(Versi Pemuda) is an example of the fierce, more rocking rhythm played by the young members of the gordang sambilan group, the beat tense and unrelenting.
(Versi Orang Tua) highlights the playing styles of the elder drummers, with looser, almost jazzy embellishments played on the jangat, the largest drum in the ensemble.
(Dari Jauh) begins with an experimental demonstration of the Mandailing belief that "music is perceived as being loveliest when it is heard from afar (onak nidege siandao), when its conflicting parts meld into a unified whole." (Kartomi 2012). The recording starts outside the performance space and slowly draws closer until it is in the thick of the action (for this reason, be careful with your volume settings - it becomes much louder as the track progresses.) Once inside the belly of the percussive beast, the aural perspective moves freely amidst the space, highlighting various instrumental elements for the listener.
Location: Ulu Pungkut, Mandailing Natal, North Sumatra
Sound: Gordang sambilan (literally "Nine gordang")
Drums, Mandailing people like to joke, are grandest in their neck of the woods - the nine massive drums used in their gordang sambilan ensembles are an impressive sight, with thick barrels constructed from whole tree trunks. Head north to the Batak lands of Lake Toba, the joke goes, and the drums have shrunk - the taganing drums used in gondang sabangunan ensembles there are significantly smaller, with only five tuned drums being used. Continue farther north to the Karo highlands, and you'll find only a handful of tiny gendang karo, torpedo-shaped drums almost small enough to wrap your fingers around. Finally, if you make it to Aceh in Sumatra's far north, the drums have shrunk down to nothing, and the Acehnese have nothing to hit but their own bodies.
Despite its implied status as the king of Sumatran percussion, the gordang sambilan ensemble has remarkably humble roots. As the villagers that I met tell it, before there was gordang sambilan, there was etek. A simple bamboo tube forked on one end, the etek was more of a utilitarian farmer's tool than a musical instrument: it was kept in a field-side hut, where it was struck with a harsh clack-clack-clack which would scare off pests such as mice and boars who threatened precious crops. From these agrarian roots, the etek evolved into hotuk, a kind of slit drum.
The rhythms played on the hotuk were eventually transferred to the far more elaborate gordang sambilan ensemble, and despite the addition of melodic accompaniment, rhythm remained the focus to the point that gordang sambilan pieces are not referred to as lagu ("songs") but as irama ("rhythms.")
At the ensemble’s percussive heart, of course, are the nine gordang drums, arranged from smallest to largest and conceptualized as four pairs, male and female, with the odd ninth drum as the “child". The names for these drums differ from village to village, but in Ulu Pungkut where I recorded, they are called eneng-eneng, tepe-tepe, panulus, hudong-hudong, and jangat. These drums are split between four musicians: three of the drummers playing rapid, interlocking rhythmic loops on two drums each while the fourth drummer, a special role marked by the musician’s distinctive robe, plays the remaining drums (the hudong-hudong and jangat, the large “king drum”) in a freer, semi-improvised style.
The spectacle of the thunderous gordang may distract you from the gongs and gong kettles, which are important in their own right. Just as in many other Indonesian gong ensembles, the rhythms are anchored by two large gongs, again conceptualised as male (ogung jantan) and female (ogung boru-boru), which supply the slower rhythmic foundation. In addition are three handheld talempong or gong kettles called mongmongan which interlock to play short rhythmic loops, as well as a set of cymbals called tawak-tawak or tali sasayak which ching-ching-chings a less restricted rhythm amongst the gongs. Threading through all that percussion is often a single-reed oboe called saleot, although in the sessions I recorded it was only played in the related gondang dua ensemble.
The remarkable rhythm machine of gordang sambilan was likely only able to blossom from its humble bamboo roots in the powerful hands of the raja. A remarkable thing one notices when traveling through the Mandailing homeland is that nearly every village has a raja, a figurehead who, despite the lofty name, is more of a local chieftain than a ruler of a vast kingdom. Nonetheless, in the 18th and 19th centuries when gordang sambilan originally prospered, the raja was extremely powerful in his own way, owning the whole village’s land and even slaves. It was under this royal system that gordang sambilan took the elaborate form it holds to this day.
In those days gordang sambilan was only to be played in the context of royalty, at royal funerals and other occasions, and its immense sound was likely intended as a symbol of kingly strength. Before Islam was forcefully brought to the area from the Minangkabau south in the 1820s, the Mandailing people largely followed pele begu, a system of animist beliefs. It was in this context that the booming drums and gongs were played, the thunderous sound calling the spirits from other planes.
While the days when rajas ruled and spirits were called have long since past, the royal descendants still hold an important symbolic role in Mandailing society, and it is largely through these families that gordang sambilan has descended through the generations. In addition to large royal funerals, which still happen occasionally, gordang sambilan is mostly played these days for secular affairs, such as when a government official is visiting, or for national holidays like Independence Day. What’s more, while gordang sambilan is still most often played in the king’s compound as in days' past, it can now be played by anyone and almost anywhere - even the coffee plantation I stayed at in Ulu Pungkut had its own set of drums. Despite the shifting contexts, the potent mysticism of the music remains: even now, drummers can and do fall into kesurupan, a kind of possession where the overwhelming effect of the gordang's churning rhythms take hold.
