Location: Bandung, West Java
Sound: Jaipong (also called jaipongan)
The roots of jaipong are shrouded in myth. The story goes that after first Indonesian President Sukarno banned all Western music in the early 1960s, the Sundanese producer and composer Gugum Gumbira took up the president’s call to create distinctly Indonesian forms of popular music to rival rock and roll. The result, the story goes, was jaipong, a flashy, sensual take on the traditional Sundanese village ensemble called ketuk tilu.
Regardless of its true origins (some dispute Gugum Gumbira’s sole claim to inventing jaipong, suggesting it is pure self-promotion and that others were involved in its evolution), jaipong exploded in popularity after entering the national consciousness in the mid-to-late 1970’s. This boom was remarkable for two reasons: for one, regional styles (“musik daerah”) rarely find audiences outside of their homelands, but jaipong was huge almost everywhere, at least in the Western half of Indonesia; second, jaipong became a mainstream pop sensation without having an ounce of discernible Western influence (contrast this with Indonesia’s other pop sensation dangdut, which came to draw from sources as varied as Bollywood and Western rock and roll.)
Indeed, I would call the sound of jaipong intensely Sundanese. At its core, a typical jaipong ensemble is not far removed from the pared-down gamelan ensemble of ketuk tilu, the once widespread village ensemble named after the three (tilu) ketuk gongs which play its looping, distinctive Sundanese rhythm. Just like most gamelan ensembles large and small, jaipong’s structure is rooted and divided by two hanging gongs (go’ong), with cyclic melodies sketched out on bonang (a horizontal rack of melodic gong-chimes) and a pair of saron (high-pitched metallophones). Virtuosic vocal melodies are provided in free time by a sinden or female singer, with the bowed lute called rebab elaborating beside her. An optional but popular addition is the kecrek, two metal plates (or, sometimes, motorcycle brake disks) which are pounded for a bright hi-hat-like effect, cutting through the tapestry of gongs.
The heart of jaipong, though, is the kendang drum. The typical set-up consists of a large barrel drum (sometimes called kendang indung or “big drum”), plus one or two smaller kulanter drums. With this arsenal at his disposal, a skilled kendang jaipongan player can unleash a staggering barrage of polyrhythms, often amplified far louder than the rest of the ensemble for maximum effect. To the uninitiated, jaipong drumming can sound like pure chaos, with the drummer seemingly bending and shrinking time despite the steady pulse of the other percussion soldiering on unchanged. Maybe the coolest trick is the way the large kendang’s lower head is manipulated with the ball of the player’s foot, with changes in tension allowing for surprisingly rubbery, melodic sounds almost like an African talking drum.
With this infectious sound and a sensual accompanying dance which takes cues from pencak silat martial arts, it’s no wonder that jaipong took the nation by storm. As the genre grew, thousands of cassettes (far more affordable than the vinyl that preceded it) brought the music into people’s homes, with all sorts of spin-off styles flooding the market (in my collection I’ve got everything from jaipong India and house jaipong, which is exactly what is sounds like). The cassette era was jaipong’s historical zenith, and the music has inevitably been in decline from those epic highs ever since. Nonetheless, jaipong is still widely popular, especially among the generation that grew up in its golden age, and continues to be combined and reimagined as Sundanese music evolves into the 21st century.
Jaipong has always been dripping in sensuality. As Gugum Gumbira tells it, it was designed to match the raw sex appeal of Western rock, and boy did it succeed. The music is fueled by the virile intensity of the kendang’s rhythms and the restrained passion of the female sinden (who, in jaipong’s 1980’s heyday, harnessed the sexy diva model of mainstream pop.) To accompany this sensual aural feast, viewers of live jaipong are also treated to the supremely sexy jaipong dance (complete with gyrations and booty-shaking) which shook the nation decades before dangdut diva Inul Daratista’s goyang dance moves became a national sensation in the 2000’s.
So I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised to find jaipong being played in a smoke-filled hostess bar in downtown Bandung. I first visited Endah Parahyangan in 2012, soon after moving to Bandung. I went at the recommendation of Kai Riedl, an ethnomusicologist from Athens, Georgia who had recorded an amazingly produced jaipong album with Endah’s house band. Before visiting the place myself, Riedl’s liner notes had gone over my head: describing jaipong as music “made to to move people on the dance floor and beyond,” he goes on to describe the band as “the musical counterpart to dark red lights [and] alcohol driven nights.”
I still remember that before going for the first time, a new female friend had explained why she wouldn’t go to Endah: “I’m afraid of the chickens.” This was her faithful translation of ayam, literally “chicken” but also a disparaging word for sex workers. Flash back to those “dark red lights”: Endah is in the thick of one of Bandung’s red light districts, with massage parlors and dangdut-filled hostess bars lining the dark streets. I’ve never totally confirmed it, but friends have described the venue as a brothel, with dancers' services available to the overwhelmingly male clientele.
