Location: Noepesu village, West Miomafo District, North Central Timor (TTU) Regency
I like to think there’s a subversive power to the reimagined stringed instruments of your typical bidu ensemble. These remarkable string bands are scattered all over a central band on the Indonesian side of the island of Timor, an island historically torn apart by colonialism and conflict, both the Dutch and the Portuguese working hard to strip the island of its prized sandalwood at the expense of the indigenous people. It is through this twisted colonial system of cultural and material trade that Western string instruments like guitar and violin must have first found their way to the island. Just as their trees were taken, the people of Timor (the Dawan, Tetum, and others) flipped the story, taking these Western music machines and indigenizing them, molding and hacking them to their liking until they were something distinctly their own.
The guitars of bidu look like they were drawn from a dream, constructed based on secondhand accounts. They’re elongated and asymmetrical,but as it turns out there’s nothing slapdash about them at all. First, it would help to throw away the idea that they’re guitars at all - really, the Dawan people (also called Meto) in North Central Timor call them bijol (ethnomusicologist Philip Yampolsky draws attention to a possible etymology from the Portuguese word for guitar, violao, but notes that it is mere speculation rather than a traceable lineage). They’re made with the kind of ingenuity that is necessary to build fairly complex string instruments in the remote hills of a very poor island. The wood, they say, is taken from a local tree they call dedap, glued together with the sappy resin of a special onion-like root. The plucked instruments, some larger (bijol naek, playing rhythm) and some smaller (bijol ana, playing melody), all feature four strings.
The fiddle, called heo in Miomafo, is even farther from its source material (at least in that neck of the woods - elsewhere, I saw bidu bands using instruments closer to standard Western violins). Its form is flat and rectangular, shaped again from dark, local wood. The strings are made from the gut of a squirrel (although these days it is just as common to use fishing line or other synthetic strings), the bow made from wood and horse hair. Just like the glue, the bow’s resin is harvested from the sap of a tree Dawan call kelali which is found, they told me, only on the island’s south coast. In their reimagining of the fiddle, the instrument doesn’t sound right without an antene, a wooden spike with rounded, melted plastic on its end which is wedged into one of the heo’s sound holes. The antene makes the heo louder, they said, and upon fiddling with it, taking it in and out, I had to concur - it was louder. The antene will be of no help, though, if the instrument is touched by a woman - in that case, the Dawan musicians I met told me, the instrument will cease to sing.
It is not only in shape that this music diverges from its hazy European origins. Unlike other string bands, like the karambangan band I recorded in Sulawesi, the music played by bidu groups seems to borrow very little if anything at all from the Western idiom. The tunes are resolutely droney, never giving way to the imperative of harmonic progression. Over this essential drone (the large bijol naek strummed in a scratchy style Yampolsky noted as “garuk”, the smaller bijol ana fingerpicked), the heo scratches out occasionally more melodic filigrees.
The bulk of instrumental melody comes from the very Timorese addition of a feko ana, a small two-holed wooden ocarina (conceptualized as three holes in Timor as the bottom hole is covered and uncovered as well) usually used as a whistle to call dogs and cattle. Set free over the drone, the feko’s sweet high-pitched whistle tone glides virtuosically in improvised melodies between verses.
As usual, I’m guilty of diving too deep into the seductive material charm of the instruments at the expense of another key aspect of this music: the group vocals. Every area in Timor that has bidu music has its own vocal style, but in Miomafo where we recorded, the vocals had a very particular melodic contour, not as sweet as those heard elsewhere in areas like Insana. The lyrics are poetic texts both set and improvised, building meaning from the common rhyming couplets generically called pantun. In a key example of their creative spontaneity, this group sung a song they later called “Kolo Muit Pani, Panje Nlak Nem”, or “White Bird Flew Here From Afar,” a not-so-subtle nod to their unexpectedly pasty foreign audience.
Finally, its important to note that this is music for dance - bidu is actually only technically the name for a dance style, not the music itself. The dance is spontaneous and informal, all shaking shoulders and twirled scarves. At our recording session in Miomafo, only men danced but it is open to women as well.
Perhaps because of its informal, secular form, bidu has not been as proudly preserved or reverently protected as other musics in Timor or elsewhere in Indonesia. After its heydey in the latter half of the 20th century, the music has been on a slow decline, so much so that the group we met with had only played a handful of times in the last decade. The musicians I interviewed seemed at pains to legitimize the music, almost defensively: we’ve been recognized (a kind of sponsorship) by the local government since 1989, one musician said, stressing that their music is sometimes played in the local churches along with a choir, a kind of badge of institutional status. Nonetheless, they lamented, no young people have taken up the torch - the youngest members of their group were in their forties, the oldest already creeping into his eighties.
