"Bakarangha Makrohing" mixed and mastered by Umbu Joseph Lamont, "Kia Wena Manu" by Palmer Keen.
Location: Kendowela, Kodi Utara, Southwest Sumba
Sound: Dungga (also called dungga watika, dungga Kodi, or juk)
Pak Lukas’ dungga looks like a prop from the Flintstones. It’s asymmetrical and rough-hewn, the kasambi wood body seemingly scraped with a dull knife. In a way it reminds me of those kid’s drawings brought to life, something carried inconceivably from the world of imagination to reality. This is not a critique: its wonky curves have real charm.
It’s a lute, you know, like a guitar or a ukulele (or even a jungga.) Try to play it like one of those, though, and you’ll find the impulse impossible: the strings are too wide, the outer lengths of fishing line floating in space, unfrettable. The four strings are asking to be plucked open and free, like a zither. Turn the dungga towards you and your thumbs will find the way, the sound escaping from a hole in the back.
Like the wooden idols he carves to protect his homestead from spirits, Pak Lukas’ dungga seems to harbor life in its organic curves. Just like Hina Ranjataka’s jungga, the Kodi people describe it with the anatomy of a living thing: from the head (katakuna) to the neck (kokon) and the body or stomach (perut). Other dungga I’ve seen in pictures and in an antique shop in Waikabubak are smoother, more refined, with bulging bellies and heads carved into skinny idols.
In Kodi, as in the rest of Sumba, the most powerful, sacred music is played on gongs. Played in interlocking rhythms with one or two gongs to a player, the music is closely tied to Marapu ritual and ceremony, especially funerals. Unlikely as it seems from the looks of it, the dungga exists in the same musical world of these gongs, taking those rhythms and transferring them to its four strings. While gong ensembles can have seven or more instruments, the dungga’s four strings are enough to replicate most gong melodies: the high string, plucked by the left hand, replicates the metronomic sounds of the smallest gong, ngaha; the two inner strings play the sound of the “middle” gongs, dopoduyo, while the lowest string plays the part of the large gong or kaduka.
Even when played together with vocals in a kind of folk song idiom, the dungga maintains this kind of gong-inspired rhythmic organization, the piercing high note of the ngaha keeping time throughout. As the player sings, the remaining three notes follow along with the restricted vocal melody. With the dungga as accompaniment, the singer relates sad stories of love and loss in poetic verse sung in the Kodi language. Between the verses, a female singer or pakalaka may interject with vibrant ululations (kaghiliking) to enliven the sound.
We heard two vocal songs in our recording session: one, “Ambupaneghe Ndenghegani Ole Ndahanghu” or “Don’t Seduce My Lover”, tells the story of a jealous man scaring off potential mates from the girl he loves. The other, “Bakarangha Matkrohing” or “Dead Pet” tells the sad story of a pet-owner who laments the death of his animal friend while reflecting on fate and our own mortality.
Heavy stuff, but cathartic. Pak Lukas, now nearing his fifties, says he’s been playing since he was twenty, sometimes for woleka or traditional ceremonies, but mostly just to relax at home. “I come home from the fields and while my wife cooks, I wait and play,” he tells me. This music seems to exist in a region between the sacred sounds of ritual gongs and the popular folk of East Sumba-style jungga. I get the sense that it's a music more private than performative: the dungga turns inwards, its face towards the player, strings singing for him alone.
Be careful in Kodi, they said. Folks in other parts of Sumba seemed wary of the locals in this part of southwest corner of the island. “They’re rough,” they’d say. “It’s best if you don’t go there alone.” This is an area renowned for its annual pasola festival, where men hurl spears at each other on horseback and masculine energy is vented in late-night bare-knuckle boxing matches.
Luckily, we had a guide. A sweet midwife named Virgo had taken us under her wing at the request of her uncle, a musician who I’d met through YouTube. Smart and cheerful, Virgo and her boyfriend drove us from our hotel near the airport into the sparse, leafy villages of Kodi, a place she knew well from midwifing in the region's remote corners. I told her what we’d heard from folks on the other side of the island, rumors about the rough Kodi people. She shrugged it off, saying only some people were like that.
We arrived at our destination and were greeted with the warm handshake of Ibu Margareta, a dance teacher who runs a fledgling studio out of her home. We gathered in an airy thatched-roof hut behind her house where it soon became clear she was expecting us: a dungga lay on the bamboo terrace next to the requisite offering of betelnut and kids and curious neighbors peeked around corners in full bule-spying mode. Pak Lukas was sitting quietly in the shade, carving a protective humanoid icon from sandalwood. He offered his hand shyly, his lips rouged from betelnut, skinny legs poking out from a gorgeous woven ikat sarong.
Armed with a toothy smile and infectious laugh, Bu Margareta sat with us on the terrace and gave us a rundown of Kodi music with the air of a practiced tour guide. Dungga is the Kodi name for any stringed instrument, she told us: dungga watika, or plucked dungga, is the one I'd been most curious about, but there was also dunggo roro (bowed dungga, a kind of one-string fiddle) and dungga ngalolon (a one-string "bar zither" once common all across East Indonesia but now mostly extinct.) Would we like to hear them?
I admired Bu Margareta's expedience: we'd only been there for five minutes and already we were ready to start! Feeling out the location, we realized the hut's proximity to the main road was problematic, as the incessant parade of motorbikes and trucks would drown out the dungga's soft sounds. No problem, our new hosts said, we'll go farther from the road! We trekked past pig pens and out into some freshly planted dry rice fields, the young plants neon green against the soil. Some kids fetched some plastic picnic chairs for Lukas and Margareta, who seemed to be joining to bolster shy Lukas' confidence as much as for her trilling ululations.
We recorded the dungga roro first. In place of rosin, Pak Lukas ran the horsehair bow through his betelnut-stained lips, his viscous spit providing just enough friction to allow the fiddle to sing its shrill song. Lukas' voice was soft and pitchy, making Margareta's between-verse exclamations all the more jolting. The music sounded mournful, and for good reason: the song, Margareta explained afterwards, was about a drowned child.
Next was the dungga watika, the sound that had drawn me to Kodi in the first place. After some half-hearted tuning (the crude tuning pegs didn't allow for much precision!), Pak Lukas set into it, his thumb plucking out the high ngaha anchor, the other plucking out quarter notes along with his shy Kodinese poetry. After a few days basking in the confident, vibrant idiom of jungga in East Sumba, the sound came as a shock.
We'd come to Kodi expecting to meet pugnacious warrior bros, an instead had met a shy, sensitive artist, a soft-spoken farmer with beautiful red lips. Sitting on the bamboo terrace after the session, Lukas resumed carving his wooden idol, his sharp knife tracing warm eyes into the soft wood. Tourists would sometimes stop in on the way to nearby traditional villages and buy his work, he told me. He was used to sharing that artistic side of himself, but I got the sense that sharing his music with outsiders was something new. I can only hope that as we rubbed noses in the Sumbanese way and left, he could feel proud of sharing his art, his simple, tender creations.
Huge thanks to Kun Mally, whose YouTube video exposed me to dungga and who introduced me to Virgo, our lovely guide. Thanks, Virgo! And as always to Jo for his mixing mastery and Logan for his beard mastery.