Tracks recorded by Palmer Keen and Jo Lamont; mixed and mastered by Jo Lamont.
Location: Lambanapu, East Sumba
Sound: Jungga/Juk (also called jungga Humba and jungga Jawa)
This is the first in a series called Sumba Strings to be released over the next few weeks. Each post will feature one performer on the various string instruments of Sumba - some posts will feature the same instruments more than once, but the performances have so much variety, we can’t help but share it all.
Sumba had been calling to me for years before I finally made the trek. It somehow feels hidden away, lying just south of the broad, volcanic sweep of islands that runs from Java to Flores and onwards to Papua. I’d missed it on my first epic Indonesia trip in 2013, an overland jaunt from Bali across that volcanic arc to the remote Solor archipelago, and I’d regretted it ever since. In many ways, Sumba is in the same cultural sphere of those islands (Flores, Timor, even smaller ones like Sabu and Rote) which surround it.
This area, called Nusa Tenggara Timur (East Nusa Tenggara), or NTT for short, is a world away from the largely Muslim area to the west we can loosely call the Javasphere. Islam never quite got a foothold in this area for the most part; instead, traditional, animist-based beliefs lived on, sometimes replaced with Christianity (Catholic and Protestant) by eager missionaries. Sumba is a unique mix of all three, with some areas Catholic, others Protestant, and a small percentage still practicing the ancient belief system called Marapu.
Even in those who have converted to Christianity, adat or traditional customs are still strong in Sumba, and much Sumbanese music has deep ties to both adat and Marapu. Most deeply tied to adat and Marapu is the gong music played in the large, elaborate Marapu-tinged funerals held across the island. Gongs are everywhere on the island, with only the strings of Sumba coming in a close second.
These string instruments take different forms across the island, from ukulele-like lutes to tube zithers, fiddles, and boat lutes. We’re going to start on the east side of Sumba, an area which is geographically and culturally quite distinct from the rest of the island. It is here that you can find two very special varieties of the instrument that locals call jungga.
Jungga seems to be a catch-all term for many string instruments across Sumba, with all sorts of shapes and sounds being lumped under the name. In East Sumba, jungga refers to both a ukulele-like four-to-six stringed instrument as well as a very different two-stringed variety. Not only are the instruments quite different, but the music varies as well, so let’s take them one by one.
We heard the four-to-six stringed jungga called juk as well, which is interesting - juk is a very common name for ukulele-like instruments across East Indonesia. Makes sense - the jungga looks a lot like a ukulele, and it may have been inspired by ukuleles or other similar instruments brought by the Portuguese to Indonesia during their hundreds of years of colonial presence in Indonesia (it may have come via Java: another name for this kind of jungga, we were told, is jungga Jawa - “Javanese jungga.”)
Still, despite its likeness to a ukulele or small guitar, this jungga has a sound of its own. We heard three of these jungga Jawa on our trip, and each was a bit different. The four-stringed varieties played by famous junggaers Haingu and Ata Ratu were fretless and very obviously homemade, with a dry sound almost like a banjo. Purra Tanya’s jungga, the one he also called juk, resembled more closely a typical ukulele, complete with frets, except its six strings were paired into three courses, giving it a ringing, mandolin-like sound.
The music played on these jungga was, despite the player’s very individual styles, more or less the same - basic picked rhythms on the jungga together with sung lyrics in the Kambera language, mostly about love. While other musicians would improvise their lyrics, often crafting clever, off-the-cuff lines about the audience, Purra Tanya stuck to pre-written folk songs which he described as passed down from the ancestors.
A whole paper could be written about the rhythms of Sumba alone, with some jungga songs featuring the very distinct seven-beat time signature popular across the island, especially common in gong music. Other songs feature rhythmic patterns that will have you struggling to keep count, as the musicians use rhythmic groupings of two and three beats to accommodate the flow of the lyrics.
This four/six-string style jungga is still well-known in East Sumba, even if musicians are few and far between. It’s most often played in private, for the enjoyment of family and friends, but it’s also played ritually to accompany harvest ceremonies, house-building rituals, and even weddings.
The two-string jungga is, from an organological perspective, a whole other beast. While the previously discussed uke-like jungga is a relative newcomer in Sumba, probably arriving sometime in the mid-twentieth century, the two-stringed variety is thought of as being quite a bit older and more asli (original.) You can tell from the shape and construction that it seems to be a cousin of the so-called boat lutes of Sulawesi. Ethnomusicologist Philip Yampolsky, one of the few outsiders to ever record the jungga, points out in his Music of Indonesia, Vol. 20: Indonesian Guitars liner notes that the jungga is reminiscent of an older variety of the Bugis kacapi, although it also has elements similar to lutes I've recorded in West and Central Sulawesi. These kind of boat lutes are found all across Austronesian Southeast Asia, even in the Philippines.
Called boat lutes because of the organic curve of their sides, these instruments almost always feature “fingerposts”, a row of small columns (kahila in East Sumba) raised off of the neck of the instrument. When playing, the musician either frets the string (lulu) on the post or in between them - when pressed in between, the musician’s finger can push farther down, allowing for a kind of slippery sound which Yampolsky compared to a slide guitar. These days, the strings are metallic strands taken from a motorcycle’s brake cables, but in the past I was told they were made from fibers of a kalita palm frond. The body and neck are all carved out of one piece of surian wood (toona in English), with the almond-shaped body carved out and covered in the back with a separate backplate, complete with holes for sound to escape.
