Location: Tambaknegara Village, Rawalo, Banyumas, Central Java
Sound: Gondolio (sometimes spelled gandalia, also known as bongkel)
The Sundanese angklung surely must be one of the sparest melodic instruments in the world: the instrument typically features two bamboo cylinders tuned an octave apart which, when rattled in an abacus-like rack, sing out one earthy note. Unless you team up with some other angklungs to craft a melody through clever hocketing, you're stuck with a hyper-minimalist rattley drone.
I like to imagine the inventor of the gondolio, way back whenever it was (dates are rare in the historiography of Indonesian folk music!). This ingenious Javanese farmer must have heard or played angklung buncis, the ensemble of small angklungs played by the folks of Banyumas, that borderland where the Sundanese culture of the mountainous west, usually kept at bay by geography, history, and pride, mingles with the Javanese culture to the east. Maybe he was something of a loner, sick of all the teamwork involved, longing to play a simple melody all by his lonesome.
If an angklung has two tubes, this guy must have thought, why not play two different notes? But wait, why stop there? Why not widen the thing out a bit and stick four tubes in a frame? Sure, if you play it like a typical angklung, you'll just get a chord, but some clever damping with your fingers and palms could allow you to play note by note. In this way, sounding out simple four note melodies (the notes snatched from the five-tone salendro scale so popular in Banyumas) no longer requires all that pesky teamwork!
Sure, this is all guesswork as far as the history is concerned, so lets move on to what we do know. After the gondolio's creation, it never seemed to spread from the village in which it was born. Perhaps it was pride: gondolio can be translated to English from the Banyumas dialect as "It's ours!" In this delightfully hyper-local way, the gondolio rang out in but a handful of bamboo huts, hangout spots where the farmers of Tambaknegara would sit and rest during long days in the heat of the fields. On those days, a musician told me, gondolio didn't just provide solitary amusement. The music served a practical purpose as well, as the resonant rattle would spook off pests like wild boars and rats from the farmer's crops.
At some point in the sixties or seventies, the gondolios were put away, collecting dust as farmers found new ways to amuse themselves. They were largely forgotten until the past decade, when some local ethnomusicologists seized upon them as an important piece of Banyumas musical identity, ordering more instruments to be made and crafting a new life for this unique evolution of the angklung.
The second wave of gondolio took the music from the fields to the stage, with an evolution inspired by the region's calung Banyumasan, a kind of bamboo gamelan ensemble. New additions included drums (kendang), vocals, and the calung ensemble's gong bumbung or gong tiup (literally "blown gong," a didgeridoo-esque bamboo tube, blown into a resonator for a booming gong-like effect.) The gondolio itself multiplied from one to four, although staying true to its solitary roots, the melody is played in unison, not shared.
It speaks to the organic authenticity of this new gondolio music that I had no idea this format was something new at all until I got talking to the musicians in the village's one and only band. The four men who played gondolio, all wrinkled and wise, seemed proud of their unique ensemble but wistful for the good old days, when they'd sit and shake out a four-note tune, humming along with the rattle as birds scattered from the crops.
It was an odd feeling, driving into Javanese territory. Folks in Sundanese West Java sometimes refer to trips to the rest of the island as "going to Java," as if it were another world and not just another part of the same huge island. I'd been to Central and East Java countless times, but always on a sleepy eight-hour train ride, dozing off on the outskirts of Bandung and materializing in this far-off land of Java. With this in mind, you may be able to understand my genuine surprise at hopping on a motorbike in Bandung and, within a few hours, passing from Sundaland, with its cool highlands and countless "Ci-" prefixed placenames (Cibodas, Cidaun, Cikalapa!), into Banyumas, that Western fringe of Javanese land where folks say "matur nuwun" instead of "hatur nuhun" ("thank you!")
While the language felt new and the air noticably steamier, the musical instruments made me question if I'd left West Java at all. Speaking generally, the Javanese are not quite as obsessed with bamboo as the resourceful Sundanese; bamboo zithers, mouth harps, and winds don't dot the musical landscape quite as much. However, in Banyumas, bamboo reigns supreme, with the aforementioned calung Banyumasan ensemble made up nearly entirely of the stuff.
Through my typical means of stalking through YouTube and Faceobook, I'd made a new friend in Banyumas who had in turn kindly hooked me up with the phone number of the leader of Rawalo's one and only gondolio group. So I found myself in the cool, dark living room of this leader's house, the coastal "highway" I'd taken there (a two-lane road running down Java's southern coast) just a short drive off but feeling a world away. As I sat and tried to drink all the coffee and tea that was pushed my way, old men carrying the beautiful, unmistakable gondolio showed up one by one in the light of the doorway.
Plastic mats with pictures of Disney princesses and European football clubs were spread out on the concrete floor while a bamboo frame, not unlike those used to hold a gong, was assembled to the side, the quartet of gondolios hung from hooks at the top. The old men - Bapak Turmudi, Sanyiwata, Kusmeja, and Kusmareja - plunked down behind them and put their hands in position, left hand ready to dampen the two ringing tubes in the front, right hand ready for the back two.
With the resonant, surprisingly gong-like boom of the gong bumbung, the band set off, gondolio all a-clatter in unison, kendang subtly holding up the rhythm below. The vocalist, Pak Rusdi, sang above it all in a surprising falsetto, almost womanly, his voice slightly hoarse from a kuda lumping performance the day before. Together, they played a song of pride, a track they simply call "Gondolio" as if it were a theme song for the music itself. The lyrics, Pak Rusdi later explained, are taken from the history of the village, describing gondolio ("Gondolio, it has four notes!") and ascribing its origins to their beloved hometown, Tambaknegara.
I love to see this kind of pride in the musicians I meet, the knowledge of how special their traditions really are. While the original version of gondolio may have been a solitary affair, stuck in the bamboo huts of yesterday, it has evolved to something eminently shareable, an ensemble music that can trumpet the ingenuity of the people of Banyumas louder than ever before.