Location: Kamanasa, Central Malaka, Belu Regency, East Nusa Tenggara
Sound: Bei Mau
The Cycle of Harvest
Bei Mau is the sound of cycles, loops, and revolutions. The Tetun owe their lives to these cycles, especially to the harvest cycle. Corn is one of their staple foodstuffs, almost as vital as the ubiquitous white rice. For centuries the people here in Timor have traced time according to the cycles of the corn harvest, the revolutions of planting and growth, harvest and re-growth spinning through the years. The pinnacle of each cycle is the harvest, with each one celebrated through ritual, song, and dance. This ritual, called Bei Mau, functions to give thanks for harvests past while hopefully ensuring fertile harvests to come as well.
The Cycle of History
A hundred years ago masses of Tetun people fled the ravages of war in Portuguese Timor, heading west and taking root in the area of Malaka, South Central Timor (then part of the Dutch East Indies, now part of Indonesia). They named villages like Kamanasa after their old homes in the east, sister cities divided by geography and colonial circumstance.
Nearly a hundred years later, history repeated itself as more Tetun flee to villages like Kamanasa, refugees from the brutal war for East Timorese independence. Here in Indonesian Timor they were greeted, as refugees often are, with suspicion and unease. Eventually they settle down and villages like Kamanasa become little slices of East Timor within Indonesia - even the banyan-like trees in the village center are said to have been brought decades ago from the other side of the border.
The Cycle of Ritual
According to Philip Yampolsky, an ethnomusicologist doing fieldword in the area, the Bei Mau harvest festival hasn't been celebrated in Kamanasa for eight years; In other years, nearby villages hold their own versions of the ritual. Some of the young people singing and dancing are experiencing the festival for the first time, while elders have watched the cycle of ceremony turn for decades upon decades. The songs and steps are deep in their hearts, perhaps dormant but always remembered.
The Bei Mau festival celebrates not just the harvest but also the ancestors without whom there would be no life. According to one elder I spoke with, Bei Mau along with Bei Bui were "like our Adam and Eve," and the festival is held to provide thanks to those who came before. What's fascinating is that nearly all involved are devoted Christians, so they have converted this ancient form of ancestor worship into a Judeo-Christian understanding, with Adam and Eve subbing in for Bei Mau and Bei Bui, the progenitors of the Tetun people in this area.
The Cycle of Song
Bei Mau lasts for three days of nearly nonstop song and dance. Special, mystical staffs are thrust into the ground by village elders: as long as the staffs stand upright, the song must go on. That's easy enough, as the songs (according to Yampolsky, the songs sung in Kamanasa this Bei Mau fall under three titles, "Bei Mau", "Etu Hamis," and "Asu'ain") are essentially loops, short melodies and pieces of text sung in unison by whoever's free to join. Multiple texts can be adapted to one melody, with each text considered a "song" despite many sounding the same to our ears. The texts are based on syukuran (an Indonesian term), words of thanks to Bei Mau and Bei Bui for the successful harvest and for handing down these traditions.
Bei Mau singing is participatory rather than strictly performative, as folks come and go, one minute watching, one minute singing and dancing themselves. The songs are usually started by the men, occasionally with an elder soloing freely above the chorus for a few measures, before the whole crew joins in. Men and women take turns rather than sing all together, with the melodies and texts split asymmetrically: in one sixteen-beat song, for example, women sing only three beats each cycle, staying silent for the rest. The contrast is intense: the women's voices quiet and smooth, the men's raucous and ragged. Songs repeat until they fall apart, at which point a few confident singers get another song going, one loop unraveling into another one. So it goes, day and night, rain or shine, for three musical days.
The Cycle of Dance
Bei Mau is music for dance (also called Tebe Bei Mau, or Bei Mau dance), with men and young women coming together to dance in a large circle. Men link arms at the elbow while women hold hands, but men and women may not touch - the genders are bridged by a sarong, a man holding one end while a woman holds the other.
The circle revolves as dancers measure the beat with bare feet meeting grass and soil. The beats are embodied in this slow movement, the footsteps counting out the rhythm of the slow but ever-looping cycles. This embodiment surely helps the singers keep it all together, as some songs feature "odd" beat counts like ten or long, dragged out sixteens.
