Location: Manna, South Bengkulu, Sumatra
Sound: Gitar tunggal (often referred to in other provinces as "Batang Hari Sembilan")
For a fuller explanation of gitar tunggal, which literally means "solo guitar," you can check out my previous post about the genre as heard in Pagar Alam, South Sumatra. The style, with it's folksy fingerpicked guitar and its songs stretched to remarkable lengths by sung rhyming couplets, is found throughout the southern provinces of South Sumatra, Jambi, Bengkulu, and Lampung, differing minimally in favored tunings and local languages.
The style heard here, native to Padang Guci, South Bengkulu, is nearly identical to what I heard played by Sepri, a gitar tunggal musician from Tanjungsakti, across the provincial border from Padang Guci. While gitar tunggal musicians I've heard elsewhere often cycle between around three chords, plucking out a bassline on the open uppermost strings, the style in these parts is pure drone, with the thumb riding that same tone throughout the length of the song while syncopated pentatonic melodies are plucked out with the index finger, mirroring the languid vocal line. This placid drone and it's accompanying pentatonic filagrees lend a tranquility I find unmatched by gitar tunggal found elsewhere in South Sumatra.
Manna is a town seemingly designed to confuse outsiders. The town's name sounds nearly identical to the Indonesian word mana, which means "Where?", making for some moments that play out like a Who's-on-first joke. I found myself baffled when stopping to buy gas on the jungley, winding road down to Bengkulu's coast, as folks kept asking me "Mau ke mana?" , which would usually translate as "Where are you going?" but now could also mean "Are you going to Manna?" This led to exchanges like:
"Where are you going?"
Luckily the locals found this nearly as funny as I did.
Manna hugs the southern coast of Bengkulu, a sleepy province in Southwest Sumatra hemmed in and isolated from the rest of this slice of the island by the grand Bukit Barisan mountain chain stretching down from the north. One of Bengkulu's only real claims to fame is being the site of a British garrison, Bencoolen, for a century and a half before being abandoned in the 1820s, leaving behind not much more than a crumbling fort and awkward British loanwards in the local language like "blenket" and "skul.") The British were said to have struggled with the climate, and I began to understand this as I drove in from the cool southern Bukit Barisan mountains to the east. Before I could even see the sea I could feel the hot, sticky air that comes with so many Indonesian coastlines. As the land flattened, my shirt began to stick to my back and my long pants started feeling like a bad call.
I'd never been to Manna, but already I had a friend waiting for me, a husky dance teacher named Amat who I'd been referred to by a friend of a friend of a friend. Amat led me on motorbike to his buddy's place, where a gaggle of men, teachers and artist types it turned out, were lazing about, playing guitar and chatting the humid morning away. It was the last day before the fasting month of Ramadan, and they seemed to be making the most of it, throwing back cups of thick coffee and pounding kreteks, the ubiquitous clove cigarettes found everywhere in Indonesia.
The guys were tickled by my sudden presence, asking me what I was doing in this sleepy corner of an already sleepy province. I told them I was in search of ginggong, a jaw harp I'd encountered in the nearby mountains of South Sumatra province and had heard rumors of in South Bengkulu. While none of the guys knew anything about this obscure little musical wonder, they quickly set to work texting and calling everyone they knew in the area who could possibly know about it. While the porch took on the feeling of a call center, I slurped a coffee, listening to their stew of local languages (really dialects of the Melayu language found in Malaysia) and picking out the words I knew from Indonesian. Each call ended up with a shake of the head and a translation to Indonesian - no luck, all of the players are dead, all of the instruments are lost.
Feeling dejected, I aimed for something a bit more readily accessible: gitar tunggal. From my travels from Palembang to Pagar Alam the previous year, I'd learned that great gitar tunggal players dotted the landscape of this corner of Sumatra, as prevalent in these parts as motorcycle gangs and palm oil plantations (that is to say, everywhere.) With the mention of this popular genre, my new friends smiled: we may have no clue about ginggong, but we can definitely rustle you up some gitar tunggal.
After a feast of curry and rice that felt truly deserved before a month of fasting and hunger, we set off into the streets of Manna on motorbike, Amat and me on one bike and a few of the others on another. Bunker-like concrete monstrosities reaching five stories flanked the streets, massive artificial habitats built for swallows, whose valuable nests are sold to Chinese markets. Loudspeakers on their roofs pumped out glitchy birdcalls into the humid air, calling out for birds looking to settle down.
Amat pulled over to the side of a busy, narrow road, trucks passing by on the way down the coast to Java. A man sat outside a striped garage door, seemingly watching the traffic flow by. We approached with the usual exchange of "salaam alaikum"s and handshakes, but something felt different - the man seemed startled by my handshake, or more accurately by the appearance of my hand in his.
After an exchange in the local language out of which I picked "Amerika" and "gitar tunggal," someone went to fetch a guitar. A soft guitar case was placed in the man's lap, and as he fondled the fabric in search of the zipper I realized he was blind, making me feel silly that the sunken, closed eyes hadn't given it away before. Out of the bag he pulled out the nicest guitar I'd ever seen in Sumatra, nothing like the usual dinged-up, out-out-tune, sticker-covered instruments I was used to seeing. This guy must know what he's doing, I thought.
His name, I learned, was Hamdani, and he was renowned in the area for his musical prowess. Avoiding small talk, the man set the guitar into the idiosyncratic open tuning typical of gitar tunggal and craftily bent a safety pin around his finger to serve as a homemade fingerpick. Then, gazing blindly out at the cars rushing by, he launched into a song, fingers a-pickin', his quiet voice straining to be heard over the buzzing street sounds.
Even over the din, I could hear he had something special to share. I was reminded of Sepri, that unassuming gitar tunggal-er in blue jeans who'd blown me away in Tanjungsakti last year. Over the past week, I'd met quite a few old folks whom still remembered the old pantun rhyming couplets but whose fingers were too stiff to accurately play the deceptively difficult fingerpicked pattern necessary for gitar tunggal. After I'd heard more than a few of these earnest yet rusty renditions around Bengkulu, I'd lowered my expectations, but here I had redemption in this man's understated playing. I humbly asked if I could record him and he smiled and nodded his head.
We set up in his backyard garden, away from the motor noise, a family member leading Pak Hamdani by the hand through the house, the rooms dark with cold, concrete floors. He sat down on a stool in the shade of ferns and palms and announced he was to play a song in the style of Padang Guci, his hometown, an hour south of Mana. I'd heard that the folks in that area were culturally linked to the Besemah of Pagar Alam (the cool highlands I'd just ridden down from) and wondered if their tunes would have the same breezy drone.
The song that followed answered my thought (yes, that sweet drone!) but summoned another: was this song as sad at it sounded? I'd heard an equally mournful song in Pagar Alam before, only to learn that the singer was waxing poetic about irrigation equipment. Pak Hamdani answered that the song, "Nasib Malang" ("Hard Luck") was "tentang tuna netra" - "about blindness." I suddenly remembered describing the genre to a gaggle of reporters as "South Sumatra blues," and now the comparison felt even more apt. I couldn't help but be reminded of those great blind blues guitarists of the 30s, guys like Blind Lemon Jefferson, Blind Blake, and Blind Willie Johnson. While there were no blue notes to be found here, Pak Hamdani seemed like a strange cousin to those greats, fingerpicking his way through mournful tunes about the struggles of life in the dark.