(Songs mixed and mastered by Kang Joseph Lamont)
Location: Mutung Geding, East Sumba
Sound: Jungga as played by Haingu (pronounced with a silent "u", real name Yohanes Terpanjang)
Note: This is the third post in the Sumba Strings series. To learn more about the kind of music Haingu is playing, check out Sumba Strings, Pt. 1.
Haingu’s voice was breaking, and his jungga was sliding more and more out of tune with every pluck. We were sitting crosslegged on the rough floorboards of his front porch, an empty container of betel nut pushed politely to our feet. Haingu had greeted us as soon as we pulled up to his house on motorbike, a pencil-thin mustache hugging his gap-toothed smile. He was clearly used to random folks showing up, wanting to hear his songs - he’d been up late into the night, singing for other visitors. That was the problem, he said: his voice was shot.
There was a solution, he said, a way to warm up his voice. Peci, or distilled rice wine, a potent brew that seemed more likely to shred the vocal cords than make things any better. We’d seen the way Haingu had winced, though, when his voice cracked, shaking his head in disappointment during instrumental breaks. Peci is medicine, he insisted. It cures everything from back pain to incontinence.
A family member disappeared inside and came back with a small glass and a bottle full of the stuff. He filled the glass, knocked it back, and re-tuned the jungga, whose tuning pegs were nothing more than sticks wrapped with brake cable threads. Ok, he said, let’s try this again.
He cradled the jungga in his arms, its heart-shaped sound-hole in front of his chest, and began to sing. The sound that emerged was a total transformation: where before there had been strained creaks, there were now smooth tones, as warm as the peci in his belly. Haingu smiled as he hit the high notes, satisfied.
Between songs, we passed around the glass, taking shots. The local guys would knock it back like water, while we bule cringed as the warmth hit our stomachs, croaking out an “Mmm, delicious!” to much laughter from the seasoned peci pros. Tongue loosened, Haingu would look me in the eyes and confess, “Life is hard here. We're struggling people.” He explained that most of his money was made from folks who would come to hear him play, just like us. There was a system that was seemingly known by all folks in this corner of the island: come to Haingu’s house and tell him your woes, and he’ll sing a song to match your situation, handpicking verses full of poetic understanding and advice. A singing, slightly drunk folk therapist. It wasn't always so effective, though: one visitor, after confessing and hearing Haingu's song, was filled even more with sadness. "He hung himself," Haingu said.
Haingu had never recorded in a studio, but everyone in East Sumba knew his name. Back in the nineties and early 2000s, other Sumbanese used to show up with simple tape recorders and record their musical therapy sessions, the tapes passed around and copied from village to village. When cell phones with cameras and decent microphones became affordable, that became the new medium. We met folks who had never met Haingu but had crude recordings of his on their handphone, passed on from friend to friend.
I’d first heard of Haingu from the Smithsonian Folkways album Music of Indonesia, Vol. 20: Indonesian Guitars. American ethnomusicologist Philip Yampolsky had recorded him twenty years before, in a village not far from where we sat. “Ah, Pak Philip”, he remembered. “That was back when we lived on the mountain. Before our house burned down.” Life is hard, indeed.
In the spirit of the medium, I told Haingu about my own difficulties. I want to propose to my girlfriend, I confessed, but I’m afraid that her parents don’t approve of me. A slight dramatization of the reality, but it felt universal enough that Haingu could work with it: I couldn’t imagine Haingu had any available verses about the struggles of getting an Indonesian visa. He listened with warm understanding and said okay, I’ve got a song for you. Are your recorders ready?
The song was in Kambera, a language totally lost on me. But as he played, Haingu would look at me with eyes of twinkling empathy, the soulful sound of universal hardships in his voice. My life was nowhere near as hard as Haingu’s, not even close, and we both knew it. We came with fancy gadgets and tripods, and we’d soon leave again. But Haingu had listened anyway, and he’d sung for me. After the song was over, I asked what he’d said. “I sang that the best thing for you to do, if you really want to get married, is to just do it.” The next week, I followed his advice and proposed to my girlfriend on a hill outside of Bandung, Haingu’s words briefly sliding through my mind.
After Haingu’s last song, he ended his session as I’m sure he’s done many times before: with an advertisement. “I live in Mutung Geding village”, he announced. “For folks who want to hear my songs, come on down the road via the road with the Mandiri shop. Now, if you’re already at the Mandiri shop, take the white road and you’ll reach my house.” As he stood up and shook our hands one by one, I took the moment to stealthily slip some bills into his palm, thanking him for his generosity. Half drunk from sopi, we touched noses in the Sumbanese style, with my buddy Logan confusedly going in for a kiss as his turn came. Woozy and happy, we followed his kids to a baking, deserted beach and played in the placid sea. Hiding our pink bodies beneath the surface, we looked back towards Sumba from the warm waters with disbelief.