Location: Aliyan, Banyuwangi Regency, East Java
For me, Banyuwangi has always been a land of surprises. In the days and weeks leading up to a trip to a new part of Indonesia, I always try to do my best to trawl the internet (no good libraries in Bandung unfortunately, so my sources are limited!) to try to find as much as I can about the music I’m likely to find in my new destination. Usually that’s enough. I can never be too certain with Banyuwangi, though. I thought I knew what I was in for when I exited the train station in 2014, the last stop on a line that runs along the length of Java’s massive stretch. That time, I was surprised by a performance of jaranan right at the station’s doorstep, a performance mixing trance dance and music informed by gandrung, a local Banyuwangi specialty. What a treat that was, to step out of the train station and immediately be surprised by an unexpected hybrid of theater, song, and dance.
The surprises continued with my second trip to Banyuwangi this past fall. It was October 2016 and I was finally reaching Banyuwangi after driving more than 1,000 kilometers from Bandung on my trusty Suzuki Skywave scooter, stopping along the way to witness musical beauties like ebeg and rinding. My first moment was unexpected but unsurprising - a run-in with a kuntulan group on the road into town. While I was cruising through rice paddies around Rogojampi with the kuntulan gang, we encountered a village absolutely bursting with people.
“What was going on back there?” I asked later on, munching on watermelon with the kuntulan guys. “Oh, there was kebo-keboan earlier today. Later tonight there will be janger.” Again, surprises! I’d never heard of either of these things. Kebo-keboan, it turns out, is an annual ritual where locals dress up like water buffalo (kebo) and splash about in mud, possessed by music and spirits. It sounded like a load of fun, but I’d just missed it. Janger, though, was also new - I knew that name from a great record, Djanger Bali, an Indonesian jazz record headed by American clarinetist Tony Scott. Wasn’t janger a kind of Balinese dance?
Indeed, it is (thanks for the depth of information, Wikipedia!), but in Banyuwangi, janger means something else: theater. More specifically, it’s a kind of variety theater that mixes Balinese gamelan and dance forms like legong and barong with music and dance of the local Osing people, a sub-ethnic group of the Javanese people whose culture is full of Balinese influence. The theater form likely has roots in the early 20th century, when elements of the Balinese musical theater called Arja were mixed with stories of Damarwulan and Menakjinggo, legendary characters in the still-popular tales of royal intrigue of the Majapahit era (more than 500 years past!) Both characters have ties to the ancient Blambangan kingdom, famous for being the last Hindu kingdom of Java long after the rest of Java had been converted under the Islamic state of Mataram.
It is partly these historical curiosities that make Banyuwangi such a special place even today. The Osing people native to the area consider themselves descendants of the now long-gone Blambangan kingdom, and despite their language being something of a dialect of Javanese, their culture, at least musically, has loads of Balinese elements syncretically mixed in. Janger is a beautiful example of this hybrid beast - the music is largely ripped whole cloth from Bali, played on instruments of the popular modern gamelan gong kebyar shipped across the strait from the Island of the Gods. At any moment, though, this gamelan may be mixed with Osing-style kuntulan frame drumming, or the group may cut out entirely to let the peculiar drone of the violin (biola) and the musical triangle (kluncing) take over as girls in hybrid Bali-Osing costumes strut their stuff on stage.
In the rest of Indonesia (and the world), Bali is seen through a kind of Orientalist lens as a land of mystic exoticism and mystery, a place of gods and monsters and strange hybrid religion. In Banyuwangi, though, Bali feels close enough to touch, and you can tell when watching the Balinese witch queen Rangda prance about to the sounds of gamelan Bali in Banyuwangi that the whole performance has a deeper significance than exotic wonder. The “Bali outside of Bali” is not as incongruous or exotic as it may first seem in this corner of Java - it’s actually right at home.
Searching for the janger performance in the dark of the Banyuwangi countryside, I felt like a pig smelling out truffles in the wilderness. I remembered the general area I had driven through earlier that day, but the roads had become a blur as the night wore on. The only solution was to pull my scooter over to the side of the narrow, pitch-black road, turn the engine off and listen. There it was, in the distance, the shimmering sound of beaten metal drifting across the fields. I pulled back onto the road and followed, ears into the wind.
It was obvious when I had arrived - the narrow country road was suddenly flanked by food stalls on all sides, steamed corn and meatballs making it nearly impossible to pass. People were huddled in the hundreds by the side of a muddy field, a huge stage with a hand-painted fascade planted right in the muck. Having nobody to meet and no idea when the show would get going, I slid my way across the mud to the stage, where the beautiful instruments of the gong kebyar sat right in the mud, musicians arranged before them on plastic picnic chairs. Just as I was about to ask who was the boss around here, the band began to play -all I could do was stand and listen and try to not eat shit when sliding about from reyong to jublag. The band played on as I set up my recorder on a high tripod in a position I hoped was out of the way. All the while I could feel the gapes and catcalls of the villagers, “Hey, mister!”, the sheer confusion of seeing a bule pull up to their village alone made very clear, as if the blindingly bright theater lights were shined just on me.
The musicians eventually found me a plastic chair of my own, and as they played I sat and watched a remarkably psychedelic show unfold before my eyes, men in giant elaborate monster costumes parading about the stage as hypnotic lights flashed a new color every second and lasers zoomed across the backdrop. Here was folk theater in the 21st century - a quaint, hand-painted facade bathed in the latest in what seemed to be the stage light technology, giant speaker stacks blasting Balinese percussion into the night.
At some point, I became a one man show of my own to the musicians I was trying to ingratiate myself with. They’d offer me a scalding hot coffee and I’d take a sip, cry in pain, then leave the glass to cool on the muddy ground only to kick it over a minute later; I’d stand up to check my recorder, only to slip in the mud and begin a slow motion backwards tumble, swinging my arms like a clown as I tried to regain my balance. In another moment, an old lady stole my seat, leaving me to sit in front of the jublag, a version of which I once played at UC Santa Cruz. It’s a bassier instrument in the ensemble, which means that relative to the hundred-notes-a-second shrederry of other instruments like the gangsa, it doesn’t require much dexterity - just a well-placed thwack with a soft mallet every few seconds. Cheered on by the ever-amused gamelan gang, I followed along with the jublag player to my right, earning thumbs-ups and laughs as I properly muted the notes at one minute, only to fall hilariously out of place the next.
Around one in the morning, I had to call it quits - I knew they’d play until the morning prayer an hour before sunrise. Driving back to my friends’ place in town, the whole experience felt like a dream. Do psychedelic, Balinese gamelan-filled variety shows really go on in the muddy rice paddies of East Java? Yes, it turns out, they do. I’ve got the pictures, recordings, and muddy shoes to prove it!