Location: Cikeusal, Tasikmalaya, West Java
Sound: Beluk sawah (also called eok or magawe in Cikeusal)
You're a Sundanese farmer standing in your jungle-rimmed rice fields deep in the highlands of West Java. After a long day of grueling work, you are exhausted, your back aching, sweat dripping down your face even as the air begins to cool. The sun is already below the forested hills. As the sky darkens the insects and frogs of the forests and fields begin their evening symphony, croaks and chirps lifted through the humid air. Suddenly from the forest comes a howl, high and keening. You put a hand to your ear and howl back, your voice rising above the trees to meet your friends in distant fields. It's time, they're saying, to go home.
These are the origins of beluk, a Sundanese vocal tradition with roots in the dry-rice fields called huma. WIth huma fields scattered far and wide in the mountainous terrain of West Java, farmers developed a system of communication not unlike the yodeling traditions found in places like Switzerland and Africa. The high-pitched vocals share a likeness with yodeling as well, with piercing falsetto and head voice descending in fluid runs to a deeper chest voice. The vocals, mostly wordless, follow in improvisational lines the characteristic pelog and madenda scales that are so integral to Sundanese musical arts.
In her fascinating thesis on ethnicity and Islam in Sundanese music, Dr. Neneng Yanti sheds a fascinating light on the beluk tradition as it exists in the village of Cikeusal, a remote, rural village in the fertile highlands of Tasikmalaya (an area historically rich in musical traditions.) She describes how a shift in agricultural practice from the dry huma tradition to the wet rice paddies called sawah led to a contextual shift in the tradition. Now working together in paddies closer to their villages, the men no longer needed to holler to communicate. Instead, they would sing beluk to their water buffalo (kerbau) as they plowed the fields before harvest, believing that the high, powerful songs would give strength to the beasts of labor. In Cikeusal, they call this tradition eok or seni magawe. Some of the beluk singers that I met claimed that they would even sing to newborn buffalo as they came into the world in the hopes of giving them the power crucial to work in the fields.
From a tradition deeply tied to agriculture and ritual, beluk shifted once more to a narrative religious art. The wordless vocals of the rice field beluk was exchanged for recited religious texts called wawacan. These sung texts tell the stories of Islamic heroes of days past; Wawacan Samaun, for example, tells of Samaun, a brave hero who fights Abu Jahal, the prophet Mohammad's enemy. With this religious context, beluk was transformed into a performative art with groups of singers performing for live-cycle events such as circumcisions, weddings, and ceremonies for a newborn baby (the strange, piercing vocals are said to scare off harmful spirits!) It is this style, sometimes called beluk wawacan, which is most well-known throughout West Java.
Even though they are treasured as unique symbols of ancient Sundanese culture, both beluk wawacan and what can be called beluk sawah are nearing extinction in modern day West Java. Beluk sawah is tied to a agricultural context that no longer exists - not only are the dry-rice fields gone, but the sawah that replaced them is no longer tended to with buffalo - machines can do that job even better these days. Perhaps even more crucially, both styles are threatened by the inaccessibility of the tradition: the beluk singers that I met in Cikeusal explained that while just about anybody can play the terbang frame drum, not everybody can sing beluk - the extended technique it requires is only attainable for a select few. Because of this and other typical factors effecting such artforms, beluk singers are almost exclusively older men.
By hitching on to another local art form, however, beluk sawah may be finding new life in Cikeusal. Locals have found that the local frame drum tradition called terbang gebes meshes perfectly with beluk: unlike other terbang traditions throughout Java, terbang gebes is traditionally vocal-less, a perfect opportunity for beluk, itself a rather austere artform, to insert itself. Dr. Neneng writes that the musicians of Cikeusal have been spurred by a young community of arts lovers in the local urban hub of Tasikmalaya to perform in new contexts and to fresh, urban audiences. Perhaps amongst the crowds in Tasikmalaya lurks a new generation of juru beluk (beluk singers) ready to study with the seasoned pros.
Ever since seeing a video of beluk wawacan, I'd been dying to meet some juru beluk for myself. I'd read that the tradition had been strong in a few villages in Sumedang, just a few hours east of my home in Bandung, so I'd struck out with some friends one weekend to ask around. The expedition was a failure: we came to one village only to find that the group had been disbanded - the men were too old to sing beluk anymore, they said. The locals there told us to check another nearby village. After a confusing search, we found that village as well, only to again be told that the tradition there was essentially gone. It was a dispiriting experience: had I come too late?
Months later I was scouring YouTube and found some remarkable videos of terbang gebes, the Cikeusal frame drum tradition mentioned above. To my surprise, you could see old men standing behind the seated drummers, howling away in that distinct beluk falsetto. The video was not too old, having just been uploaded in 2015. Beluk, it seemed, was still around.
It was through that YouTube video that I met Anzil, the passionate Cultural Department employee who led me to aseuk hatong months later. This time, I arranged a gang of curious friends (John and Linh Ha who were visiting from Vietnam, producer extraordinaire Jo, constant companion Sinta) and we moved in convoy to Tasik. It wasn't an easy trip - seven or so hours to Singaparna, it turned out, plus another hour and a half or so to Cikeusal along crumbling roads. Just as it was threatening to rain, we arrived in Cikeusal at the house of Pak Ipin, the patron and leader of the terbang gebes group.
Pak Ipin wasn't a performer - he wasn't even a local, having moved to Cikeusal to teach in a local school in the 60s. Despite being an outsider, he had a deep, extraordinary knowledge of terbang gebes and beluk. He also clearly commanded respect from the locals, including musicians - at his call, musicians would gather and perform with a remarkable kind of obedience. It was through his help that I was able to gather three juru beluk in Pak Ipin's living room after the terbang gebes sessions (to be shared later!).
As the rain began to fall outside and thunder crashed in the distance, three juru beluk sat cross-legged on mats on the floor, howling those buffalo songs into the resonant space of the living room. It must have been a strange thing for them, to take these muddy sawah songs and sing them in Pak Ipin's pristine living room, lit by the dim fluorescent bulbs above. Despite the historically unconventional context, their voices soared, reaching unbelievable highs. The men would take turns as if in a relay race, putting their hands to an ear to focus on the soaring and descending tones of beluk. I could see that each man had a different technique - Pak Hador, who was sporting a remarkable, scraggly white beard, would barely open his mouth as he sang, the voice seeming to come from elsewhere; Meanwhile, Pak Usup, decked out in a white kupluk cap, would open his mouth wide as if in a scream, then shrink it to fit the syllables that tumbled out.
After they'd sung their voices out, we sat for a while more in the living room, discussing beluk as the rain poured outside. Stories of huma, buffaloes and days past when beluk lived as an integral part in the cycle of harvest that was the lifeblood of rural villages like Cikeusal. Those days were gone, clear enough, but the men expressed hope for the future. I did, too, knowing that soon enough, their voices would be heard not just through the hills of West Java but around the world.
Terima kasih banyak Pak Muhri, Pak Usup, dan Pak Hador, dan untuk Kang Anzil, senang sekali akhirnya bisa berbagi kesenian beluk dengan dunia luar!
"Beluk Sawah" recorded and produced by Joseph Lamont, thanks a million Jo!