Location: Lingsar, West Lombok
Sound: Gendang beleq
When it comes to gamelan, Bali sometimes seems to get all the glory. Don't get me wrong, I love Balinese gamelan - with it's super-shreddy interlocking parts and mystical aura, it was the first Indonesian music to woo me, way back in high school. But an island away, in Lombok to the east, amazing musical events happen daily with little notice from the outside world.
Take gendang beleq - here is a musical artform that really takes you by the throat and doesn't let go. It's been said that the music originated as a way to stoke the passions of Sasak warriors going into battle, and its easy to see why - the music is positively electrifying.
The name, gendang beleq, means "big drum" in the local Sasak language, and the reason becomes clear the first time you encounter an ensemble. Gendang beleq is like a Sasak marching band, a mobile mob of shreddery with the drums leading the troops. The drums are indeed massive, cylindrical beasts with resonant goat-skin drum-heads and elaborate batik fabric wrapped around the cylinder. As in so many gamelan forms, the two drums, lanang and wadon (thought of as male and female), play separate patterns that interlock in heavy patterns.
Behind the drums, a gang of young guys playing ceng-ceng, incredibly loud hand cymbals, bang out similarly interlocking patterns while dancing in formation. Following these guys is the quiter ceng-ceng kecek, an array of small, overlapping castanet-like cymbals which sit in a small wooden frame and get beaten by two tiny handheld cymbals. Behind the brash clang of the ceng-ceng, this subtle addition keeps a steady yet dynamic ts-ts-ts-ts pulsing beneath.
We're only halfway through the group, some of which stretch to thirty or more musicians! After the cymbal guys come the various gongs: first the pairs of reong, horizontal gong-chimes the circumference of dinner plates which beat out subtly melodic, ever-changing parts shared between players. The reong come two to a player, housed in a wooden frame with the golden face of gods carved and painted on the front. Similar to the instrument found in long rows in Balinese gamelan, the reong requires remarkable skill, as each hand must beat and dampen each gong while playing complex, lopsided parts.
Next comes the petuk, identical to the reong but with only one gong instead of two. In the caboose of the jam train are two massive gongs that require four men to carry - the kempur, which maintains order with its steady, metronomic flow, and the massive main gong (simply called gong as far as I know), which confidently divides the gamelan's characteristic cycles.
One more! The suling, a bamboo flute, is played by a musician standing between the gongs. The suling's wailing melodic loops are sent through a cable to be amplified by a klaxon-like speaker, held high above the crowd on a bamboo pole. When asked how the suling could be heard in the days before amplification, the musicians claimed mysteriously that it simpy found a way.
With no warriors to send into battle, Lombok has found other contexts in which to let gendang beleq clash through the streets. For a long time, gendang beleq has been the music of choice for nyongkolan, a specialty of Sasak weddings in which the bride, groom, and a stream of revelers parade through narrow village streets to the bride's house. But recently a new option, both cheaper and cooler, has taken over: dajal, I've heard it called - DAngdut JALanan. Literally "street dangdut," this fairly recent Lombok invention takes the famous Indian-tinged pop music of dangdut and mobilizes it for nyongkolan by sticking towering speaker stacks on massive wheels and attaching keyboards, crash cymbals, and mixing boards. Gendang beleq never stood a chance.
The artform is far from dead, however. Sensing its potential to be a musical mascot for Lombok on par with Bali's gamelan, local and national government has pumped money into gendang beleq, funding troupes and making sure gendang beleq is always present at tourist-packed festivals. Once again, the context has changed but the music lives on to play another day.
My first experience with gendang beleq ended in tragedy. On my first trip to Lombok more than two years ago, I'd wandered into a village in North Lombok in search of the music, asking random villagers on the side of the road about the possibilities of spotting a nyongkolan or sitting in on a practice sesh. I was in luck: "We have gendang beleq!" they'd told me proudly. "Practice is tonight!" I'd later learn that this really meant "We'll move practice to tonight as long as you buy the whole group cigarettes and coffee!" Eager to hear the sounds for myself, I decided it was worth it for a private performance.