Even before Gugum Gumbira supposedly pumped up the sensuality of ketuk tilu, sex, gamelan, and dance have been historically linked. As Henry Spiller writes in Erotic Triangles, a brilliant exploration of Sundanese male dance, historical accounts are full of descriptions of ronggeng, female singer-dancers who fronted similar gamelan ensembles while supposedly doubling as clandestine sex workers available to the highest bidder. It’s hard to tell how must truth there is to such accounts: the stories are always told by men, often foreigners. Regardless, the association is a strong one in the Indonesian imaginary, with many shows, films, and even novels based on the idea.
In some ways, jaipong has been scrubbed clean of its sensual image by an increasingly conservative Sundanese society: it's not uncommon to see young girls in headscarves performing reconfigured tari jaipongan (“jaipong dance”) routines at school events, for example. But in the heart of Bandung, jaipong continues to exist in a hyper-sexual environment. “Most people don’t come here just to listen to jaipong,” my friend told me on my first trip to Endah. “The music is just the foreplay.”
Perhaps because of these associations, Endah Parahyangan is little known, even by die-hard Sundanese music lovers, despite being the only remaining club in Bandung with live jaipong. Still, every night except Sunday the club is bumping, with one hour live sets switching between keyboard-driven dangdut and pop Sunda (Sundanese pop) and old-school jaipong. The clientele is largely working class, angkot drivers, day laborers and preman (gangsters), many of them transplants from nearby villages (I’ve garnered this from many chats with almost unbearably friendly customers throughout the years.) The story of the women who work there remains uncomfortably untold: they sit beneath a wall-length mirror to the side of the stage, chatting only with the men who pay them to sit by their sides and light their cigarettes.
My first trip to Endah was distinctly uncomfortable. I was twenty-three, and had been in Bandung for only a few weeks. I’d only been in a handful of bars in my life, and suddenly I was in this smokey place full of flashing lights and high-heeled dangdut singers demanding tips in a language I didn’t understand. Two women sat with us in flowing green gowns and huge Sundanese hair-buns, lighting our cigarettes and pouring our beers. At the end of the night, I expected to pay around three bucks for a beer and got a twenty-five dollar bill: I’d been paying for the girls’ time all night without realizing it (I had naively thought they were just being nice!) A bouncer had to drive me to the closest ATM as I didn’t even have enough cash.
Five years later, and I’m a regular. I’m greeted with warm smiles and super-polite double-handed handshakes as I enter, and regular shoutouts to “Kang Palmer” between literally every song (listen closely to "Wangsit Siliwangi" above and you'll hear my name dropped at least three times by the sinden, including "Kang Palmer, my darling!" - they like me, but they're mostly trying to get me to tip them again!). I must be known as that bule who comes just for the music, and I’m shown so much kindness and respect despite this strange role I play. In return, I change my cash into small change at the bar and nyawer as the other patrons do: that is, I shower the band in small bills, "making it rain" as the beat intensifies.
Regulars, mostly middle aged men, love dragging me up to dance as much as they love paying to have the small dance floor to themselves for that ultimate display of Sundanese masculinity, the ngibing tunggal or solo dance. With the space cleared of drunk youngsters who only know how to joget (dance in the Western style), these men bow once before the band and then strut their stuff in a display that looks equal parts kung fu-esque pencak silat and freestyle breakdancing. The solo male dancer, sometimes called the bajidor, engages in a playful conversation with the drummer, with the dancer following rhythmic cues in the kendang parts while the kendang player watches intently in return, skillfully matching the improvised flourishes of the bajidor.
Despite dance being a huge part of many musical traditions in Indonesia, I’m often guilty of ignoring it: so much of it can feel stilted and perfunctory. Jaipong dancing, though, sets me on fire. I routinely sit spellbound, jaw literally dropped, as middle-aged men (bapak bapak as we say here) drop virtuosic moves one after the other: pure, idiosyncratic expressions of virility and confident mastery. The female dancers who work at Endah rarely engage in this virtuosic style, choosing to stick to easy, pre-choreographed moves which they can perform without much thought. Occasionally, though, a woman will emerge from the audience and show all of the men how it’s really done: the male posturing replaced by pure, intuitive grace, smooth yet full of confidence and power.
I'm moving across the island to Yogyakarta soon, so I've been thinking a lot about my time at Endah and going as much as possible, bringing every friend who's up for it to experience the magic of the place. I'll never forget that first night in Endah years ago, the electrifying feeling of live kendang explosions bursting my skull for the first time. If you're in Bandung, you have to go. Just make sure to nyawer and make it rain - the musicians deserve it.
Despite having literally no presence on the internet, Endah Parahyangan does exist: It's on Jl. Dalem Kaum near the Bandung Alun-Alun, across the street from the famous Queen Restaurant. If you're in town, you have to go. Tell them Palmer sent you :)
Also huge thanks to Kai Riedl, whose wonderful Javasounds album series was one of the inspirations for Aural Archipelago.