Location: Ciater, Subang Regency, West Java
Sound: Bangpret (also called bangpet, gemyung jaipongan, or simply gembyung)
Something extraordinary is happening amongst the tea plantations of Ciater in West Java’s Subang regency. Hundreds of people are coming together in village courtyards and streets to get down and dance, grannies, kiddies, and hijabis converging one and all to the sounds of bangpret. “It’s like at a rock concert” one local told me, and when I finally went to a show, I found he wasn’t far off. Speaker stacks blasted into a crowd hundreds strong, but the sound washing over the audience wasn’t that of electric guitars: it was old Islamic songs, Arabic language mantras over a gong and drum-filled beat.
Bangpret is a relatively new term used only in the tea plantation-rich area of Ciater, right at the foot of the famous volcano, Tangkuban Perahu. It’s an acronym: Bang coming from terbang, a large frame drum, and pret from tarompet, the popular Sundanese double reed wind instrument. At it's core though, this music is simply a new take on gembyung, a kind of Sundanese Islamic devotional music which featured in one of the first Aural Archipelago posts years back. Gembyung is in the same general musical family as styles as widespread as slawatan Jawa in Central Java and kuntulan in East Java’s Banyuwangi regency. All of these styles are said to have roots in the use of frame drum for dakwah, the spread of Islam across Java through proselytizing, especially by the venerated Wali Sanga saints. What’s interesting is how this imagined common source eventually diverged into wildly different traditions, from the shreddy, Osing style of kuntulan to the wild beluk singing-tinged terbang gebes style of Tasikmalaya.
The gembyung style at the roots of bangpret is found all over West Java, from Subang to Sumedang and even as far east as Cirebon, an area on the border of West and Central Java full of royal palace rivalries and unique intersections of Sundanese and Javanese arts. These gembyung styles mix interlocking rhythms played on large frame drums with devotional texts sung in Arabic, Sundanese, or a mix of the two, usually in a Sundanese musical idiom. In Subang, where I've also recorded the old school gembyung style sometimes called gembyung buhun or “ancient gembyung”, the music is a syncretic fusion of Islamic, Arabic language syair or poetry, and elements of Sunda Wiwitan, the animist Sundanese belief system. Some songs are devoted to Nyi Pohaci, the rice goddess, and the music sets the scene for trance dance wherein dancers are possessed by the spirits of ancestors.
Bangpret still maintains this core repertoire (lagu pokok) of old school gembyung tunes or “lagu buhun”, “ancient songs” in Sundanese. Each group may have a slightly different repertoire, but for the group in Nagrak that I recorded, it was a setlist of seven songs, always played in the same order: “Hu Ya Allah/Hu Ya Mole”, “Pinang Kalu”, “Ula Ela”, “Benjang", “Engko”, “Gobyog”, and “Ayun Puntang.” While the titles are a mix of distorted Arabic and esoteric Sundanese, the songs all feature mantra-like refrains sung in Arabic, or at least what is meant to be Arabic. The truth is that, like most Indonesian Muslims, these musicians don’t actually speak Arabic, and so the texts end up having the obscure, unknowable feeling of a magic spell. Sometimes, however, the meaning can be surmised: the text of the song “Ula Ela,” for example, sounds eerily like the shahada, an Islamic creed beginning with “lā ʾilāha ʾillā llāh’” or “There is no god but god.”
Bangpret diverges wildly from classic gembyung, though, in its presentation. While the core repertoire, melodies, even the gembyung drums themselves are still there, the whole thing is sheathed in the music called bajidoran. Bajidoran is a style of jaipong popular on the north coast of Java, from Bekasi in Jakarta's urban sprawl all the way to Subang. Named after the solo male dancers or bajidor who flock to these shows, bajidoran takes the frenetic, dynamic rhythm of classic jaipong and smooths it out into a driving, funky beat. In bajidoran, even more so than jaipong, rhythm is king: there’s often two kendang players, one on each side of the stage, sometimes playing in unison, other times playing interlocking patterns; in addition to these two kendang maestros, there’s often a set-up of three upturned kendang of slightly different sizes playing 80’s rock-like drum fills on the side. To round it out, two or three musicians accentuate the beat with the clang and crash of kecrek, an instrument which in the old days was two cymbal-like metal plates. These days, though, it often consists of some motorcycle brake discs and flywheels thrown in a broken, upturned gong!
What that all amounts to is a sound which takes much of the complex rhythmic subtlety of jaipong and throws it away in favor of pure groove. Some musicians have said that bajidoran has roots in the electronic house music folks heard in the suburban discotheques of Bekasi and Karawang. In Henry Spiller’s fascinating book “Erotic Triangles: Sundanese Dance and Masculinity in West Java,” Spiller writes that some bajidoran musicians call this new, continuous groove “triping,” “a term derived from the English slang term ‘tripping.’” As Spiller succinctly puts it, “in effect tepak triping is gamelan with a house beat.”
What’s remarkable is that these Sundanese musicians didn’t take the easy route and simply slap a drum machine on jaipong (although that did happen in the 80s: they call it breakpong!”) Rather, in kind of the inverse of tanji, which takes Western instruments and plays them in a Sundanese idiom, bajidoran maintains the Sundanese instrumentation and uses it to interpret the insistent, steady groove of house music. The resultant sound is an uncanny fusion: the kendang’s upper drumhead is close-miked and turned up to eleven to produce a distinctive, almost electronic-sounding tone, while the kecreks smash out syncopated rhythms almost like a hi-hat. Even the saron, often the lone melodic instrument in a bajidoran ensemble, plays catchy, looping parts not unlike a house track's chorus synth.