Circle dances don't work for performance in the usual sense: if you're the audience looking on from the outside, everyone's looking away from you. They are meant, then, for the use and enjoyment of those within the circle, not for the folks peering over their shoulders. As the men swing slowly around, they eye the girls on the other side of the circle, girls who must be unmarried to join (no such restriction is set for the men.) It was suggested that these restrictions may help the Bei Mau function as something of a marriage mart: men, married or not, can check out potential mates on the other side of the circle. It's not clear if women have the agency to do the same: they are instructed to cast their eyes downward, staring demurely at their feet.
Ritual and ceremony in Indonesia is fascinating to me, but I rarely get to experience it: often these so-called upacara adat are only held once a year, so you've got to be in the right place at the right time. Sometimes the planets align and I find myself at that crucial nexus, such as for the bubur suro ceremony in Sumedang, West Java, or for a wedding procession in Lombok.
At their worst, these rituals can be hollow affairs, co-opted by local government, carried forth into another year out of nothing but a sense of duty. I attended one in Banyuwangi, East Java, an annual trance ceremony called seblang. It felt like a perversion of something that may have once been vital and meaningful: local government bigwigs gave long, boring speeches, awards were handed out in front of swarms of local media, and the whole thing was broadcast live on a huge screen in addition to being live-streamed on the internet.
Bei Mau was remarkable, then, for two reasons. For one, I was in the right place at the right time: months before, I had e-mailed an ethnomusicological hero, Philip Yampolsky, for advice on what to check out in Timor. To my surprise, he was in Timor already, and Bei Mau was being hosted near his field site right when I was meant to arrive. Yampolsky graciously invited me to the event with a few provisions, one being that I'd follow the rules (no recording inside the circle, no wearing Western clothes in the performance space) and another being that I wouldn't get in the way of his equally important research either.
Secondly, Bei Mau felt wonderfully uncorrupted by meddling government types with their love of stages and squeaky-clean presentations. When we arrived in Kamanasa, activities were already underway, with loose circles of men and women already forming in a green grassy space near the center of the village surrounded by large, thatched communal homes. There was no audience as such, just temporary non-performers lounging in the shade of the porch-like spaces, chewing betel nut and drinking sopi, a kind of local palm wine. Some men handed me a sarong and told me to put it on: I took off my sandals and shirt, exposing my flabby, pale skin to the attendees who laughed and joked in a language I didn't understand. This was the uniform for all attendees, according to adat, or custom. No flip-flops, no shirt, no hats. Just a woven tenun sarong, tied at the waist, and a headband. The young girls wore sarongs hiked up to their armpits, their hair pulled up into beautiful, elaborate buns adorned with silver headpieces and jewelry.
I cautiously approached a dancing circle, feeling unnaturally exposed in only a sarong. Setting the levels of my digital recorder, I realized that as beautiful as all of this was, it was a recording nightmare: the men were already drunk from an afternoon of doing nothing but drinking sopi, so their voices were boisterous and unrestrained in stark contrast to the refined voices the girls were aiming at their feet. So not only were the levels all over the place, but the circle was constantly rotating: I found myself creepily following the girls from behind as the circle revolved, trying to even out the disparity by distancing myself from the hooting bros. All the while, elders ran about policing the participants, the men chastising too-drunk bros and the women standing behind the girls, positioning their shoulders just right, coaching them on their form.
At some point some cue was given and the men ran excitedly to the homes that fringed the grassy space. They returned bearing stalks of corn like spears, thrusting them above their heads with excited cries and laughter. It was time for the perang jagung.
Yampolsky had told me about the perang jagung, or "corn war." The way he'd described it made it sound like a quaint harvest-time game, like bobbing for apples: as part of Bei Mau, men would take corn and throw it at each other. I wasn't quite sure what to make of it, but was eager to see for myself.
A palpable, aggressive excitement was building amongst the men, with some pushing drunkenly through the crowd with their stalks of corn only to be reprimanded by the closest elder with a smack to the head. They were waiting for the other side to be ready: as it turns out, Kamanasa is divided into two hamlets called Manelima and Liurai. Little did I know that these two groups were about to engage in something close to ritual warfare.
