Location: Tanggeran, Banyumas Regency, Central Java
Sound: Buncis (also called angklung buncis)
To the average Indonesian, buncis means "green bean," that staple vegetable you get in the warung along with some rice, tofu, and tempe. Ask folks in Tanggeran, Central Java about buncis and they'll start going on about princes, daggers, bamboo rattles, and trance. The key is in the singkatan, or acronym, the linguistic construction ubiquitous in Indonesia which turns nasi goreng (fried rice) into nasgor and angkutan kota (city transport) into angkot. In a clever backronym, buncis is split into two parts: bun (from buntar, or handle) and cis (a small dagger.) This leaves us with more questions than answers, doesn't it?
Encapsulated in this name is the origin story of buncis, the bamboo rattle music of Banyumas. Locals tell of a local prince, Raden Prayitno, who was sent by his royal father to search for a new bride. This search leads, in the convoluted way of folk tales, to a kind of scavenger hunt, with the prince searching the kingdom for various relics in order to win a princess' hand. As he received one such relic, the cis, he clumsily dropped it, splitting the buntar (handle) on the ground. Upon being broken, the dagger's handle immediately transformed into a giant hairy creature while the dagger itself turned into a snake-like dragon. The creature knelt before Prince Raden and promised that if the prince were to defeat a local ruler, he would happily dance before the king to the sound of bamboo. After Raden had defeated the ruler, the creature fulfilled his promise and danced in celebration to the rattle of bamboo; his dance was forevermore called buncis.
The bamboo rhythms to which the creature danced came from the angklung, a bamboo rattle found throughout Java (I've covered various forms like dogdog lojor and gondolio already, see those posts for more descriptions.) In Banyumas, the instruments sport three tonal bamboo tubes set in a bright red frame and are played in a large group, with one musician playing one or two angklung each. Anchored by a Banyumas style drum (kendhang) and the "blown gong" (gong tiup or gong bumbung) so popular in the area, musicians flesh out popular Banyumasan melodies piece by piece through tricky interlocking patterns.
As if just remembering when to rattle wasn't hard enough, musicians perform the dance called buncis as they play. Perhaps inspired by the wooly creature in the origin story, the men dress up in fanciful headdresses and skirts and dance in a circle like Javanese Lost Boys, rattling out familiar tunes all the while. As the music becomes more intense, some become possessed by spirits, leading to a tranced-out performance similar to that found in the local ebeg trance dance.
This performance is still popular today in the village of Tangeran, the only village in Banyumas to feature this kind of angklung (according to them!) - it's used to welcome guests in addition to enlivening circumcision and wedding ceremonies. Despite staying fairly active, the angklung buncis group of Tanggeran find the future of this unique art-form on shaky ground: few young people express interest these days, and the musicians are all getting on in age. Perhaps the key is getting their music to a wider audience, outside of their little mountain village, so that more folks could realize that buncis is much more than a bean.
"Does anybody live way out there?"
I was pointing out the window of my friend Yusmanto's minivan as we zoomed through the countryside of Banyumas, To the east was a ridge of mountains, dark and covered in forest. They had an emptiness about them, so I asked.
"Tanggeran is in those mountains", Yusmanto replied. "That's where we'll find angklung buncis." Sure enough, later that night Yusmanto was plunging his van into the dark hills, clambering over a path that felt more like a dried-up riverbed than a proper road. As we made out way into the village, we stopped at lonely houses with lit-up porches, asking for directions to the buncis. Everyone knew what we meant, luckily enough.
It seemed they were already expecting us, as when we pulled up to the leader's house, men were already spread out on the porch, drinking coffee and smoking kretek in their sarongs. Yusmanto had arranged this all for me, and he was greeted with respect and ushered into an awkward sitting room which was mostly used, it seemed, to store angklung. The instruments sat on the tiled floor, dusty and red. The leader, Pak Sarwono, explained that he'd made them himself, but was still learning - in the past they'd bought their instruments from a bamboo artisan in the next county over, but he'd wanted to make his group entirely self-sufficient. He was still figuring out what kind of bamboo to use - some instruments were a patchwork of bambu wulung, a strong bamboo popular with instrument makers, and bambu tutul, another variety. I smiled to see that even as their tradition was functionally shrinking, men like Sarwono were still finding ways to sustain their music from the instruments onward.
After the requisite Javanese small talk, we were on the dimly lit porch, sitting much more comfortably on the ground. Neighbors had gathered and were standing off to the side, watching curiously as the men passed out their angklung and gave them a shake, trying to find their place in the scale (the instruments are not given individual names but are referred to by their number, 1-5, in the slendro scale.)
After a shaken intro shared amongst friends, the drum and didge-like gong tiup joined in as the rhythms gelled, the busy, syncopated bamboo bounce echoing the bamboo calung Banyumasan gamelan ensembles so popular in the area (an art-form itself said to have roots in angklung music). Sarwono seemed to have been tagged as the reluctant vocalist, as he sat beside the drummer and shyly played the part of sindhen, his voice barely audible over the busy rattles. As always with these peppy Banyumas-style tunes, improvised vocal exclamations called senggak were passed about the group, from hypeman-like "hey hey hey!"s to the distinctive Banyumasan "Oh-ey-oh"s.
I was struck by the continuity of Banyumasan musical form - even when played on radically different instruments, like the kaster ensemble in Purwojati, the musical idioms remain largely the same. What was clearly important with kaster and again here with the angklung was this sense of rame, a feeling of buzzing liveliness, with every corner of the musical space full of booms, rattles, and free-form interjections. It was dark and cold and nearing midnight, so none of that famous tranced-out dancing took place that night, but the music was enough.
Musicians: Kendhang - Karsono, Gong - Radam, Vokal, Sarwono, Angklung - Sumarno, Saidi, Warto, Awin, Misan, Satim, Marijan.
Terima kasih banyak untuk kesempatan ini, Pak Yusmanto dan pemain pemain buncis di Tanggeran.