[Note: the photos in this post are from three different groups over a number of years: Reak Sanca Birawa from Lembang, Reak Tibelat from Cibiru, and Reak Juarta Putra from Cinunuk. The video and recordings feature Juarta Putra.]
Location: Bandung, West Java
An underground music scene is thriving on the margins of Bandung's urban sprawl in the highlands of West Java. Peripheral villages like Ujung Berung and Cibiru were around for centuries in these parts before Bandung was built up by the Dutch in the 1800s, which perhaps explains their resilience: despite being swallowed by the pollution, development, and globalism of Bandung, this area on the fringes has maintained its deeply Sundanese character. Get off the traffic-choked main thoroughfare and up into the hills, and you’ll find Sundanese villages not so different from their rural cousins in remoter parts of these highlands. Chickens roam narrow footpaths, Sundanese language mingles in the air with the smell of terasi shrimp paste, and you’re almost guaranteed to hear the sound of reak blasting from loudspeakers in a nearby hamlet.
Reak is a Sundanese take on the kuda lumping trance dance and music combo found across Java (see ebeg in Banyumas) and even Bali. The name may be linked to reog (either the reog trance dance popular in East Java or the reog Sundanese comedy format which also uses dogdog), but it's also said by village elders to have roots in the Sundanese word “ngareah-reah”, meaning “to enliven.” The format is at its core the same as its more famous Javanese relatives: young men enter into a trance to the sounds of intense, repetitive music, their bodies possessed by the spirits of ancestors and animals. Some ride hobbyhorses called kuda lumping (literally “leather horse”), while others flail about or prove their altered state by eating glass, getting whipped, or having roof tiles smashed on their heads.
It’s all incredibly intense, which may explain its popularity with young punks and metalheads (there’s no distorted guitar, but its all totally hardcore.) In fact, the vibe of a reak show would be eerily familiar to any punk rock fan: a crowd of young men dance violently in the “pit”, with their friends all around them chanting rhythmically. While the punks might shout “Oi oi oi!” the reak kids shout “Asu asu asu!”: “Enter, enter, enter!” in Sundanese, a command to the spirits to take over the next willing participant.
The music is the fuel for this wild intensity. The sound is quite different from the gamelan that accompanies similar art forms in other parts of Java. It’s a minimal set-up, with a handful of cylindrical, single-headed goatskin drums called dogdog. The core dogdog drums from smallest to largest are tilingtit, tong, brung, and bamplak (these onomotopoeic names vary from group to group and village to village.) With each dogdog played by a different musician, the base quartet must plays tight interlocking parts, with the high-pitched stick-beaten tilingtit often signalling a change in tempo or pattern. A more modern addition is the large bass drum called bedug (after the large drum sometimes hung outside mosques and played to signal the call to prayer.) Whether this bedug is a dogdog style goatskin drum or a Western bass drum, its function is to ramp up the energy at key moments of frenzied trance.
The melody in reak music is supplied by the tarompet, a kind of double reed wind instrument common in pencak silat martial arts. In fact, the non-stop wailing of the tarompet in reak music (made possible by circular breathing!) likely draws from the intense music of pencak silat, with the dancer’s moves also showing martial arts influences. When the band is not reaching a trance crescendo, they might cycle through more melodic pop Sunda (Sundanese pop) and dangdut songs, with the tarompet sometimes mirroring and elaborating on vocals supplied by a female singer or sinden.
Reak is typically played for hajatan, family rituals celebrating everything from births to weddings, although its most associated with sunatan or circumcisions (folks say the frenzied events are meant to distract and cheer up the freshly snipped kid). The event usually starts with a ritual presentation of offerings: incense is burned and Islamic prayers are whispered over piles of bananas, coconuts, and even bottled water. This is a formal invitation to the spirits who will later possess the musicians and dancers.
Led by a cue from the tilingtit, the band will play a few songs in the village “concert space”, usually an empty dirt lot between houses. As the band plays, group members will begin to enter trance or possession, the spirits (roh halus) ritually invited into their bodies by malim, shaman-like leaders in the group. Once possessed, these dancers will thrash about, dance, and even taunt the audience until the spirit is ritually pushed out of their bodies (dicageurkeun) by the malim, a process involving spell-like prayers and pinching key muscles in the legs, arms, and neck.
Another integral element of the entertainment is the bangbarongan, a dragon-like masked dancer who is likewise possessed, snapping his painted wooden jaws and speaking in a humorous squeaky voice. The dancer inside has a tarompet reed (emmet) in his mouth through which he can speak, for instance harrassing the audience with calls of “Duit, duit!”, (“[Give me] money, money!”) When the band and dancers need a rest, reak groups will often have an intermission of this dragon comedy, with the bangbarongan exchanging squeaky quips with an MC.
