Location: Near Purwokerto, Banyumas Regency, Central Java
All across Java, young people are going wild for trance music. The beats are heavy and repetitive, and the effect is clearly intense: huge crowds get caught up in the rhythms and altered states abound.
I’m not talking about electronic music - the trance I’m talking about is something closer to spirit possession than rolling on MDMA, and the music is of a whole other world. In Banyumas, an area of Central Java bordering the Sundanese west and claiming its own Banyumasan culture, this art is called ebeg (in other areas it's called kuda lumping, jathilan, or jaranan). Named after the woven bamboo hobby horses that young men ride into trance, ebeg is one of the most popular forms of folk entertainment in Banyumas - hundreds of ebeg groups are scattered about the area, and shows are constantly going on all throughout the countryside.
“Ebeg is our rock music.” So said one ebeg enthusiast, explaining that the hard-hitting saron metallophones and intense drumming is pretty damn hardcore. The music is played on a pared-down gamelan, that ubiquitous percussion ensemble found all over Java (but featuring here on Aural Archipelago, somehow, for the first time!). It’s a crude, informal setup compared to the elaborate, gleaming gamelans of the kingdoms of Surakarta and Yogyakarta to the east - instruments are sometimes made of iron as opposed to bronze, and gongs were in the past replaced by cheaper and more portable resonant metal slabs.
Because the music is meant to be loud and intense, the ensemble is essentially a gamelan without the “soft instruments” like gender or rebab. While some ebeg bands are pretty minimal, the one I recorded was fairly fleshed out: it featured the typical metallophones called saron, peking, and slenthem, large and small sets of the kettle-gongs kenong, seven hanging gongs (not all of which were played), the large and small drums kendhang and ketipung, and even a big Western bass drum and cymbal for extra percussive emphasis. Locals mentioned that the reed instrument selompret was used in the past to carry the melody but has since been replaced by female singers or sindhen, a change that I’ve heard was influenced by the local cassette industry and its love of divas.
The ensemble sets itself apart from other similar trance dance ensembles in Java through its unique Banyumasan style kendhang playing (said to be influenced by the intense, dynamic Sundanese style in nearby West Java), the five-tone slendro tuning ubiquitous to Banyumas, and the local songs sung in the local Banyumasan dialect. The saron playing, I noticed, is also really intense, nearly drowning out the rest of the softer instruments and even the singing.
I call this trance music as its repetitive melodies and driving, insistent beat is a key element in the accompanying trance dance, itself called ebeg. This intense, performative spirit possession is both theatrical and highly spiritual. Young trancers and the shaman-like penimbul or dalang ebeg who lead them in and out of possession must prepare for days before a big performance, enacting a series of rituals such as fasting, bathing in nearby streams, and visiting legendary graveyards to collect roh, a Javanese conception similar to energy or spirits. As the hypnotic rhythms of the gamelan set the mood, the young boys bow before their penimbul as the roh is pushed into their bodies.
The manifestation of this trance or possession depends on the spirits that have entered: some are said to be nenek moyang, or ancestors; others are spirits of animals like tigers, monkeys, and horses. Dancers possessed by monkeys squat and scratch and clown about like monkeys, while tigers crawl around on all fours. Sometimes, the possession is explosive and violent, with boys convulsing on the ground, growling demonically. Others stand nearly frozen, their eyes glazed, their mouths twitching. Others, perhaps those in lighter trance, may dance in unison with their friends with bouncing, semi-choreographed movements.
As one local friend explained to me, this is a true kesenian rakyat, or art form of the people. Dancers, musicians, and audience members are almost always members of the lower class, and as such art forms like ebeg have rarely gotten much respect from the higher echelons of Javanese society. What’s more, because of its associations with pre-Islamic Javanese spirituality, it often comes into direct conflict with modern, conservative strains of Islam. Performances are often banned or broken up by religious authorities, and because of performance’s wild nature, the government and police have always seen art forms like ebeg as potential sites of rebutan, or disruption. Despite (or maybe because of?) these contestations, ebeg has thrived in Banyumas, a rare traditional Indonesian art form that is in no danger of dying out.
