Location: Tinambung, West Sulawesi
Sound: Kacaping (also called kecapi)
The kacaping seduced me almost immediately. A finely made kacaping is a thing of real beauty, long and thin like a canoe slicing through water, more than a meter of dark brown wood from end to end. Its two strings run high above the body, meeting with the fingers at five finger-posts rising up to meet the strings like bridge piles. The head is a gorgeous fan of carved floral filigree, rimmed in red and sometimes dressed with fake plastic flowers. Its sound is almost all drone - an instrument after my own heart.
More than a year after seeking out and recording kacaping music in the Mandar homeland of West Sulawesi, I realized I'd missed the point entirely. I felt like an illiterate falling in love with a book cover.
The thing is, kacaping music is not really about the kacaping at all. It feels like a bit of misdirection, this big beautiful instrument playing what is essentially a secondary role. In reality, the kacaping is simply a vehicle for the real substance: the unfurling stanzas of oral poetry, stories, and spontaneous riffing that rides its boat-like form through the waters.
As a former literature major, I'm embarrassed to admit how often I gloss over the words that go along with music. It's easy enough when I don't speak the local language (in this case, Mandar), as the words, meaningless phonemes to my ignorant ears, reach my brain as melody, texture, and rhythm, enjoyable in their own way. However, Indonesians are brilliant storytellers, and with handfuls of largely textless centuries behind them, their strength lies in the oral tradition, knowledge passed down through countless voices.
The Mandar oral tradition is particularly rich, and its finest expression is through singing accompanied by kacaping. While, as in other areas, synthesizers and dangdut bands are making a dent, kacaping music continues to grace weddings, circumcision ceremonies, and religious rituals. Sitting on a raised stage, kacaping masters called pakkacaping share the stage (both men and women can play kacaping and can even trade verses, although female players, called kaccaping tobaine, use slightly modified instruments and playing styles!). The pakkacaping cradle the kacaping in their arms (like a baby, one musician told me) and raise it to their ears, bringing their voice in line with the drone of the strings as they let forth a stream of text into the microphone.
These texts take three basic forms, masaqala, toloq, and tedhe. Masaqala is the most religious of the three, a prayer-like series of verses based deeply in Sufism, with lyrics directly addressing Allah and exploring the relationship between human and creator. Toloq, on the other hand, is the oral history book of the Mandar people, with lyrics telling stories telling long, winding stories about characters and events in the Mandar lands of decades and centuries past. Finally, tedhe is arguably the most demanding form - similar to the dadendate music in the Kaili lands of the north and the Mandars' own modern sayang sayang music, tedhe is a spontaneous recitative, almost rap-like, in which the singer singles out single audience members, riffing and teasing them through clever wordplay and metaphors.
I was privileged to spend my time in West Sulawesi with a brilliant and passionate Mandar artist named M. Rahmat Muchtar, whose studio is one of the key forces in sustaining the kacaping tradition on the Mandar coast. Of the many musical treasures Rahmat shared with me in Tinambung, one that I'll never forget is a visit with the pakkacaping Abdul Musa.
Rahmat drove me on the back of his motorbike to Pak Musa's house a few miles away from the steamy coastline. While many houses in Sulawesi stand proud above the ground on wooden stilts, Pak Musa's house was surprisingly earthbound - the floor of his living room was compacted soil, a surprise in a country where even the poorest farmers take pride in smooth concrete floors. It was literally a one-room shack, with sleeping quarters portioned off with smartly placed silky curtains and wooden cupboards sitting strangely in the dirt.
Pak Musa emerged from behind a curtain with that most Indonesian of outfits - a sarong, a peci cap, and a grin, and invited us in, apologizing for his poverty. After the usual small talk and tea, he spread out a mat on the dirt floor and grabbed a long, beautiful kacaping hanging from a wall.
I've read somewhere that Asian art has no concepts of ends or beginnings, and I'm reminded of that when I think of the way that Pak Musa began playing, not with a tidy little intro but with an immediate droning thrum that he spun out of the instrument as if turning up the volume on a song that had been playing in the background all along. After letting loose this twangy drone, Pak Musa raised the instrument to his ears, as if listening to a secret, and let out an impassioned yelp that begins, "Ah, allaaaah..." and continues, with the rhythmic drone of the kacaping below, in a steady stream of poetic verse.
The verse, sung in Mandar, was lost on me, but it was met by the fellow Mandar musicians in the room with occasional hoots, light applause, and smiles of genuine surprise. It struck a deep longing into me, this humbling reminder that I was experiencing only the shallowest delight in this complex artform, the content within remaining, elusive, like a secret just out of reach.
Much of the information on kacaping in this article relies heavily on the book Pakkacaping Mandar: Petikan Dawai Pemenuh Janji pada Langit by Asmadi Alimuddin and edited by my friend Muhammad Ridwan Alimuddin - thank you Bang Ridwan for providing me with this great work.