Location: Genteng, Banyuwangi Regency, East Java
Sound: Kuntulan (also called kundaran)
I’ve driven all around Java for the past year searching out the fascinating permutations of frame drum music found on the island, from terbang gebes in West Java to Banyumas-style slawatan, but nothing could prepare me for the flashy, modern sounds of Banyuwangi-style kuntulan. The people in this far eastern corner of Java are called the Osing, a fascinating and distinct culture with a rich history (descendants of princes, some say!) and a music culture unlike anything else on the island (you may remember the angklung paglak, kenthulitan, and jaranan/gandrung.)
Kuntulan has its roots in hadrah, a very Middle Eastern-flavored form of rebana-accompanied Islamic devotional music found throughout Java. While hadrah is a bit flavorless and essentially sounds the same no matter where its played, kuntulan has been richly imbued with the Osing spirit so unique to Banyuwangi. The terbang are still at the heart of the music: the bejangled drums (called genjring elsewhere in Java) play interlocking patterns which can be slapped out at dizzying speeds. Unlike the rather uniform rebana patterns of hadrah, the terbang riffs are remarkably varied and dynamic, with the speedy, tonal sound of the buffalo skin drums echoing the frenetic Bali-esque rhythms found in local gamelan. These days, though, the terbang are just the core of the ever-growing tentacled monster that is the modern kuntulan group. Also onboard now are bass drums (pantus) that seem to have been grabbed from a school marching band, kenong (two small gongs placed on the ground and played at a breakneck speed), and even the musical triangle (kluncing) so popular in Banyuwangi. These last two, especially the surprisingly virtuosic triangle, are likely borrowed from the gandrung dance music found throughout the area.
Also of note is the inclusion of an electric keyboard, usually called orgen in Indonesia. In my cynical, romantic view of Indonesian music making, the orgen is often the shmaltzy death rattle of subtlety and taste. Pop music (and traditional-pop hybrids) all around the archipelago is marred not by the instrument itself but by the god-awful rhythmic pre-sets, stilted patterns that make almost all music made with a synth sound like that fifty year old Smooth Organ Waltzes vinyl you found at the local thrift store. In Banyuwangi, though, keyboardists bravely leave the pre-sets behind and forge ahead with only raw, monophonic melodies played with one hand and pumped through distorted klaxon-esque loudspeakers.
The keyboard melodies and optional vocals follow the drums through a varied world of songs far from the Arabic-aspiring hadrah. Songs from the gandrung reportoire mingle with pop daerah (local pop), almost all featuring the diatonized but very Osing take on the slendro scale. Despite its religious roots and context, modern kuntulan seems to find no issue with blending the sacred with the profane, prayers mingling with dangdut.
The fleshed-out ensembles and varied reportoire are possibly a result of kuntulan’s place in the tradition of arak-arakan, wherein groups cruise through local neighborhoods in a truckbed, a travelling show aimed at gathering donations from passersby for local mosques or orphanages. Unlike more ritual-based musics in Indonesia, kuntulan music in this context is designed to be crowd-pleasing, with catchy keyboard lines and familiar melodies seducing rupiahs from folks as the band drives through. Formal kuntulan competitions also give motivation to groups to come up with new arrangements and of course to shred as much as possible.
Maybe its the fairly fresh sound, maybe its the shredding. Whatever it is, I’m happy to say that unlike other drum-based arts in Java, kuntulan is in no danger of extinction. Kuntulan groups are almost always made up of young men (women never play, although they can sing), with kids learning with their seniors at the local mosque or sanggar. Its a decent example for communities with struggling musical traditions: if you want your tradition to flourish, don’t be too strict about the tools or the reportoire. A keyboard may even help things - just leave the stilted pre-sets out of it.
Banyuwangi seems to be a lucky place for me. Upon my arrival to the area for the first time in 2014, I was greeted at the train station by a jaranan group with tranced out kids rolling about as trains passed. Just what I wanted! This time around, things worked out even better.
Its 2016, and I’m headed to Banyuwangi once again. It’s the last leg of my epic Java journey, a 1000 km + drive from Bandung to Bali with stops all along the way. I’ve been dreaming of Banyuwangi all the while, wondering to myself how I’ll find a kuntulan group. I guess I’ll have to hunt out down and commission a performance. It’ll be worth it!
Just as I drove into the Banyuwangi area (past the curiously named village of Glenmore), a pick-up truck pulled right in front of me on the road: the truck’s bed was bursting with musicians, drums, and gongs shredding their way down the street as the truck crept along. I laughed out loud at the serendipity of it all and quickly resolved that I’d have to find a way to record these guys.
It was a rainy day, and just as I was thinking of how to get these guys to stop, the rain did it for me: a torrential downpour forced us all to pull over and seek cover. As one of the guys frantically pulled a big blue tarp over everything, I stood watching the rain with the band and tried to convey the serendipity of our meeting to the bemused band: You guys are playing kuntulan! I’m here looking for kuntulan! Can I follow your or something??
Go for it, the guys said - you can join whenever the rain stops. So we sat on some stranger’s porch while a few guys practiced their terbang parts accompanied by kendang, a few kretek cigarettes burning on the leather straps of the barrel drum as the tight patterns of the terbang rung out clearly, freed from the exciting but muddy clatter of the full ensemble. The musicianship was rock solid, with rhythms passed from drum to drum with impossible ease. This was going to be good.
The question then became: how to record a band on the move? I would put my recorder in the bed with the musicians, but there was literally not an inch of space left in the truck. What I came up with instead was not quite as consistent in terms of sound but it made for quite an image: as the band got on their way and began their slow parade through the nearby villages, I tailgated them on my motorbike, keeping a slow, consistent speed on the throttle with one hand while holding my Sony PCM-M10 in front of the bike with the other.
I followed the band for more than an hour as they played through the crowd-pleasers in medley form, with particularly popular ones being repeated again and again. Eventually the circuit ended at their home mosque, where the band jumped down and beat out one more song for the home crowd. Then we all went to a nearby home to feast on catfish and watermelon, where the group’s leader explained that they were raising money for orphans as part of an annual ritual in connection with the beginning of Suro, a holy month of the Javanese and Islamic calendar. As the sun was about to set, I set off to Banyuwangi city with a dozen handshakes and a smile on a face, knowing that this was only the beginning of yet another awesome journey through the sunrise of Java.