Location: Karangjati, Banjarnegara Regency, Central Java
With so much beautiful, important music coming out of the courts of Yogykarta (Jogja) and Surakarta (Solo), and all of the academic attention and albums that have been fed by those traditions, you'd think Javanese music was all ancient gongs and refined dance. Living and exploring in Sundanese West Java, I kind of had the impression myself that Sunda got all the great folk music, and "Java" (what folks in the West call the rest of the island) was all classical. Fuzzy categories to begin with, but upon taking the time to explore the fertile Banyumas area of Central Java, I found that to be far from the case.
Take the humble gumbeng. It's almost identical to the more widespread (these days) celempung of West Java, the Karo keteng-keteng, or the talempong botuong of West Sumatra - a bamboo tube zither with "strings" carved from the skin of the bamboo cylinder. Bamboo is so suited to such an instrument, it's uncanny: the skin has a nice, dry tone when stretched and struck, and the hollow cylinder takes that tone and functions as a natural resonator, letting it shine.
The gumbeng's got three strings (welad), one with a small bamboo wedge in the middle separating it into two tones, and the other two tuned alike and joined by a oval bridge (tangsel) - when you hit one of the joined strings, this bridge freely vibrates, a small hole below it sending the sound to reverberate throughout the instrument. Huge props to whatever ancient musical genius figured out that little bit of acoustical magic.
A fair amount of precise knifework goes into making the thing, so traditionally gumbengs were made by the idle dads and grandpas of Banyumas. But after the instrument is set to sing, it's handed off to the even idler kids to play with. In that sense, gumbeng music is the music of childhood, and plenty of middle-aged Banyumasans reminisced with me about the days when they'd sit about with their buddies playing their gumbengs, singing naughty songs in rough Javanese that their older brothers taught them. These songs revel in adolescent innuendo, such as the tune "Onhol-Ondhol Anget" ("Warm Cassava Balls") which rhymes the titular snacks with "Mendhol-mendhol banget" ("so sexy!"). The music itself is appropriately loose, with tone not being all that important (no effort is made to make multiple instruments match in tuning). Sometimes when playing in a group, different gumbengs would naturally take on roles aligned with the local gamelan orchestra, such as the gumbeng barung (loud, slower tones like the big barung kettle gongs) or the gumbeng keprak. The gumbeng are hit with a beater (tabuh) made from a slice of bamboo, the lack of padding making for a dry "tek-tek" sound. The other hand can be used to play the end of the instrument freely like a kendhang, or Javanese barrel-drum.
The naughty kids banging gumbeng and singing about balls are now grown up, but for whatever reason they're not making gumbeng for their kids, at least in Banyumas (some other areas of Central Java, like in Gunungkidul on the south coast, still use gumbeng as a key part of ritual mouth harp music). So for now, the gumbeng is in a kind of functional extinction in the area, ocassionally made for projects by the Department of Culture or for passing ethnomusicologists, but essentially forgotten the rest of the time.
Pak Yusmanto hasn't forgotten about gumbeng. Pak Yus, as I came to call him, is a walking encyclopedia of Banyumas arts - I'd gotten in touch with him through his remarkably comprehensive blog Wong Banyumas and asked for help in tracking down music like gumbeng. Gumbeng, he'd told me, was easy enough: he'd have one of his bamboo artisan friends come over and whip one up. They hadn't played in ages, but those naughty songs were still fresh in their minds.
I spent an afternoon in front of Pak Yus' house with Pak Kistam, the bamboo wizard. Armed with just a handsaw and an all-purpose knife, Pak Kistam trial-and-errored his way through making an instrument he hadn't made in decades, experimenting with bridge size and hole placement and different types of bamboo. By the end of the afternoon, we had three playable gumbengs, and it was time to jam.
We set up in the living room to get away from the sound of passing motorbikes outside. Pak Yus, Pak Kistam, and another local musician Pak Pakel all had a fresh gumbeng of their own. Without any talk of rehearsal or who would play what part, a series of songs emerged from their childhood memories - "Ondhol-Ondhol Anget", "Ning Nong Ning Gung", "Bisa Nyongket, Bisa Nyungging." As they played and chanted the simple lyrics, smiles were all around, a kind of giddy giggliness that seemed to stem from the days when they'd sit around playing gumbeng with their buds.
Meanwhile, Pak Yus' daughters played outside with the local kids, singing songs of their own, playing some kind of hide and seek game with pebbles amongst the gamelan instruments on the porch. It would be easy to take a dismissive swipe at modern youth and say that the gumbeng has been thrown away for Pokemon Go, but at least in this neighborhood of Banyumas, that's just not the case. Children's culture grows and changes as the children do, with forms arising and disappearing in booms and bursts. After the session, I hung out with the kids outside and introduced them to their father's old playthings, the gumbeng, and we reveled in the pure joy or hitting bamboo with a stick. Maybe it'll catch on again, maybe it won't. Play will live on, in whatever form.
A huge thanks to Pak Yusmanto, who will be showing up a lot in the half dozen posts that should emerge from our musical expeditions in Banyumas. Indonesian speakers check out his website, Wong Banyumas.