Location: Kaduketuk (Baduy Luar), Lebak Regency, Banten
Sound: Calung Rantay
Pak Aswadi’s calung sprawls like a musical hammock, its ends tied to a window frame and the trough of a spare gambang xylophone. It shakes slightly as he hits each bamboo key, the quiver reminding me of the swaying bamboo bridge I’d crossed to get to this village in Baduy Luar.
You could say everything in Baduy has this unsteady quality, the palpable feeling of shifting traditions all around. This mountainous area of Banten in Java’s far west is home to the Baduy people, a tribe of Sundanese living intentionally traditional lives. The area and its people are divided into two, Baduy Dalam (Inner Baduy) and Baduy Luar (Outer Baduy.) The Inner Baduy are intensely protectionist, following traditional rules and adat quite closely while barring all foreigners (and, for much of history, all outsiders of all kinds) from entering. Baduy adat is designed to fight against change: everything from formal schooling to vehicles and electricity is forbidden, and working in dry rice cultivation is compulsory.
The Outer Baduy, meanwhile, act as a buffer for these inner communities. Their villages make something of a ring around the inner area, and their people are somewhere in between the intensely restrictive Inner Baduy and modern Sundanese: they still closely follow adat, but are also more open to change. These days, Outer Baduy live in bamboo-walled houses and maintain their Sunda Wiwitan faith, but also have smartphones, Facebook, and solar panels.
Musical traditions vary between the two Baduy groups, with some instruments and musical styles played by one group but not the other. Amongst the musical traditions found only among the Baduy Luar is the playing of xylophones like gambang and calung. Gambang is a wooden xylophone often played in gamelan percussion ensembles found throughout Java, but the Baduy also play it as a solo instrument. The calung, meanwhile, is much rarer. Bamboo xylophones called calung are played in various forms around Java: in Banyumas, Central Java they are played in ensembles also called calung; in Sundanese West Java, calung is famously played in a unique hand-held form, with calung jinjing groups blending poppy Sundanese classics and earthy, Sundanese-language stand-up routines.
The variety found in Baduy is called calung rantay, with rantay meaning “a row.” Illustrations of the Baduy calung rantay can be found dating back to the mid-19th century, such as the picture above of a musician playing a calung whose bamboo bars are suspended by cords strung up between a tree and the player’s leg. These vertically oriented calung rantay are still found in remote South Tasikmalaya more than four hundred kilometers away, suggesting that such instruments may have once been widespread across Sunda.
This was what I expected to find in Baduy, but what I found was surprisingly different, a subtle sign of the always shifting forms of Outer Baduy culture. The calung rantay of Kaduketuk, the first village one reaches after entering Baduy territory, is suspended on a string lattice just like the others, but here it stretched horizontally from left to right from the perspective of the player, rather than towards and away. It's one of those details that may seem arbitrary at first, but has a significant effect on the playing style: the vertical style requires musicians to reach relatively far in front of them to get to the lower notes suspended above them, making play less fluid than the more comfortable left-to-right set-up now favored (and which is standard for most tuned percussion across Indonesia.)
The two calung rantay I saw in Kaduketuk had thirteen keys each made from dark wulung bamboo and tuned to the pentatonic salendro scale. This also differs a bit from the Baduy calung described by Dutch ethnomusicologist and Baduy music expert Wim Van Zanten, who writes of a sixteen-keyed calung suspended on “a skeleton made of bamboo sticks.” It’s not clear from Van Zanten’s description whether the calung he observed was of the vertical or horizontal variety - I’m curious to find out!
Unlike the vertical style which are played with hard wooden sticks, the calung rantay here is played by the soft mallets commonly used to play gambang. This gives it an especially warm sound (one of the neat things about these kinds of bamboo xylophones - see also the Banyuwangi angklung - is that each key is fashioned from a whole cylinder of bamboo, meaning it acts as its own resonator!). The style of play also seems inspired by gambang, but with slower, less rhythmically complex variations. In some pieces, the right hand plays melodies reminiscent of the interlocking parts of the gamelan’s sarons, with the left hand sometimes playing repeating patterns on the lower notes which sound like that of the gamelan’s three-gonged ketuk.
