Location: Bandung, West Java
It’s nearing the end of Ramadan, and in some parts of Java that means that nights are about to get a whole lot quieter. Ramadan, also called bulan puasa or “the fasting month,” is a festive time, with friends and family gathering every evening to break their day-long fast together. A key element of the festive vibe is the constant, rhythmic noise all around, from the call to prayer which blast through mosque loudspeakers five times a day to the sound of kids pounding out crude rhythms on their mosque’s bedug, a large drum traditionally used to call the neighborhood to prayer. In my neighborhood, around three or four in the morning, you’re even likely to hear the wailing of something like an air raid siren.
That last one takes some explaining. Indonesians are by and large early sleepers and early risers, but during Ramadan schedules get a bit tweaked. As Muslims are not meant to be eating or drinking during daylight hours, families wake up in the middle of the night, sometimes around two or three, to eat their final meal before a long day of hunger and piety.
What a disaster that would be if you were to sleep through your final chance at a meal! Luckily, there’s Obrog-obrogan, a musical alarm clock roaming the neighborhoods: part community service, part late-night percussion jam.
You can find gangs of noisy young boys roaming neighborhoods yelling “Sahur, sahur” (the name for the early morning meal) all over Muslim parts of Indonesia, but in certain parts of West Java, the kids have really upped their game. Especially big on the northern coast in areas like Indramayu and Cirebon, Obrog-obrogan gangs trade in their water jugs, pots and pans for gongs, massive homemade drum kits, and decked-out mobile sound systems. The music they play is part gamelan, part percussive free-for-all, and it’s loud as hell.
I was surprised to find an Obrog-obrogan group playing in Bandung - all I get in my hood is the air raid siren and the occasional “Sahur!” kids. Turns out a musician named Pak Dadang brought the tradition from his native village in Sumedang, near the Obrog-ripe area of Majalengka, to his neighborhood in Kancra, South Bandung. It was Pak Dadang’s idea to turn the local kids onto traditional music by swapping out the scrappier instruments for something closer to a legit gamelan. The band even used to have a handful of mobile-rigged saron metallophones before they were washed away in a flood (!).
It was a brilliant move, as kids love nothing more than to bang on things and make a lot of noise. That’s the joy of Obrog-obrogan, really - it's socially acceptable mischief, roaming the streets at times normally unthinkable, making a ruckus that at any other time of the year would get you spanked by your neighbors. Perhaps because of this, the kids in Kancra have really taken to the music, despite the fact that for the rest of the year they’re more into hardcore and dangdut. For one month, they convene nightly to revel in a very Sundanese, very special kind of noise.
I found out about Obrog-obrogan with only a few days to spare: Ramadan was coming to an end and I was about to head to Central Java to celebrate Idul Fitri, the festivities marking the end of the month, with my girlfriend’s family. As soon as I saw grainy YouTube videos of these raucous groups in action, though, I had to hear it for myself.
I was lucky, then, to meet Pram, an amateur filmmaker who just that week had uploaded a documentary called Obrog-Obrogan to YouTube. After a brief exchange, Pram was inviting me to his neighborhood in South Bandung to join his group for a late night Obrog-obrogan parade.
It was an odd feeling, heading out on my motorbike through the midnight streets of Bandung, empty and surprisingly quiet at that hour. Pulling up to the maze of gang (alleyways) that this group commandeers each night, I was surprised at the peacefulness of the neighborhood, with only the sound of crickets piercing the chilly night air.
That didn’t last for long. I met up with Pram and he led me through the gangs to their home-base, where teenagers were sitting around smoking and tuning their kendang, the ubiquitous Sundanese drums. Everyone else, it seemed, was still sleeping. Oh, how soon that would end.
The band filed into formation with Pak Dadang near the rear, right behind a mobile sound system lit with color-changing LED lights to psychedelic effect. As the rhythm got going, Pak Dadang read lyrics from the screen of his Blackberry, classics from the local pop style called Pop Sunda. There was no guitar or bass to root the melody, just the tonally ambiguous pounding of the drums and gongs.
That strange amalgam of sounds wormed its way through the gangs, deafeningly loud. If minutes before the neighborhood had been peacefully sleeping, they were sure as hell awake now. As the din bounced off the walls of the labyrinthine neighborhood, doors would creak open and ladies would peer out in their pajamas, sleepy-eyed kids by their sides.
Something of a sleepy dance party gathered behind the noisy parade, kids and tweens happy for the excuse to break the taboo of being out of the house at night. The LED lights lit up the labyrinth and the pace of the Pop Sunda medley quickened, and when popular dangdut songs were thrown in the mix, even the shy teens found themselves moving to the beat, dancing through the night.