.
Driving down to the coast from the mountains of Tasikmalaya, I could feel the ocean before I could see it, the air turning balmy and the windy road smoothing out before my motorbike. Our destination was Sindangkerta, a quiet little village hugging West Java's rugged south coast. Like so many coastal towns in these parts, it feels a bit abandoned, with empty warungs lining narrow beaches and shallow, unswimmable waters pounded by merciless waves. Both Sundanese and Javanese alike have tales of the Queen of this South Sea (actually the Indian Ocean), Nyi Roro Kidul, an ocean spirit who drags anybody foolish enough to swim in her waters to her underwater kingdom.
I'm accompanied by my friend Anzil, a disillusioned employee of the provincial Culture Department who jumps at any opportunity to share local musical treasures with me, even as his department languishes in bureaucratic malaise. We're taken to a cluster of thatched bamboo buildings not far off the main coastal road that slices through the village. We take off our shoes and sit cross-legged in the cool shade of the hut, shaking hands with a handful of men who'd been idly lounging, ashing their clove cigarettes into overturned seashells.
One of these men is Awa. He has a smile that creases his entire face and irises rimmed with blue and he speaks to me with the patient slowness of someone with experience meeting Indonesianless foreigners. Pak Awa tells me that back in the eighties, plenty of foreigners used to pass through on the way to the famous beaches of Pangandaran and Batu Karas to the east - from them, he learned bits and pieces of English. Despite realizing I speak Indonesian, he peppers his speech with stray "you"s as a symbol of pride.
We ask about the art (kesenian) of aseuk hatong and he replies firmly: "Aseuk hatong is not an art, or at least it wasn't. It's a farming tool. I experienced it!" Two things immediately become clear: the current existence of aseuk hatong is hinged solely on Pak Awa's memory of this essentially extinct music, and the idea of rice-planting rhythms as "art" is a construction largely foreign to him.
Nonetheless, Pak Awa is clearly the gatekeeper of this tradition, and his eyes fill with pride as the aseuk hatong are brought out from a nearby hut, still wrapped in red and white paper from the Independence Day celebrations the month before. Local kids are rounded up - the others in Pak Awa's generation are either dead or can't be bothered, and its up to the young folk to play aseuk hatong these days.
It takes them a while to find their rhythm, shakey tones clacking out as the blunt wooden stakes push through the sandy coastal soil. I take out my gear and record what I can - it seems to be just one rhythm, looped endlessly. There may have been variations in the past, but Pak Awa has taught the kids just this one shakey, looping pattern.
I find myself having to fight against my cynical dislike of children playing presentational folk music - so often it's city kids in gawdy synthetic costumes boredly shaking angklung. However, this time it feels different, especially when these kids spontaneously grab some angklung of their own, the traditional pentatonic variety, and start playing off to the side. It's so rare to see young kids playing music on their own accord, clearly taking pleasure in the sheer fun of mastery and music.
Maybe its my own city boy idealism, but there's a refreshing unforced feeling about the whole thing, kids playing around with bamboo, rattling out the songs of their ancestors as if they were their own. In that moment I feel hope for the aseuk hatong - its days of dibbling out holes in the huma may be long gone, but those skeletal huma melodies are alive once more, a song of pride from this forgotten slice of coastline.
Huge thanks to Kang Anzil, my guide in Tasikmalaya whose tireless passion for the local arts is always inspiring, and to Pak Awa, who so graciously shared his ilmu with us. And to the kids (and stray bapak) who played for me: Ridwan, Hendra, Farid, Ardi, and Yana (plus Anzil, who joined in at the last minute!)