(Tracks recorded by Palmer Keen and Logan Hallay, Mixed and Mastered by Sir Joseph Lamont)
Location: Jember, East Java
Sound: Musik patrol Jember
“Sahuuuur, saHUR! Sahuuuur, saHUR!”
I remember the first time I was awoken by this chant, a gang of kids banging drums and actual pots and pans outside my house in Bandung. It was my first Ramadan in Indonesia, and while in the previous months I’d grown accustomed to the 4:30 AM call to prayer blasting out of mosque loudspeakers in my neighborhood, this was something new.
I knew from my sleepy students that they had to wake up early during Ramadan to eat a pre-fasting meal (sahur), but I figured it was enough to just set your alarm. Nope, better to just wait for the kids to come patrolling by with their pre-dawn merry-making and awake to that special Ramadan clamor.
I’ve written about this kind of music before - obrog-obrogan in West Java, tongkek in Lombok, and musik patrol in Banyuwangi. These “Ramadan Wake-Up Jams” as I call them are especially popular in East Java, where each corner of this stretch of island seems to have its own style.
We’ve already learned about Banyuwangi-style musik patrol, where a history of patrolling neighborhoods beating bamboo kentongan, a kind of simple slit drum, transformed into a performative ensemble art form with elaborate interlocking rhythms played on bamboo xylophones. In Jember, about a hundred kilometers from Banyuwangi to the west, musik patrol shares these kentongan roots but evolved in a very different direction.
Jember is a sprawling regency nestled in the fertile stretch of Java locals call tapal kuda, or the horseshoe, for its distinctive shape. This volcano-studded chunk of the island is, with the exception of Banyuwangi (which has its own distinct Osing culture), known for its unique mix of Javanese and Madurese culture. The Java-ness is a given, but few folks outside of Indonesia have heard of Madura, a hot, infertile island stretching off of Java’s northeast coast near Surabaya, nor haveyou likely heard of its people, the Madurese. Because of the tough conditions in their motherland, the Madurese are famous for immigrating (merantau), and certain Madurese specialties like sate stalls and barber shops are found all across Indonesia.
The Madurese have been living on Java proper for centuries, too, especially in the horseshoe, where they’ve settled and lived amongst the local Javanese for generations (there are now more Madurese here than in Madura). The resulting cultural mixture, often referred to as pendalungan, is a key to understanding the unique form of musik Patrol found in Jember.
While the Osing of Banyuwangi took the bamboo kentongan slit drums and morphed them into a melodic ensemble of xylophones, the Madurese of Jember (and Madura proper) took another route. Madura has always had its own style of kentongan, large wooden slit-drums called tongtong (a name, our friend Jaap Kunst suggests, likely taken from Dutch.) These tongtong (also called kentongan or dungdung in Jember) are whole hollowed-out logs not unlike the slit drums of Africa; a slit is carved out along the length of each drum (technically a gong, as there's no membrane!), and when hit on either side of this slit, the drum can give off two distinct, resonant sounds.
These kinds of drums were historically played in Madura (and in Jember even today) in glundhangan, a kind of ritual music played by pigeon fanciers, but at some point they were taken up as the main instrument of musik patrol bands in Jember. When the music started emerging sometime around the 1970s, the kentongan were fairly crude, good for a “boom” or a “tuk” and not much more. Starting in the 90s, though, groups started to really pimp them out.
Modern musik patrol groups in Jember have a whole orchestra of differentiated kentongan each with its own name and function. The largest, referred to as bas and kontrabas (again probably from the Dutch for “bass” and “contrabass”), are made from massive, painted jackfruit trunks and are fitted out with springs (per) inside which vibrate for extra resonance. The contrabas is played with plain wooden sticks clacked harshly against the side for a sound that cuts through the thick rhythmic tapestry. The bas, meanwhile, has an iron plate (kawel) just to the side of the slit which, when hit by a soft fabric-covered mallet, allows the whole drum to ring out with a resonant, bassy boom.