Indeed, it turned out to be an amazing experience, and I left Lombok with a digital recorder full of sounds and a heart full of joy at the craziness of it all. However, after taking a ferry over to the next island of Sumbawa, tragedy struck. I found myself at a dance rehearsal in the west of the island, complete with a fascinating local ensemble. I'd stuck my digital recorder on the small stage to get it as close as possible to the group, which was a fatal mistake: a dancer, stepping backwards, crushed the recorder under her foot (she looked down, blushed, and danced on.) The recorder, thankfully, was fine, but the memory disk was not. MEMORY ERROR, the screen read. FILES LOST. DREAMS CRUSHED.
I know, I'll always have the memories, but I'd wanted nothing more than to share those recordings with the world - the sound was so intense, like nothing I'd heard before. I vowed to record gendang beleq again one day.
Thus, when on a recent third trip to Lombok a friend invited me to a nyongkolan complete with gendang beleq, I jumped at the chance. To be honest, though, I was a bit suspicious. The week before, I'd been invited to a nyongkolan by the leader of the genggong group of Gelangsar with promises of gendang beleq, only to be met by the more commonplace (but strangely awesome) dangdut jalanan. I was starting to think that the only way to hear gendang beleq these days is through bribes of coffee and kreteks.
The next day, my friend and I drove across the island to Lingsar, a village in West Lombok famous for its hybrid Hindu-Muslim temple complex (the cultures of the Hindu Balinese and Muslim Sasaks collide in amazing ways in Lombok.) The nyongkolan was said to start later in the afternoon, so I killed time by taking an enlightening tour through the bustling temple complex which, it turns out, was literally next door. After the tour, I passed hours on the living room floor of my friend's family's house, drinking too much coffee and watching the newly edited wedding video on repeat (the wedding proper, I learned, was the week before.)
Just as I was coming to terms with another letdown, a pickup truck pulled up out front, the bed loaded with costumed musicians and their gongs, drums, and cymbals. Almost immediately they leapt out of the truck bed and assumed formation in the narrow street, launching into an opening number which had neighbors coming from all directions and kids abandoning their games of harassing tourists at the nearby temple.
The bride and groom, both decked out in gold-flecked outfits and makeup, took to the front of the formation followed by a loose assortment of revellers, family members, neighbors, and randoms. With a hired policeman whistling cars out of the way, the procession took off down the street as the band launched into more wonderful clanging.
I was faced with a challenge - how to record a group on the move? The band was so spread out a balanced mix was out of the question. But why, I thought, should I try to record a balanced mix at all? As the band started to march on without me, I was nearly left behind as I stood and considered.
Not to dive too deep into pretentious field recording theory, but my job as a field recordist is never to record some objective truth in all its perfectly-mixed glory - that simply doesn't exist. Rather, all I can hope for is to get my recording, coming as it does from a digital recorder, my so-called "digital ears," to align with my own subjective listening experience. I include this "context" section, after all, not just to wax nostalgic but also to hopefully bring you, the listener, as close as you can get to my own personal musical listening experience.
Part of the charm, I realized, of hearing gendang beleq in this processional setting is precisely that heightened subjectivity - depending on where your ears are in relation to the group, the music can sound remarkably different. As the band approaches, the thick pounding of drums first fill the air, then the overwhelming, intoxicating clashing of the ceng-ceng. Next, if you allow the band to overtake you, the clear, rippling permutations of the reong drift by, followed finally by the deep, body-shaking gongs and the wailing loops of the suling from the loudspeaker hoisted overhead.
Keeping that in mind, I delighted in using my own position as a kind of impromptu mixer, running forward to the drums, falling back to the ceng-ceng, keeping pace with the reong. As we marched through the village streets, the sounds of the band seemed to sweep through like a tsunami - I even saw kids standing by with their fingers in their ears, in awe at the blast of sound. Soon, a heavy rain began to fall, soaking nearly everyone, but the music played on and the attendees seemed nonplussed, dancing through newly forming puddles. When we finally made out way to the bride's house, the band quickly disbanded while family members pushed their way inside to get out of the monsoon. The music was gone, but my ears rang for hours.