Location: Taripa, Central Sulawesi
On an island as diverse and sprawling as bizarrely-shaped Sulawesi, it's surprising to find any cohesion in culture. Home to peoples as disparate as the Bugis, notorious Muslim pirates in the south, to the Torajans, Christian/Animist death obsessors of the highlands, it's a land home to a bizarre jumble of cultures and traditions. However, if we conveniently ignore distinctions like piratiness and religion and zoom in on musical culture, we can see a unique continuum arise.
Within a span stretching nearly a thousand kilometres from the white sand beaches and ship-building towns of Sulawesi's far southern tip to the first knuckle of it's northernmost finger near Palu, a tradition of lute-playing and oral poetry can still be found. The lute itself, while varying a bit in size and shape from place to place, is called kecapi nearly everywhere. Ethnomusicologists like to call it a "boat lute," and a good look will show why: the wooden instrument has a remarkable boat-like shape if seen with its two-strings face up, the neck tapering into a bow which often features beautifully ornate ornamentation. Rather than frets, it features unique little circular nobs at points along the neck that provide a place for changing the pitch of the string (one string usually drones on while the other provides melody.)
In the Bugis south, the kecapi is sometimes paired with biola (violin) or pushed front and center for goofy shows where virtuosos clown around and show off onstage, doing handstands and playing behind the back like Jimi Hendrix. The kecapi tradition flows onwards towards the Mandar lands of Sulawesi's western bulge, where the head is beautifully ornamented and musicians play solo, cradling the instrument like a baby while improvising poetry above its drones.
Finally, we reach the area around Palu in Central Sulawesi, the kecapi's northern terminus (although uncannily similar instruments can be found as far as the southern Philippines!). Here, the kecapi is fleshed out with one of my favorite musical ensembles in all of Indonesia, which the local Kaili people call dadendate. That wonderfully rhythmic name (said like da-de-nda-te) comes from dade, meaning song, and ndate, which means going up a mountain to reach your destination. This strange name simultaneously recalls the music's mountainous origins and, the musicians say, the metaphorical journey its poetic stories take, winding upwards till they reach their end.
In the typical dadendate ensemble, two kecapi are paired with mbasi-mbasi, an end-blown bamboo flute played with the circular breathing technique to allow for an endless stream of sound. A Javanese style kendang, an odd rhythm section so far from its home, drives the beat. Above it all, as in so many Indonesian ensembles, the poetic lyrics hold the real magic. In fact, the style is said to have evolved from an a capella artform, only reaching its current form, with kecapi and mbasi-mbasi, in the 1950s.
In a tradition shared with the Mandar kecapi tradition and sayang sayang guitar music south of dadendate's homeland, the lyrics are spun from thin air, improvisational weavings of stories and good advice. These lyrics may match the occasion - if playing for a student's graduation, the singers (often a man and a woman) will take turns doling out sound advice for the young person's life ahead. Just as in the Mandar tradition, audience members are picked out and commented on, their presence becoming part of the song itself.
Like so many Indonesian musical traditions, especially those that are hyper-regional (dadendate being found in only a small pocket in a certain corner of Central Sulawesi), this music is facing an uncertain future. At the time of my visit, there were few if any young people willing or interested in learning this obscure art. It's quite possible that, when the older generation that is sustaining dadendate eventually passes, so too will this artform, the seemingly infinite flute-lines and spontaneous poetic creations silenced forever.
I'm only just beginning to learn how much more streamlined this music-hunting process can be when you have the right hook-ups. This time out, an ethnomusicologist friend put me in touch with a delightful crowd of scholars and musical enthusiasts (the same friends who made the recording of Rocky's karambangan guitar ballads possible) who took me and my videographer friend Greg under their wings and became some of the most helpful folks I've ever met. After picking us up from Palu's tiny airport in the middle of the night, our new friends arranged for a dadendate recording expedition the next afternoon, calling ahead to the village to warn of our arrival.
That morning we hopped into an SUV and drove out of Palu's humble seaside sprawl, climbing up into the jungley mountains nearby. After an hour, we were truly in the middle of nowhere, driving down narrow dirt paths and stopping to ask directions from bemused farmers (is this becoming such a given in my stories that I don't need to mention it anymore?). Cars, full of foreigners or otherwise, clearly didn't trek out to these parts too often - we even had to take an alternate route upon finding that the path we were following crossed a little creek with a bridge made of a few soggy logs, enough for a motorbike but not for our intrepid expedition.
As things were beginning to seem unreasonably remote, we finally reached Taripa, one of the last bastions of dadendate. We were ushered to the home of the dadendate group's leader and into a living room with bright pink walls and kecapis strewn about. If Greg and I had ventured there unaccompanied and unannounced as i often do, we may have spent hours politely requesting and waiting for the chance to record the music, but with our unreasonably helpful hosts, arrangements zipped along, and within a short time we were out of the house, scouting for a performance spot.
We settled on a leafy area behind some homes, near the edge of a ravine. Mats were spread out upon dead leaves and curious villagers gathered along the fringes of the scene as the musicians positioned themselves in a picturesque arrangement. The whole tableau looked a bit stiff and formal, and I wondered what a more natural performance might be like, the group playing at a party in celebration of a newly built house or at a casual social function.
Dadendate vocalists are famous for riffing on the spot about their audience, and this time they did not disappoint. While the meaning was lost one me in the moment (I'm not yet fluent in their obscure sub-dialect of the Kaili language!), their leader later explained that the song was a musical welcome to their village. "The singer, Pak Levante, sang of his gratitude", explained the grandfatherly leader of the group, "because we usually only see foreigners on TV or in the news, but today you've come to our village, Taripa."
After the performance, the light slipped away and candles began to flicker outside homes as family members lazed about on broad concrete porches. As we drove home that evening through the buzzing forest, past bored faces flickering in candlelight, I could see the appeal of a storytelling medium like dadendate in a place like this. On dark, electricity-less nights like this, with little to do, did the band still play, amusing their family and friends with songs about each other, stories and proverbs and poetry? And if so, how much longer will these lutes and flutes play on into the night?
Big thanks to Greg Ruben for producing the amazing video you see above - the final edition in our Central Sulawesi trilogy. If only I could bring him on all of my expeditions! Also big thank you to everyone who helped us those days in and around Palu - Pak Pri, Ehman, Zuul, and the rest of the gang. Terima kasih banyak teman teman di Palu, tanpa bantuan kalian proyek ini tidak mungkin.