Location: Tanjung Karang, West Kalimantan
Returning to Kalimantan felt like coming back to a strange and distant dream, one I must have woken from years ago. Had I really been here three years ago on these same gravel roads, wandering in search of sounds? Had I really spent one month on Indonesian Borneo’s steamy east coast, teaching English to middle aged refinery workers? I wasn’t really sure if it any of that had happened at all.
As soon as I hit that forest road outside of Putussibau, though, I knew it had all really happened. Here was that same broad blue river, bridgeless but serviced by narrow little rafts to carry you and your motor across. Here was that same fork in the road where we’d asked a confused local, “Where can we find sape’?” It had all really happened: despite the surreal haze of those memories, it was real.
We had come during the Lebaran holiday, Sinta and I. It wasn’t the most romantic idea for a vacation, but Sinta (then my girlfriend, now soon-to-be wife) was game. I had almost broken her, though, making pitch black river crossings in the night, following forest roads between far-flung villages. Our next trip was a conventional one to the beaches of Bali, a thanks for putting up with my wannabe ethnomusicologist insanity.
I’d been woefully unprepared that time, with no contacts in the area and no idea of what to look for except for sape’ Kenyah, a wonderfully sweet Dayak lute which continues to bewitch me. Instead I’d stumbled upon Pak Paran and his ‘sape Kayan, an earthy two-stringed lute played almost exclusively in this area of the Mendalam river deep in the province of West Kalimantan.
If only I’d bothered to listen to Philip Yampolsky’s brilliant albums from the Music of Indonesia series, I would’ve known that this part of Kalimantan is richer than I could have ever guessed. Volume 13, Kalimantan Strings, featured the sape’ Kayan I knew nothing about, plus a gorgeous track featuring sape’ Kayan together with soulful singing called talimaa’. If I’d had a listen to Volume 17, Kalimantan: Dayak Ritual and Festival Music, I would have heard a stirring take on dayung, all stomping feet and choral vocals. They’d both been recorded not far from the river Sinta and I crossed years ago, unaware.
As I detailed in my post on Pak Bunau and his kadedek, I got a chance to return to Kalimantan as a guide for Jan Schulte, a German musician in search of sounds for a Europalia International Arts Festival residency. The trip was about Jan’s own recording efforts, not mine, but we agreed that it wouldn’t hurt for me to share some of the raw music we met there in our ten days on the massive island.
How lucky we were to be accompanied by amateur Dayakologist Yadi, a Pontianak-based musician whose group Balaan Tumaan specialized in the music of the Kayan people in this part of Kalimantan. It was Yadi who led us down those familliar forest roads once more, right to the house of Ibu Ana, a singer and Kayan shaman who Yadi and his girlfriend had studied with months before.
It was such a delight to finally arrive after literally days on the road, climbing the rickety wooden stairs of the raised wooden house to be greeted by Bu Ana herself, a beautiful woman in her fifties wearing an easy smile and a girlish skirt. Soon we met Jugah, her kind and humble son, a fine player of the sape’ Kayan. We were to stay with them for a few days, allowing Jan to soak up the jungle sounds and lazy river life of this part of Kalimantan.
I first got a glimpse of Ibu Ana’s power on our first night in the village. Explaining that she had some work to do, she left us on the front porch with Jugah and his colorfully painted sape’ Kayan. We’d been sitting on the porch for around an hour, soaking in Jugah’s sape’ sounds, when Ibu Ana quietly returned, climbing those wooden stairs in the dark. Without explanation, she came to each of us in turn, placing a small knife between our lips and telling us to bite. As I felt the cold metal between my teeth, Ibu Ana stood above me, mumbling prayers.
Later that night, she attempted an explanation. Ibu Ana is a dayung, a kind of shaman. She is often called to help in spiritual matters in the village, acting as an intermediary between the spirit world and this one. That night, she had gone to meet a neighbor who’d been having nightmares. Nightmares are like haunted dreams, she’d explained, and it was her duty to make sure the spirit in those dream did no harm in this world. The knife and prayers had been a protective spell, a trick to make sure the spirit did not follow her home and harm us.
