Tracks recorded by Palmer Keen and Joseph Lamont, mixed and mastered by Joseph Lamont.
Location: Palanggay, East Sumba
Sound: Jungga as played by Ata Ratu
Note: This is the fourth episode in the series called Sumba Strings. To get a more in-depth look into the jungga music played by Ata Ratu, check out the first part here.
She stares right at you from the album cover, her gaze cool and hard. The woman sits in front of a corrugated wall of bamboo, her collared red blouse popping against the warm painted blue. In her hands is a fantastical instrument, a jungga shaped like a tiny electric guitar, stylish fins and all. The jungga is a mess of red, white, and blue, and its covered in writing. In a red that matches her blouse is written her name: Ata Ratu.
The album is Smithsonian Folkways’ Music of Indonesia, Vol. 20: Indonesian Guitars, an album which I’ve returned to religiously over the years, both to listen and as a resource. I’ve tracked down and recorded for myself nearly every guitar style on the album, from the gitar tunggal of South Sumatra to the sayang sayang of West Sulawesi. I’ve even recorded the same artists twenty years on, such as Band Teleu Nekaf, the bidu string band of West Timor. Haingu himself, the star of Sumba Strings, Pt. 3, is featured on track four.
Philip Yampolsky, the American ethnomusicologist who recorded the whole brilliant Music of Indonesia series and should probably get a whole page devoted to him on this site, was clearly enamored with Ataratu’s performance. “She sang for thirteen minutes straight,” he writes in the liner notes, “and if we had room on the CD, we would have published the whole thing.” Yampolsky mentions that her name, along with Haingu, was brought up again and again in East Sumba as a musician worth recording. Even now, twenty years on, she clearly has something of a legendary status.
Everywhere in East Sumba, I’d tell folks that we were planning on meeting and recording Ata Ratu, and they’d respond with a knowing style. Oh, Ata Ratu, they’d say, she’s famous. Some would have amateur recordings of hers on their phones. As we neared her village, asking directions to the village chief’s house, we dropped her name and got the same response.
Ata Ratu lives in the driest, harshest landscape I’d ever seen in Indonesia. This corner of Sumba is quite literally savannah, dry grass stretching across flat, arid earth for miles and miles. After tracking down the head of her village in search of permission and a place to stay, we were escorted across the plains on motorbike, a small gang of bikes (my buds Logan and Jo following close behind me) bumping our way along dirt paths, the sun beating down on our arms. At one point my bike slipped in a puddle of sticky mud and I fell into the earth, the motorbike crushing my legs, thinking “Where did that water come from?” Jo pulled up behind me on his bike and laughed at my misfortune, taking photos as I struggled to my feet. We were all thinking it, I think: we are very literally off the beaten path.
Ata Ratu’s hut was down an even narrower dirt path, a stilted wooden hut surrounded by rare trees. Dogs barked from under the porch as we sat on the edge, shaking hands with the woman herself. The twenty years past clearly showed on her face, but she was still beautiful, her drawn lips sandwiched by parenthetical creases on either side. She doesn’t really speak Indonesian, our new guides told us, only Kambera. I spoke to her in Indonesian, hoping the neighbor would my long, heartfelt message: I’m a huge fan; I’ve come from across the country to meet you, and I’d love to hear you sing. I’ve been listening to your song for years. The sentiment must not have been translated very well, if at all: she responded with a suspicious frown, looking down at her hands. There was an awkward silence as we waited for her to respond, and for the response to be translated back into Indonesian.
She’ll sing, we were told, but only one song, and she wants a million rupiah (around 75 dollars.) I rarely talk on this site about the money I pay musicians as it's an awkward topic, a taste of capitalism in the free and beautiful flow of music which I try to cultivate. But it's almost always there except for very special circumstances, a slip of cash from hand to hand, “cigarette money” we call it. Let’s just say that the amount Ata Ratu was requesting for one song was far more than is usually asked or suggested (a million rupiah being more than a month’s wage in some parts of Indonesia) for an entire concert of material.
It was an awkward moment: here was a strong woman, a woman who clearly did not want to be undervalued. She saw some foreigners pull up in a flurry of motorbikes and giant backpacks, and made a judgment. Little did she know or care that we were not from some fancy institution, no grant-backed budget behind us: just three dudes who’d flown to Sumba on a shoestring hoping, with the generosity of the locals, to hear amazing things.
I’m not going to talk more about money, as it still embarrasses me, but I’ll tell you that we came to an agreement on that porch: Ata Ratu would play us three songs. Her house was crawling with barking dogs and chirping chicks, so we agreed to meet in the field in front of her house, away from the animals and in the light of the sun.
We were soon reminded of the sun's fierce heat, so we set up instead in the shade of some trees, a neighbor’s hut behind us. Pigs lazily paced the fields in the background, chickens following close behind. Curious locals saw us setting up in the shade and came to watch, keeping a distance. A dry wind blew, the fuzzy dead cat of a microphone’s wind screen fluttering dangerously.
Ata Ratu prepared herself with a serious air, a seemingly well-practiced routine. She tuned the four strings of her jungga with a patient determination, the instrument’s austere, unpainted body a world apart from the whimsical instrument I’d seen on the album cover (and with three extra frets!). She used a shard of plastic as a pick, but soon found it too flimsy. She bound across the grass and grabbed a plastic jerry can from beneath the hut, taking a knife to it to whittle a new pick, a tattoo of a mahang spirit on her forearm moving as her lean muscle flexed. I was, frankly, intimidated.
With a stern nod of the head, Ata Ratu signaled that she was ready. Her new plastic pick came down on the brake cable strings with that now-familiar deliberate intensity, and her voice soon joined the dry, oddly metered picking. It was a stunning voice, somehow even stronger than the thirty-something Ata Ratu on Yampolsky’s recording. It was firm and full, something that shouldn’t have surprised us but somehow still did.
Our three song allotment soon up, we sat on the grass as I tried to get to know this incredible musician better. She'd been playing since she was sixteen in the late seventies, she said. Self-taught. Her husband made her jungga himself, and Ata Ratu was but just one of his three wives. People came from all around to play, and she travelled across the east side of the island to play at harvest ceremonies.
I took out my notebook and a neighbor helped Ata Ratu and I transcribed part of what she’d sung. “Mi kalanguruwa ha kammu rongu a ai…Baku hali aya ka ha, nduma luri a mu nu ha ei una ni angu.” Using the lawiti verse form in her native Kambera tongue, Ata Ratu had improvised a message for us, incomprensible on first listen: “Listen, I’ll be sad when we part. I hum this song for you, sir, who will soon leave.”
Who knows if she meant it: Ata Ratu remained as stonefaced as ever, and I knew that, as is tradition, she had probably picked these lines from her stock of verses to fit the occasion. Like any devoted fanboy, I wanted nothing more than for Ata Ratu to warm to me, to see that my intentions were good, that my only aim is to share her music with the world. Maybe, though, a fitting stock phrase would be enough.
Months later, I was invited by the Europalia International Arts Festival in Belgium to curate a night of music to join their massive Indonesia-themed, quarter-year-long event. The organizers were interested in talent outside of the Javasphere, as Java and its famous neighbor Bali were already plenty well-represented. My thoughts immediately went to Ata Ratu and her incredible voice. What if she were to play at this festival in Belgium, getting the chance to share her music outside of her remote province for the first time?
It was a gamble, but it’s happening: later this year, Ata Ratu (along with two other musical acts to be announced later) will be playing at Europalia, her voice reaching a whole new audience of soon-to-be fans. It’s a huge opportunity, for her and for me, and I can’t wait. I’ll update this post with the exact information for the shows when I get it!