The tingtung, klitir, and selingan are all pairs of kentongan playing a semi-melodic role. The leader of this group explained their roles as pengiring (“accompaniment”), pemanis (“sweetener”), and pelengkap (“complement”) respectively. There's also a threesome of kentongan, arranged in a kind of ascending arc before the player, called remo (after the name of a drumhead company whose sets of small, cheap drums are popular in Java.) Because of their smaller size, these kentongan give off more of a tonal sound, with two pitches available from both sides of the drum’s slit (so four pitches for the paired kentongan and six for the remo). Musicians play bubbling ostinatos or repeating patterns on these instruments which seem to mimic, to my ears, the frenetic, interlocking kennong gongs of Madurese saronen ensembles.
With its earthy bamboo-driven sound and cyclical pentatonic melodies, the musik patrol of Banyuwangi could fool anyone into thinking it’s a centuries-old folk tradition. Musik patrol in Jember, on the other hand, is pure pop. Melodies are led by an amplified seruling (a transverse bamboo flute probably inspired by Malay and Indian-tinged orkes Melayu and dangdut pop music) and impassioned female vocals, with a good old tambourine fleshing out the rhythm section. With the whole crew in order, popular musik patrol groups can go through dozens of songs, from Madurese folk and pop songs ("Tanduk Mejang") to dangdut standards (Ayu Ting Ting's "Sik Asik" and Rhoma Irama's "Perjalanan") and even emulations of Banyuwangi-style tunes ("Janger").
The strength of Jember-style musik patrol is its ability to play hip, modern music but with a distinct, organic texture and a form which references both gamelan rhythms and Western drumlines. While the interlocking, band-as-machine element of gamelan is always there, the linear variation in each song sounds to me more like pop, funk, and marching band jams.
The combination of all of this together is totally infectious, not just for me but for the young folk of Jember. Just like tongkek and musik patrol in Banyuwangi, Jember-style musik patrol is still wildly popular, with yearly competitions and musik patrol festivals drawing hundreds of groups to parade cities and towns with their kentongan loaded up on carts called gerobak. Musik Patrol has actually become so popular that it's no longer just played during Ramadan, with bands hired to enliven ritual events like hajatan and pengajian year-round.
I rolled through Jember with my buddy Logan on our way back from Lombok. I was making my way back to Bandung from Banyuwangi in the east after driving more than a thousand kilometers across Java, and Jember was my final stop before heading to the provincial capital of Surabaya to ship my motorbike back home. I didn’t know much about the area, but I’d seen these amazing videos of musik patrol groups on Youtube, the sound always totally distorted by the huge bassy rhythms of the kentongan and the shrieking seruling.
A friend of a friend put me in touch with the group Bekoh Kerreng (the name means “dried tobacco”, a reference to one of Jember’s main crops.) We met at the group’s headquarters in the city center of Jember (which is, maybe confusingly, the name for the area and also the regency’s capital city). We arrived at the house in late afternoon and quickly had a chat with Pak Slamet, the group’s Madurese leader, and his wife (and vocalist) Susi. They proudly told us that their group, active since 2001, were local champions, well-known in Jember for their tight arrangements.
Pak Slamet quickly gathered his gang of young percussionists to set up the array ofhuge kentongan on his porch, each one propped up on metal stands and looking like huge, shiny alkaline batteries. As then band launched into their first tune, I was immediately struck by how full and well-balanced the sound was when heard in person (rather than a super-compressed and distorted YouTube video!). Slamet’s arrangements were on-point, with each instrument filling a little rhythmic niche, almost like a well-practiced afrobeat band. And it was funky! The guy would turn their drumsticks over at just the right time and clack out tight, syncopated accents on the edges of their kentongan. I could see how, just like the tongkek groups of Lombok, the competitive context of Ramadan season showdowns had pushed this group to be tight as hell.
Musik patrol may not have a centuries-long history or a pure, traditionalist sound, but it's never been my intention to stick to that kind of stuff anyway - anything that has roots in a particular place is fair game to me. If its "modern" enough to get the young generation involved, that's great! Every year during Ramadan, the streets of Jember are full of kids playing amazing, funky music with roots in their heritage. What more could you ask for?
Bekoh Kerreng is: Hariri (seruling), Susi and Kiky (vocals), Farid (tingtung), Affi (bas), Rico (remo), Andrey (konterbas), Umar (klitir), Rokib (selingan), Slamet (Tambourine), and Imron (Coach).
Special thanks to Jember friends Iral and Mas Bro for helping us out and hooking it up in the best of ways :) And to Logan for his beardly powers and Jo for his magical mixing!