While we might compare it to a boat, the Sumbanese might think of their jungga as existing more in the realm of animals. Purra Tanya had a pair of two-stringed junggas, one capped with a carved chicken, the other with an alligator. The instrument also has an anatomy of its own: the top is the head (as in English), while the fingerposts are teeth, the instrument’s bridge is the navel (puh) which rests on the body or stomach (kambu), terminating in the tail (kiku). I’ve heard similar anatomies described for other boat lutes in Sulawesi, making me wonder about the deep roots of this convention.
Just like the boat lutes of Sulawesi, the top string of the jungga is left open as a drone, while the bottom string is played melodically (the style of playing in general is more melodic than that of the four-to-six stringed jungga, and there are even purely instrumental songs, something you don’t find on its modern cousin.) The songs are also, like the other jungga, often love songs, although there doesn’t seem to be a tradition of improvising lyrics as there is with its cousin.
There is, mysteriously, a rather enigmatic song variety in bahasa dalam (literally “deep language”, songs with more figurative, formal language), but Purra Tanya said that nobody is around who can play them.
When I asked him if he could play these songs, Purra Tanya had a surprising answer: “I know them, but I’m not brave enough to sing them.” I asked him what he meant, and he replied, “If you mess up the lyrics, there are consequences…you could fall sick.” There was clearly a power to these old songs - Purra Tanya described how the old songs detailed everything from Sumbanese creation myths to tales of the first king of Sumba’s birth. There were even songs specially played for the king alone (remnants of a caste-like system of royalty and slaves lives on in a diminished form even today, but the songs for the king may be long gone.)
Getting out of Waingapu was a relief. Together with my co-adventurers Jo and Logan (fellow music geeks who have now accompanied me everywhere from Lombok to Sulawesi), I had been stuck in the dinky capital of East Sumba for far too long trying to find motorbikes to rent, quite a task in a town which sees almost no tourists. We’d eventually figured it out - Logan and Jo would ride together, and I’d ride on the back of a bike with an ojek or motorcycle taxi.
Our destination was Lambanapu, a village just a short ride out of town. Pak Yudi, a local employee of the region’s Cultural Department, had tipped me off that in Lambanapu I could meet a man who played both kinds of jungga, a rare treat! Armed with just the names of the village and the musician, we set off into the dry, rolling hills of the countryside, stopping every so often so that the ojek could ask directions. Friendly points of the finger led us across a small stream lined with grazing horse and pigs and into a leafy compound of tin-roofed homes.
It was a beautiful little village. Under the stilted houses, chirping chicks ran about and a woman sat in the shade under the floorboards, weaving an ikat tapestry on a massive loom. Mangy dogs chased each other around and under the houses, barking up a storm. Purra Tanya soon greeted us on the porch of his home, laying out a woven reed mat and offering us the symbolic gift of sirih (betel nut), actually just an empty wooden tray with a medicine bottle full of slaked lime.
Pak Purra seemed happy to have visitors, and quickly went inside his dimly lit home to retrieve his lutes. He returned decked out in a woven ikat scarf and a yellow beret and began to proudly recount his performance history, how he'd played in Jakarta, Malang, even Bali (a formal portrait of Pak Purra with jungga in hand was hanging on the woven bamboo wall amongst family photos in the place you'd usually find, in these parts, a hologram of Jesus.) He'd been playing both styles of jungga since the age of ten, he told me in his uniquely accented Indonesian, and was completely self-taught.
Jo and I set up our recording gear (expanded from my usual set-up to pick up the jungga and vocals separately) and Pak Purra began to play, starting with the two-stringed lute. The first song began with a little instrumental intro, Pak Purra strumming the strings, oddly enough, with his ring finger. Soon it was joined by a vocal melody, his voice pinched but soulful, We were spellbound, hanging intently on these Kabera words we didn't understand, while all around us the dogs continued to bark and chickens rustled below our feet.
Pak Purra followed the song with an explanation. The full title of the song was "Giki Na Hi Goi-Goi Ka Ga Nda Na Ma Mbeni Gau" - quite a mouthful, I laughed. He translated it to Indonesian: "Kenapa Kau Menangis? Siapa Yang Marah" ("Why Do You Cry? Who Is Angry?") The song, he explained, is about a failed arranged marriage: a husband finds his new wife crying, distraught at being married to a man she barely knows. The man is perplexed ("He hadn't even hit her!", explained Pak Purra) so asks the woman why she continues to cry when it was not his choice to begin with.
The porch concert continued with Pak Purra switching between instruments, each song telling another love story, from "Rambu Manandan" ("Beautiful Girl") to "Mbeli Mbaru" ("Home Early"), a story of a young man giving his bride to be a kind of symbolic bride price called belis (a yoni-like piece of jewelry shaped like a vulva, representing fertility.)
We sat on the porch with Pak Purra well into the night, his grandkids gathering to watch as we sat and talked about music, swapping instruments (Pak Purra had a wooden mouth harp called nggunggi which he couldn't play, so he agreed to trade for my Vietnamese dan moi!) All toothless smiles, Pak Purra had a kind of easy, relaxed way about him that seemed to transfer to his style of play - listen to the intensity of the jungga player Hapu Payuara (described by Yampolsky as "declamatory, and very loud") on Music of Indonesia, Vol. 16, then to Pak Purra, and there's a world of difference. We would go on to record a lot more jungga as our trip around Sumba continued, but our porch session with Purra Tanya stayed with me for long afterwards.
Huge thanks to Pak Yudi for connecting us with Purra Tanya, to the wonderful ojek turned guide whose name I have shamefully forgotten, and to Purra Tanya and family for sharing their front porch and beautiful music with us. And of course to my friend Jo for the beautiful mix/master, always raising the bar here at Aural Archipelago, and to Logan, who might have felt like he wasn't doing much but filled our trips with laughter and good vibes, an invaluable service.