The narrow road from Kotanopan to Ulu Pungkut threaded its way through the valley, never straying far from the sparkling river it followed. Below the jungle-clad hills, the occassional huta (village) would spring up along the side of the road, full of mosques and kids and old men playing dominoes in roadside coffeehouses. Huge scrolls of cinnamon and coffee beans lay drying on sheets in the middle of the street, requiring the car to swerve to avoid the precious goods.
As we drove for nearly an hour along the river’s edge, deeper and deeper into the heart of Mandailing na Menek (“small Mandailing”), I was reminded of something I’d read in the Australian ethnomusicologist Margaret Kartomi’s brilliant book, Musical Journeys in Sumatra:
“Villages in Mandailing na Menek were until recently connected to the neighboring valleys only by footpaths and the occasional road. When neighbors from other valleys wanted to visit, they walked up the paths to the mountain tops and paused before descending to listen for the sound of a ritual orchestra below, which told them if a ceremony was in progress. If there was, the music (uning-uningan) drew them magically and irrevocably toward the source of sound. Even if they wished to resist, they could not, due to the alluring mystical power of the musical sound wafting from afar.”
While I approached the village not from a jungly ridge but along an asphalt road, following the power lines in a 4x4 Ford pickup, in those moments I too felt that magical and irrevocable call of the gordang sambilan that awaited me in Ulu Pungkut.
The next day, I finally felt the full power of the intense gordang rhythms. I was in the sopo gordang, a kind of open-walled pavilion owned by the local raja. Across from the sopo stood the gracefully dilapidating former home of the royal family, still full of bookshelves lined with pusaka (ancient heirlooms such as sacred knives and bark-paper books full of magical charms) despite the ferns growing through the thatched roof into the cobwebbed rooms below.
The power of the king had largely faded, but the royal music blasted out with as much power as ever from the sopo that day: a motley crew of locals from relatively novice teens to cool, confident elders had assembled to proudly demonstrate their art for me (and you, my lucky readers!) For nearly an hour the gongs beat out tight loops while the row of massive gordang were beaten furiously, the sound emanating from goatskin like the incessant blasts of a fireworks finale.
The elders would trade places with the teens for the chance to beat the drums, each with their own style: the teens, full of the confident strength of youth, would pound the drums with swagger and intensity, chopping with syncopated fury at the frame below the drums like a rock drummer smashing a cymbal; the elders, especially those playing the large jangat drum, would approach the instruments with an almost comical serenity, prancing about the sopo in mock-trance before tickling the goatskins with eyes closed.
After the performance, I chatted with the younger members, asking why they found themselves playing this music. So often in Indonesia, I told them, I encounter art forms that seem to be barely hanging on, hooked up to the life support of a few remaining elders. The young kids, I continued, usually couldn’t care less - they’re more interested in the mp3s playing from their Blackberry speakers. And so I asked, incredulously, why are you playing this music?
One young drummer gave a beautiful response, something I wish I heard more often in this country:
"This music," he said, "it calls to us. As Mandailing, no matter how old we are, we are drawn to it. It’s in our blood."
I laughed in recognition. I may not have a drop of Mandailing blood, but something about the music had called me all the way there, snaking my way through that river valley to the king's house that day.
This was one of those experiences in the field that simply would not have been possible without the incredibly generous help of some amazing people. Pak Edi Nasution, a brilliant Mandailing ethnomusicologist, was my first fixer in helping me follow the call of the gordang - his blog about Mandailing music and culture is a must-read (if you understand bahasa Indonesia, that is!). Pak Edi referred me to the passionate young entrepeneur Rayhan Arman Nasution, whose coffee plantation I stayed on and who helped set up the recording session for me. Finally, Pak Martua Lubis and Mr. Berry Parlindungan Lubis are two friends in Ulu Pungkut who I will never forget - they helped this bule while asking for nothing in return but to share their music with the world. Horas dan terima kasih banyak teman teman Mandailing!
And of course a huge thank you to the musicians playing in this ensemble. They are: Suparman Lubis, Sudirman Lubis, Aspan Matondang, Khottop Matondang, Amirhan Muslim Lubis, Ahmadi Hasan, Iskandar Muda, Abdul Khoir, Marwan, Jul, Musa, Sardi, Bonar, Putra, Maddin, and Taslim. The leaders of the group are Juara Lubis, Rayhan Arman Nasution, Berry Lubis, and Pak Sutan Baringan Lubis.
I am greatly indebted to firsthand information from my informant Berry Lubis as well as Margaret Kartomi's fantastic research, so much that I'll give her text a proper citation for once:
Kartomi, Margaret. Musical Journeys in Sumatra. Champaign: U of Illinois, 2012. Print.