Despite the stagnation of the music’s traditional acoustic form, it seems a new style based on synthesizers and drum machines has blossomed, at least in Insana - check out this green-screened music video, big bijol visible but inaudible, replaced by the thrum of a synth. Romantic or not, this is one viable avenue for this music to stay alive and relevant, despite the musicians I spoke to calling it “strange, not fitting” with the music’s original spirit. It seems fitting, though - having taken and repurposed guitars and violins so many decades ago, it’s only appropriate to start putting their own spin on electronic sounds, subversively reimagining them in that amazing way so unique to Timor.
Finding any information at all about the current existance of bidu was a challenge. Other than Yampolsky’s fantastic recordings and liner notes that were released as part of the seminal Music of Indonesia album series, there was very little information at all about this art form, and even those resources were already decades old. Other than a handful of brief mentions, there wasn’t much written about it, and Yampolsky had even mentioned the relative scarcity of the groups when he was in the field in the 90s. I had no idea if there was any music to be heard at all.
It’s become a cliche in my posts at this point, but once again YouTube saved the day. After commenting on a cell phone video of an arts festival in Insana, I received a surprising response: the uploader, a guy named Denny, didn’t live in Timor anymore - he lived in Bekasi, on the outskirts of Jakarta. He’d love to accompany me to his far-off island, he told me, to share his culture with me personally, asking nothing in return but the opportunity to share his heritage with the world.
A few months later, I was in Timor, my friends Greg (mastermind of the Central Sulawesi video series we made last year) and Marianne (Greg’s partner turned recording assistant) in tow. Denny put us up in his grandfather’s home in the village of Mamsena and promised to arrange everything for us, including a meeting with an amazing bidu band. His great uncle, coincidentally, was the leader of a well-known group in Miomafo, a regency far from Mamsena in the foothills near Timor’s greatest peak, Mt. Mutis.
We rented a pickup and clung to the truck bed as it climbed into the green hills, passing quaint villages specked with enigmatic little straw huts called ume bubu which looked like nothing else I’d seen in Indonesia. When we were firmly in hill country, we stopped at a local market and bought a handful of offerings from the group: veggies, sopi (a kind of local rice wine), and a couple of live chickens in a cardboard box. The gifts rode with us in the truck bed, chickens and all, for the rest of the way.
After the familiar succession of deteriorating country roads, we met an old man walking down a hill, bijo in hand. He climbed in, followed by a handful more. This was the band, Denny told me. We had reached the land of mountain-style bidu.
We continued on foot, the dogs leading the way through the brush along a muddy hint of a path. After a few hundred meters, the trees cleared and we found ourselves crossing a narrow, creaky bridge over a stream and into an unbelievable setting: dry, rolling rice paddies spotted with straw huts like gnome homes, all under the looming green face of Mt. Mutis. We couldn’t have asked for a more spectacular performance place.
Denny’s great grandpa and the rest of the band were waiting at their humble farmhouse in the middle of the dry fields, the musicians decked out in their finest and most colorful ikat. We doled out the veggies, chickens, and sopi, with the sopi received most gratefully - it was passed around the group as instruments were tuned up, a lubing of throats and spirits. At one point, I spotted one of them using his feko, the dog whistle ocarina, as a straw, covering the fingerholes and sucking the sopi through it. “It sounds better when its wet,” he explained.
Newly spirited, we decided to record in the fields around their home, a gorgeous spot with forested mountains, including the great Mt. Mutis, all around. Greg, ever the diligent cinematographer, planned the shoot, arranging the group along a rock wall amidst the dried out rice paddies, perfectly positioned against the idyllic tableau. Together, we filmed each song in addition to recording it, soaking in the visual spectacle - the twirling dancers, clapping hands, and strings a-strum. We had really lucked out - a photogenic groups of men dressed up in their finest, making beautiful music in an otherwordly location. Between sets, I played music of my own on a dan moi, the old men laughing and dancing along as more sopi was passed around.
After the session, we sat together and ate the chickens we'd brought from town, talking over the history of the music and the group. When asked if they'd been recorded before, I was met with a surprising response: the last time was with Mr. Philip, twenty years ago! Turns out I had, by chance, managed to record exactly the same group my ethno idol Philip Yampolsky had recorded in his travels through Timor nearly twenty years ago.
Huge thanks to my team, video guru Greg Ruben and sound assistant Marianne, plus fixers-turned-friends Denny and Franky (Tryles), and of course to the musicians of Sanggar Tefa Mnasi Naepesu: Silvester Poli (bijol/letes), Yoseph Poli (heo), Mikhael Nali (vocals), Lukas Tefa (Heo), Baltasar Nali (dance), Mergorius Nanis (feko ana), Marselinus Naben (vocals), and Matias Paul (vocals).