Another cue was given and the mass of men began to march as if into war, shouting and spearing the sky with their corn. I rushed ahead, filming it all, gritting my teeth as my bare feet dug into gravel and the war cries reached a fever pitch.
After crossing the main road through town, we met the fenced-in compound of the new rumah adat, an important building often full of powerful relics, musical instruments and magic. What happened next seemed to happen in slow motion: first, the men began to chuck their corn spears into the fenced-in area surrounding the rumah adat. Then they began to run.
I didn't see the rocks at first, only hearing the crash of something hard and heavy on a nearby tin roof. Then I saw men ducking behind the bamboo fence like soldiers in the trenches - this was about as far from bobbing for apples as you could get. Rocks were flying through the air from across the village, exploding with a crash at my feet. Suddenly catching this all on video didn't seem like a smart priority - it was more important to not get my head bashed in.
A crowd of more passive men called me over to their shelter. They were huddling under the metal roof of a nearby patio, excitedly watching the chaos unfold. The second a rock would bounce off the ground, another man would pick it up and chuck it into the air. In all this time, I didn't see the "enemy," and neither, it seemed, could these guys. That seemed to be beyond the point, as conflict broke out within our own ranks: little scuffles started to erupt into fistfights amongst comrades, with men pushing their tattooed, muscular chests out in displays of machismo. Old women came from out of nowhere, wailing and pulling at their sons, trying to break it all up.
As I inched out into the street, a man walked by with a bleeding bulge on his forehead the size of an egg: he'd clearly been hit. It was no matter, I'd later be told: head to the rumah adat, and you'll instantly be healed. The guy who told me this had showed me his mangled arm as proof, saying "A crocodile nearly bit my arm off, and the Western doctors wanted to amputate. I went to the rumah adat, applied some oil and ritual, and I've still got my arm today. See!"
Even if you could magically heal yourself, why all the fighting? Were there real tensions here, or was it all a kind of ramped-up performance? Or something in-between? After the dust settled, men and women began to emerge from their impromptu fortresses, heading for a large banyan tree in front of the rumah adat. I followed, unaware of what I'd find.
I was shocked to find not macho standoffs and arguments but singing, dancing, and smiles: The Bei Mau circle dance had now begun in earnest. The circle had enlarged to include everyone who had been brawling and chucking rocks at each other moments before, dozens of men and boys linking arms in harmony. The girls filed in as well from wherever they'd been hiding, making a circle of their own within the larger one.
It was a potent contrast, from conflict to cooperation, strife to singing. It took me a bit to realize that may have been the point of the perang jagung to begin with, a taste of conflict to make the ensuing harmony that much more powerful. As the night makes the day brighter and distance makes a bond stronger, it seemed that this riotous mock battle had just made the way for the most touching vision of social harmony I had ever seen.
The Bei Mau songs continued into the night, dancers lit by a small fire within the shrinking circle. As the chorus shrank, the quality changed: only the hardiest and most experienced folks continued. Even the older women joined, despite the tabboo against married women, their tough voices a better match for the ever raucous men.
Eventually, we had to go home: we'd heard the same three melodies looped non-stop for a better part of the day, and it was likely to go on late into the night. We returned again the next day to see the girls' new costumes: each day, they would change in and out of their families' prized tenun sarongs, a chance to show off their finest textiles to the neighbors. I didn't make it to day three: I had to catch a ride to Babotin to look for the bamboo sounds of knobe oh. Still, two days had been more than enough ritual (and warfare) to last me for quite some time.
The obvious hero in this story is Philip Yampolsky, the man who generously invited me to join him for Bei Mau, despite having never met me, and who provided a lot of the names and other info shared here. Whether he regrets it will be clear after this post, but it meant the world to me to join with a hero of mine and see and hear something very few outsiders ever get to see; It was a privilege I'll never forget. A huge and humble thanks also to the people of Kamanasa, who so graciously shared their culture with me and so persistently showed their enthusiasm at my presence by stopping me every two minutes for a selfie.