Ibu Ana looked exhausted from that spiritual labor, but she continued to sit and talk with us that night, breaking the heavy vibe with unexpected bouts of infectious laughter. She seemed bemused to be hosting these two strange young foreigners in her home: she’d muse out loud in her accented Indonesian, “If only I were younger…”, only to giggle once more to herself.
That first night was capped with a song. As Jugah strummed his sape’ lute, Ibu Ana sat by his side and sang, eyes closed. The electric buzz of cicadas streamed in the open window as she improvised poetic verses called talimaa’. Talimaa’, she later explained, uses a ritual form of the Kayan language which is rarely understood by the younger generation. The verses often accompany dance, with the lyrics outlining the meaning and origins of the movements as the dance proceeds. That night, though, Ibu Ana had came up with a new text. She sang of our journey to come see her, told stories of everyday Kayan life, and lamented her status as one of the few dayung left in the area.
We spent the next day out and about, mostly taking baths in the cool blue river, the steady current pushing us gently downstream. Jan would wander off into the forest to record insect noises as I sat on the floorboards of Ibu Ana’s living room, showing her my mouth harps. She reminisced about the old days, when she’d play the tung, the Kayan take on the widespread instrument. She demonstrated on my brass dan moi, but could only play for a few seconds at a time before bursting out in that endearing giggle once again.
On our last night, Ibu Ana promised something special: she and some other women from the village would sing dayung, another form of sung poetry named after the shaman-soloist who led the group in song. Just as the time was coming, though, the power went out. We sat for an hour in black of night, a flickering gas flame on the floor shedding a weak light that seemed to be eaten up by the thick darkness. One by one, Ibu Ana’s team of singers creaked up to the front door from across the village, joining us with whispers in the dark.
Soon enough we learned that the local chapel had a generator, so we headed there to fill it with song. The small wooden building had the feel of a colonial schoolhouse, but it was almost totally empty, a lace-covered altar standing at the end of the room, a crucified Christ looking down from the wall. It struck me as an odd place to sing this music: dayung has roots in the animist world of spirits, with songs sometimes acting like powerful spells. Maybe, I thought, it was more evidence of the permissive syncretism of the Catholic Church in Indonesia, one which has made for Christmas gongs in Sumba and Good Friday laments in West Timor. As it turns out, the dayung they’d be sharing was based on a Catholicized piece reconfigured by a prominent pastor in the area, Pastor Ding.
We started with another take on talimaa’. Ibu Ana and her small choir were now dressed for the occasion: their long black dresses were sequined and beaded with organic filigrees, while their hair was wrapped in patterned red headbands, each with a single black and white eagle feather sticking proudly upwards. Ibu Ana looked especially lovely, her rouged lips highlighted by red beaded earrings which swayed when she moved her head. This time, Ibu Ana’s bluesy vocals were answered by a chorus between verses, each time the same meaningless incantation: “Saloi.”
For the dayung, Ibu Ana humbly asked one of the other women to sing the solo part, that of the shaman or dayung for which the style is named. She didn’t want to hog the spotlight, it seemed, and the other dayung could use the practice. This new dayung stood in the middle of the room, with the others holding a large loop of rattan around her in their left hands. As the dayung sung each verse, the choir circled her counter-clockwise, their rhythmic footsteps shaking the floor of the small chapel. Just as with the talimaa’, each verse was answered with five voices in unison. While the talimaa’ chorus had been subdued, almost mournful, the dayung chorus was bold, powerful: their voices shook the rafters as their footsteps shook the floor. My digital recorder hung from a hook in the ceiling (the only way to get a balanced mix without getting in the way!), spinning slightly as the women circled below.
Later Ibu Ana explained the meaning of the dayung vocals. It was again improvised poetic verse, a song aimed towards the small audience of Yadi, Jan, and I. "Don't forget us," they'd sang, their voices filling the chapel. Oh, we won't, I assured Ibu Ana. That would be impossible. Not only would those days on the river live on in my memory forever, but their voices will now stream forth from this site, a plea to the world from the heart of Borneo, to listen, and to take notice.