Sure enough, the repertoire for calung largely draws from the Baduy’s own gamelan, here called kromong. Pak Aswadi claims there are dozens of songs: “I could play from night until morning if I had to,” he said with a laugh. He also said that the calung can be teamed up with other popular Baduy instruments like the kecapi zither and the piul, a homemade Western-style violin popular in the area. In its solo form, the calung is most often played on dark, lonely nights to pass the time, the musician playing for his family or maybe just for himself. As part of an ensemble it can play for common events like weddings and circumcisions, although I got the sense it's not played outside so often these days.
It’s a simple instrument, the calung, but I like how even the subtlest shifts in form and practice can illuminate a culture’s openness to change. The horizontal calung rantay may be a sign of changing Baduy tastes in the same way that the violin or piul has largely placed indigenous fiddles like the rendo or rebab. The Inner Baduy may frown on such change as an intrusion of foreign influence and new trends, but the Outer Baduy simply shrug and play on.
Sorry to the folks who want to imagine the Baduy as primitive forest folk: my first contact with the Baduy was through Whatsapp, the social messaging app. I was chatting with Narja, a Baduy Luar instrument craftsman who would go on to be my host and guide. I knew Narja made Baduy bamboo flutes and mouth harps, so I asked, "Do you know about calung rantay?" I was met with the digital version of a blank stare, then “Apa itu?” (“What’s that?”) This was not a good sign.
Arriving in Kaduketuk, though, it became apparent that calung was still around: after Narja asked some of his in-laws, we were led to a tiny storage closet off of one of the Baduy’s iconic lofty porches. Amongst piles of crates and bags of produce, a dusty calung rantay hung in the dark. Narja asked around, but nobody was at home who could play it. We’ll try again tomorrow, he said.
We spent two beautiful days and nights in Narja’s village of Cicakal, an hour’s hike from Kaduketuk (no vehicles allowed in Baduy!) Together with new friend, American sound artist Kurt Peterson, I recorded tons of great music, from Narja’s homemade flutes to a practicing kromong group. Still, I kept thinking of the calung back in Kaduketuk, wondering about the music lying dormant in its bamboo keys.
On our last day in the area, we made the tough hike back to Kaduketuk, with this out-of-shape American struggling to make the way up steep forest inclines as Narja and other Baduy seemed to skip their way along. When we finally made it back to the cluster of thatched-roof homes and rice barns, I threw my heavy pack off and crashed onto a porch, happy to take a breather. Wiping the sweat from my eyes, I saw that the village was abuzz with activity. A wedding was about to take place the next day (the groom was twenty, the bride only fourteen - not unusual for Baduy marriages), and men were busy barbecuing dozens of sate skewers and setting up informal stages while the women cooked up sticky-rice snacks in the kitchen.
I was about to chase after some delicious-looking chicken sate when Narja reminded me about the calung: a neighbor was around who could play it. We walked a few houses down and stepped in through a small doorway into an empty room, all wood and bamboo thatch. A calung was tied between an airy window and a gambang, the calung strings tied to the xylophone’s painted-green trough. Before the calung sat Pak Aswadi, his greying mustache flexing with his smile. Like many Baduy, Pak Aswadi barely spoke Indonesian, so I tried my best with what little Sundanese I have while Narja helped to fill in the rest.
Pak Aswadi played us a few tunes with the relaxed air of a home musician, musical flubs and all. The sound of his calung must have carried across the small village, as before the first tune was up a crowd had gathered in the small doorway, curious faces popping in to have a look. After Pak Aswadi had played a handful of songs, we thanked him for his time and started to pack up our gear, only to hear the sound of another calung from the next house over. Had inspiration traveled so quickly?
We quickly excused ourselves and walked over to the sounds of the other calung. We found a young man sitting in the closet I’d peered into the day before, sitting on a jerrycan and playing the calung with a sheepish grin. Pak Aswadi had insisted there was no younger generation playing calung, but here he was, feeling his way across the bamboo keys, searching for the notes Pak Aswadi had played moments before. I had to laugh: here I’d started the journey thinking there was no calung in Baduy at all, and I’d stumbled upon a veritable rivalry. The calung may have seemed forgotten when I’d seen it the day before, but here it was, bamboo keys singing once again. As we left to catch our bus back to the big city, somebody was still in there, filling the village with those suspended bamboo sounds.
Hatur nuhun pisan, Kang Narja dan Kang Asep (Kurt) untuk semua, dan tentu saja untuk Pak Aswadi!