The show is just getting started when we arrive in a small village in the hills north of Purwokerto, Banyumas’ largest city. Already hundreds of people have gathered in a large ring around the performance space, a patch of dirt cast in shadow by a towering clump of bamboo. The event is a kebyag, a kind of publicity show where fledgling ebeg groups can strut their stuff and get practice at the same time. There’s just one gamelan, but because of the potential publicity, there are something like a dozen groups - all of them will perform at once.
I’ve been led here by Pak Herman, a rich industrialist from Purwokerto who is a big patron of dozens of ebeg groups - he clearly garners respect and admiration as we enter the space. Pak Herman is a fascinating character: nominally Christian, his beliefs and worldview are intensely Kejawen, a complex syncretic Javanese belief system that is largely informed by pre-Islamic practices like animism and ancestor worship. Pak Herman sees ebeg as an art form threatened by what he called Islam keras, or “hard Islam”, the kind of conservative, Middle Eastern style Islam that has been slowly taking hold of Java over the past half century. In this religious climate, his patronage and ebeg itself become a radical act of subversion against religious elites who seek to do away with an art form many consider to be backwards and primitive.
Pak Herman sets me up in front of the gamelan and tells me to keep on eye on my equipment: not only is there a high likelihood that my recorder will get knocked over by a flailing dancer, but much of the crowd is drunk on ciu, a kind of local moonshine. Just as the music gets going, a song has to be cut short as two drunk guys almost break out into a fistfight. Later, a fat man with a dyed-red mullet mischievously thrusts against me as I’m filming. Despite the bro-ey atmosphere, this is also a family event, with kids and their grandmas watching on from the back.
The show begins with an event called laesan, a take on the trance dance called sintren, popular on Java’s north coast. In this version, a young man has his arms tied up and a large, fabric-covered cage usually used to keep roosters is placed over him, obscuring him from view. Dancers revolve around the cage on hobbyhorses as the music plays, and when the songs tops, the cage is raised up to reveal the boy has not only escaped from the ropes but has emerged as a girl, make-up, veil and all. The “girl” is paraded about the crowd, his/her face glassy-eyed, entranced. Audience members find it hilarious, with catcalls coming from the drunker spectators and people rushing into to take selfies with the tranced-out transvestite.
After that little introduction, the show gets started in earnest - penimbul and their subjects enter the dirt ring and the rites of possession begin. Soon more than a dozen young men are prowling about the space, their arms thrust behind their backs, eyes bugging. Following certain musical cues, the boys sometimes join together to dance as one, hopping from one foot to the other: I can feel the ground shake beneath my feet as they do so.
The atmosphere becomes increasingly intense as the band plays a non-stop medley, sometimes looping back to gending (songs) they’ve already played if a spirit particularly likes it. Eventually a dozen or more troupes of dancers and penimbul are performing at once - it is pure chaos, with some heading off to nearby front yards behind the stage, others heading to the bamboo grove beside it. Some penimbul carry large whips which they strike in the air with a crack - sometimes they use them to strike their tranced out dancers, who are by then so deep in trance that they seem to feel nothing. As the tempo builds, the air is exploding with these explosive cracks of lightning. It starts to rain, and boys roll around in the mud, coating their clothes and hair. A gang of monkeys crawls about in a corner, some of them climbing high into the bamboo.
An ebeg show is pure spectacle, like nothing else in the world. There’s an intoxicating unsteadiness to it all - because there are so many groups performing and trancing at once, there’s no focal point, no one thing to focus on - your eyes simply flow from one bizarre event to another. Audience members themselves are drawn in, throwing themselves before the penimbul before violently becoming possessed. There is no real separation between audience and performers, as the crowd mingles with the possessed in order to get a view of the mayhem. Multiple circles form like circle pits at a punk rock show, vortexes of chaotic energy. As I film the whole thing, my camera flows from one event to another: first, a female penimbul, young and tattooed, wrestles with her possessed subject, literally massaging the spirit out of his body at certain pressure points; a monkey boy crawls about, motioning for his buddies to give him a cigarette; a boy stands as if frozen in a fighting pose, eyes bugging out of his head; a man walks by with a tray of ice tea on his head.
It must be this kind of unpredictable intensity that allows ebeg to be so popular today, at a time when people rarely care for anything considered “traditional.” It’s visceral, theatrical, funny, surreal, and yes, somehow, very rock and roll. I left the event just as I’ve left rock concerts: ears buzzing, heart pumping, sweat dripping down my back, thinking: that was awesome.