Every reak event always leads to arak-arakan, a ritual parade through the streets and footpaths of the village with the audience in tow. To make things mobile, the amplification for the tarompet and singer (usually a toa or mosque loudspeaker, loud but incredibly lo-fi and shrill) our loaded onto a cart which then tails the dogdog players and tranced out dancers.
Reak seems to have roots in Sumedang, a rural area just east of Bandung (land of tarawangsa and songah). From there, it spread to a scattering of villages at the foot of Mt. Manglayang, urban kampungs like Cinunuk, Cibiru, and Ujung Berung in what is now East Bandung. Village elders in Cinunuk suggest its been around in that area at least since Indonesian independence in the 1940’s, but references to reak are curiously absent in descriptions of Sundanese music and art in the 20th century. In fact, the only reference I’ve found is American ethnomusicologist Randall Baier’s account of reak performances in Ujung Berung and Rancaekek in the 1980s. Baier’s account is an illuminating one, as it shows that reak was once led not by tarompet but was principally based around angklung (a common pairing with dogdog.) The arak-arakan procession was also once tied to agricultural rituals, with the procession leading from freshly harvested rice paddies to rice barns or leuit.
I’m often mystified that reak is not more well-known. Outside of Sumedang and these handful of urban villages in East Bandung, most folks haven’t heard of it, despite it being one of the most thriving forms of traditional music in West Java, with literally hundreds of groups across this small area. Why hasn’t reak warranted the attention of the government, scholars, or the tourism industry? Perhaps reak doesn’t have the right image: it’s lower-class, subversive, and extreme. There’s nothing sophisticated about it, and that’s what makes it so fun. Reak doesn’t need these outsiders’ interest or approval, though. It’s thriving in its own way, on its own terms, enlivening the streets and alleys of East Bandung in the process.
The first time I heard reak was a happy accident. My partner Sinta and I had headed into the hills north of Bandung on a beautiful Sunday, driving through mountainside villages in search of a good forest to explore. We had just parked my motorbike and were walking along a cool footpath towards an alluring patch of pines when we heard a sound coming from the next village over, the din of distant drums and wailing tarompet carrying over rooftiles and clotheslines.
Flash forward an hour and I’d forgotten all about the hike: tranced out kids were rolling on the ground at my feet, what looked like blood was dripping from their mouths. A kid crawled over to me on all fours, an absurd monkey spirit eating a banana whole. A man handed me a whip, motioning for me to crack it at a twitching youth. Over all this, the mad sounds of pounding drums and reedy tarompet.
It was the start of a love affair with reak that went on for years. I got that group’s cell number and would go to a show almost every week. I started inviting any remotely curious friends along, exposing them to the wild ride that is a reak show. I even set up a collaboration between that original reak group and American musician Arrington de Dionyso, the tarompet wails melding in strange harmony with Arrington’s free sax bass clarinet (Arrington later made a film out of it, some of which I shot: you can see the trailer here.) Later I helped French artist Julien Hairon shoot the same group, the results of which became the short concert doc REAK: Transe:Chamanique:Soundanaise.
The group whose recordings I’m sharing here might be my favorite, though. Reak Juarta Putra is a collective from Cinunuk, right on the eastern edge of Bandung. They struck me as unique for being an intergenerational operation, with older guys and young bros playing and trancing together, the deepness of this single group’s tradition on display. Plus, their rhythms were tight, the precision of their interlocking patterns honed over almost daily shows.
Still, one thing has been getting in the way of making a reak post after all these years of getting deep in this scene: I just couldn’t get a decent recording. Or, at least, I couldn’t get a recording that captured the feeling of being at a reak show. Perhaps that’s an impossibility. When you’re there, the bass thump of the bedug hits your chest like the sound from rock concert speaker stacks; the tarompet sound blasts into your skull from the megaphone-like toa speakers, and theintensity of altered states elevates the whole thing to another level. Then you get home and have a listen, and the interlocking drums have gone cloudy and the tarompet is lost, the toa pointed in the wrong direction.
These recordings are from my last reak show, an independence day parade in the heart of the city, strange territory for these marginal folks. Maybe because they were in a new hood, there weren’t as many kids trancing. This meant I could get closer to the band - usually bringing a microphone into that zone is just asking for it to get stepped on or stolen by a mischievious monkey spirit. This time, I got my ZOOM right into that sweet spot underneath all the dogdog, the attack of the drums still crisp, the tarompet singing out (just a little drowned out) from behind. I could never capture the feeling of reak in the flesh, the excitement tinged with the uncanny fear of seeing things you can’t explain. All I can give is my impressions and a pale aural snapshot of this music that sets backstreets ablaze, music enjoyed by urban Sundanese kids and ancestor spirits alike.