This house music aesthetic as applied to jaipong had a kind of logic to it: jaipong was already modern, sexy, late-night dance music. Tacking the groovy bajidoran style onto slow, spiritual Islamic music? That’s a combination that I’m still trying to wrap my head around. To figure it out, I asked bangpret frontman Bah Caca about it. Explaning that gembyung had only began to morph into the bajidoran-ified bangpret style in the 2000s, Bah Caca reasoned that it was their way of staying current, keeping these old school gembyung songs relevant. “If we didn't change the style, this music would be left behind” Bah Caca said. And so, to keep with the times, a handful of groups in Subang (especially around the tea-producing center of Ciater) started playing what locals now call bangpret.
What about those “concert-like” bangpret dance parties? In Sundanese culture, such an egalitarian dance scene is quite an oddity (after I shared some bangpret videos on Instagram, many local friends expressed shock that such a scene existed.) While bajidoran groups often have female sinden or ronggeng singer-dancers up on stage, it's fairly rare to see women in the audience dance. Like so many Sundanese arts, bajidoran and jaipong concerts are by and large a man’s world. If Sundanese women are to casually dance in West Java, its usually to dangdut or Western pop music. Despite all this, everyone dances at bangpret shows, from your typical middle-aged males to grannies and jilbabed teens. So what is going on here?
The key, I think, is in those gembyung songs at bangpret’s core. A friend in Ciater told me offhand that late night dangdut concerts in the area had been banned for years by local government officials. Such events, and to an extent bajidoran shows, had garnered a somewhat seedy reputation, with many folks drinking and fights sometimes breaking out. And then along came bangpret. The same sexy, modern grooves, but with a pious, Islamic core. There can’t be anything seedy about singing devotional songs to Allah, can there?
And so, I think, the bangpret craze began. Because of the wholesome religious songs that made up bangpret’s core repertoire, is must have been that much easier for those who wouldn’t usually dance to join the fray. Mix that pious image with the seriously danceable bajidoran grooves, and you’ve got a recipe for dance party success.
In some ways, bangpret can feel a lot more bajidoran than gembyung. The gembyung frame drums which are ostensibly at the heart of the core repertoire aren’t even miked, and they’re often put down and forgot about halfway through the set (the same can be said for the Subang-style tarompet singa Depok, whose uniquely smooth sound can usually only be heard in a handful of songs.) On the other hand, the mystical vibe of gembyung is still quite thick despite the party atmosphere. Traditional prayers and offerings are given to the ancestors before performances, and dancers often fall into trance, possessed by the spirits of the ancestors who have come by to listen to their favorite songs.
All in all, I think you can say that bangpret ends up being a special fusion, more than the sum of its parts. It manages to bring in a whole new audience through its danceable bajidoran beats while not necessarily losing the special, heartfelt mysticism that is at the root of its repertoire. Again, just as in other styles like tanji and terbang gebes, we have another example of Sundanese music which is evolving without giving into the temptation to succumb to global trends. That is, it's modern in a very local, very Sundanese way, and all the better for it.
I first heard about bangpret from my friend Zezen, a musician from Banceuy, the village in Subang where I first heard and recorded old school gembyung years ago. “Have you heard of bangpret?” Zezen asked, and I was very excited to say that I hadn’t. What’s that?, I think I asked. Tell me more, tell me more.
I found out that bangpret was booming in Cibeusi, a village in the heart of the jungley mountains of Ciater. I knew the place as the starting point for the hike to Curug Cibareubeuy, a waterfall famously watched over by Pak Ocid, the celempung-playing palm sugar harvester-cum-landscape designer who inspired the first ever Aural Archipelago post. Curious to find out about the next show in Cibeusi, I took to social media and discovered a Facebook group for bangpret enthusiasts: ‘D’Bangpret Comunity.” All it took was a simple query to the members of the group and within minutes I had a date for the next show, a pre-wedding shindig in the center of town.
It was perfect timing. My old friends Zach, Carina, and Dylan were visiting from California and interested about hearing some of this Sundanese music I’ve spent my years here raving about. What a day that would be: Take them hiking to the waterfall, meet Pak Ocid and his celempung, take a dip in the nearby Sari Ater hot springs, and be back to Cibeusi in time for a rocking bangpret show. It all went almost according to plan: the guy who we paid to enter the “Tourist Destination Cibareubeuy Waterfall” not only promised that we'd meet Pak Ocid at the falls, but also that the concert was indeed going on that night, and that it would be huge, “hundreds of people coming!” He was wrong about Pak Ocid, who we didn’t end up meeting that day, but he was very right about the bangpret.
It was a mindblowing party, not only for my green-eared friends but for this veteran wedding crasher. The stage was set up to the side of Cibeusi’s only road, right in the middle of some dried out rice paddies. The whole village seemed to be there, and the dance party lasted for hours. I was equal parts amazed and perplexed, hearing those old school gembyung songs slathered in these groovy bajidoran beats. I needed more.
I ended up coming back to Ciater for three more bangpret shows over the coming months, driving my motorbike into the hills from Bandung in the night, passing by the darkly looming Tangkuban Perahu volcano and descending through the chill of the moonlit Ciater tea plantations. The tracks and video shared here are from a few of these nights: a wedding here, a circumcision party there. While the first band I’d seen was from Cibeusi, I became a devotee of this other bangpret group, Mitra Wargi from a village called Nagrak. I raved about the bangpret experience to my friend Gigi Priadji, a budding documentarian who’s also been travelling around West Java shooting traditional music for his Trah Dokumenter project. Gigi’s video skills are way above my own, so I suggested a collab: Gigi would make a short video, and I'd handle the audio (an impossible task considering the lo-fi soundsystem situation). And so the Trah-Aural Archipelago collab was born: the video (lo-fi audio and all) is available for watching in the embedded video above.