Location: Tanjung Village, Koto Kampar Hulu District, Kampar Regency, Riau
Sound: Calempong kayu (also called gambang) and gong tanah
Not just anybody is allowed to bang on a gong in Kampar, Central Sumatra - the melodic gong chimes called calempong and the larger oguong gongs that accompany them are considered sacred - the instruments were in the past only played for important occasions, and the instruments are regarded with an intense reverence - its even considered rude to step over the low-sitting calempong gong-chimes to get around them, just as you'd never step right over a person!
Because of this reverent protection of the instruments, folks in the decades past would not allow their children to practice the calempong oguong music on the gongs themselves - you wouldn't let your toddler bang on a grand piano, would you? The workaround was brilliant and creative enough to be considered an artform in itself: the melodic patterns played on the six gong-chimes of the bronze calempong set were transferred to a a simple homemade xylophone with wooden bars resting on strings nailed to a wooden box resonator.
Meanwhile, the bassy rhythmic foundation provided by the twin oguong gongs was transferred to a wonderful example of Sumatran ingenuity: the gong tanah, or "earth gong." Nearly identical constructions are found also elsewhere, not only in Sumatra (in the Mandailing area of North Sumatra it's called gondang tanah) but remarkably in Thailand as well. Nonetheless, in Kampar it's considered a local, homespun invention.
To make the instrument, a small hole must first be dug into the earth. Next, a a long piece of dried rattan vine is stretched over the hole and secured by two wooden posts at either end. Depending on the area, either a plate or wooden board is then placed over the hole and a simple wooden bridge is wedged on top, dividing the rattan in two and transferring the vibrations of the taut string into the hole in the ground, allowing the earth to act as a resonator.
"Back in the old days," the locals told me, "this is what we did for fun" - they'd whip up a gong tanah, often beneath the shade of a stilted house for extra resonance, and play their parents' calempong music on their homemade creations. Two kids would play the calempong kayu, just as in a proper calempong ensemble, with one playing a rhythmic loop called tinka on two notes while the other played the complex, syncopated main part. The gong tanah's two bassy tones would perfectly mimic the oguong gongs, with additional taps on the wooden board or plate mimicing the katepak, or barrel drum.
The days of crafty kids making xylophones and earth gongs are long past, with the taboo of young children playing calempong largely lifted and modern technology providing easier distractions. While the kids of those days have grown up, they haven't lost their musicianship and ingenuity - calempong kayu is still played by the older generation, and a gong tanah can still be made in a few minutes whenever a curious enough audience is present.
The instruments may not be doomed to live on as quaint reminders of a Kampar long past, as keen Kampar musicians are bringing the music to larger towns and cities like Bangkinang and Pekanbaru and introducing it to a new generation of children in Riau, children surely shocked and amused by the surprising ingenuity of their grandparents.
The road to Tanjung was the worst I'd experienced in my time in Sumatra, with potholes the size of small provinces pocking the road, leaving muddy holes where asphalt should be. Even on the road past the Kampar regency's most promising tourist attraction, a centuries-old Buddhist temple site called Muara Takus, the road seemed to be fighting a losing battle with the rain and a helplessly corrupt Public Works department.
My friend Taufiq, a brilliant local musician from Kampar, was taking me to see a woman who he called the best calempong kayu player in Kampar, a woman in Tanjung named Marwanis. Accompanied by Taufiq's charming sisters, we made it to the small village and, following a neighbor through some crops and over a canal, we found Ibu Marwanis in her humble home.
Sitting in a front room completely devoid of furniture, we plied Ibu Marwanis with sweetcakes we had bought on the road. As we munched, she showed off her homemade calempong, explaining how she had multiple sets of tuned bars made of different local woods like angau and madang kuniong, each with a particular sound. The two sets, one golden and one nearly black, were tuned roughly by ear, and it showed, as each set had a slightly different scale.
Ibu Marwanis' husband, a smiley old man named Nazir, sat by her side and grabbed one of the simple wooden sticks used to beat the calempong. Ibu Marwanis, clearly more familiar with the tunes than he was, would show him the repeating tingka phrase on the two farthest bars, a kind of rhythmic signature for the song. Then, once Pak Nazir had latched onto the looping rhythm, Bu Marwanis would launch into a tune, her playing surprisingly gentle, with an underhand technique allowing the wooden sticks to fall softly rather than clang onto the wooden bars of the calempong.
Between songs, Ibu Marwanis would explain the meaning of the songs, with each tune tied to a certain context or story. One was a "calling song" called "Tigo Lalu" (the second track shared here) - the calempong player, sitting bored and lonely in front of their house, would play the song when friends walked past as a musical "come here!"
The archive of old tunes stored in Ibu Marwanis' memory was vast - she boasted proudly that she could play from seven at night until four in the morning without repeating a song. She told how she'd once been called to the regional capital of Bangkinang to play a show with other musicians, and through some strange strike of fate she'd been the only musician to show up. Luckily, she had her store of tunes at the ready, and she played nonstop for hours.
After a break to snack on some rambutan fruit, we headed to Ibu Marwanis' grassy frontyard, where Pak Nazir was busy constructing a gong tanah. He had dug the hole in the ground before our arrival, and we had done our part by bringing some fresh rattan from Taufiq's grandparents house. After the instrument was strung up, Ibu Narwanis sat down, ready for performance with her nicest headscarf and a a mouth full of sirih, or betelnut. She called an old neighbor lady over to play the tingka and once again launched into the tunes of their youth, songs like "Ntah dirumah, ntah tido" and "Kisah Riwayat Mati." The recording was occasionally disturbed by browsing water buffalo and shrieking cicadas in the trees nearby, but the old timers seemed unfazed.
It was fantastic to see Taufiq join the band, wearing only an undershirt and smoking a cigarette as he played in the kampung style, teasing and laughing with the old ladies. When he played gong tanah, he added a funky urban sensibility, grunting as he beat the rattan as if slapping the bass. I was happy to hear that he had brought gong tanah to his students in Bangkinang and Pekanbaru, the far-off urban centers of Riau where gong tanah has long been lost. With his help and the interest of curious new players, this charming artform will hopefully not be as neglected as the road to Tanjung.
Terima kasih temanku Taufiq and his sweet sisters for shuttling me to Tanjung and to Ibu Marwanis, Bu Nurhayati, and Pak Nazir for sharing the music of their childhood with me - it was a musical experience that I'll never forget.