Location: Langko Daye, West Lombok
Sound: Rebana reong (also known as gamelan rebana)
Here’s a challenge for you musicians out there: Think of a song you know by heart. Imagine you are to play in a group where your sole responsibility is to play, let’s say, a “C” every time that note comes up in the melody, at exactly the right time. Could you do it? It takes a remarkably, intuitive knowledge of a piece to be able to zero in on just one note in a scale and devote yourself to playing it only at a precise moment. The technique of interlocking multiple, single-note instruments to play complex rhythms and melodies is at the heart of a handful of seemingly disparate musical traditions in Lombok. In the next few weeks you’ll get a taste of these art forms in the new series: Interlocking Lombok.
Various styles of frame drumming across Indonesia use interlocking parts to structure their rhythms, but none have the complexity of the rebana reong of Lombok. That’s because the rebana frame drums used in these groups are something special: they’re pitched. That is, rather than a tonally ambiguous “thwack” or “boom,” these rebana’s goatskin heads are tuned with a series of wooden wedges to let out a dry, crisp, ringing note. How and why this came to be is just as interesting as the instruments themselves.
The (usually) bronze percussion ensembles called gamelan have been popular for centuries throughout Java, Bali, and nearby Lombok. Despite having roots in pre-Islamic, even pre-Hindu culture and belief systems, gamelan has largely been embraced by Muslims in Java and Lombok for almost as long, with some even re-conceptualizing gamelan and related forms like wayang as Muslim art forms. Others, however, were less tolerant. Starting in the mid 20th century, Islamist groups and leaders in Lombok began expressing their disapproval of these arts and their mystical associations, often leading to outright bans. Pak Saturi, the leader of the rebana reong group we met and recorded in Lombok, mentioned that a ban was ordered around the 1950s by a leader possibly associated with Darul Islam, an Islamist group that was gaining power in Indonesia around the time. The ban forbid any music played on bronze instruments: in other words, gamelan and other gong-based musics were now forbidden. Other earlier bans were mentioned by David Harnish in his essay, "Tensions Between Adat (Custom) and Agama (Religion) In the Music of Lombok," where Harnish suggests that such bans stretch back as far as the late 19th century, mentioning that "the 'voice' (suara) of bronze instruments were associated with Wektu Telu beliefs in ancestors, so leaders apparently felt that they should work to end the use of these instruments to undermine those beliefs." (Harnish, pg. 92.)
Rebana reong, then, is a fantastically clever work-around: it was the bronze-based instruments themselves that were banned, not the musical content. Some crafty musicians then figured out how to take common rebana frame drums and tune them to the pitches of the local gamelan. Even the large hanging gongs were replaced by large, hanging drums (gong lanang [male] and gong wadon [female]) while the double-headed kendang drum which commonly leads gamelan ensembles was replaced by two un-pitched frame drums (gendang lanang/wadon). These instrumental substitutions were doubly appropriate: Not only were rebana not metallic, but as I’ve written before, these drums have an historical association with Islam which makes their use permissible even in relatively conservative Muslim communities.
So is this just gamelan with different materials, or something totally new? Gamelan is typified not only by its instrumentation but by its unique colotomic structure. That is, various instruments in a gamelan ensemble are playing an assortment of nested cycles. To put it quite roughly, for each cyclical period of time, some instruments, such as the larger hanging gongs, may be only hit once. Others are hit twice as often, others four times as often, while the melodic instruments may be playing sixteen notes for every one gong hit.
While rebana reong is sometimes called gamelan rebana (and reong itself is the name of a particular gamelan instrument the rebana may be emulating), it’s not clear if its music is built from exactly this same structure. The musicians I met explained that each of the five elementary pitched rebana (from highest/smallest to lowest/largest: ndong, nding, penyelak, pengending, and pengendang) correspond to five structural parts that are found in local gamelan: trompong, pengempat, pengelima, pengecel, and pemalek respectively. The ensemble we recorded had ten tuned rebana, with notes spanning two octaves. The musicians explained that in Sasak style gending, or tunes, the drums in one octave simply play the same part as its corresponding note in the next octave; Balinese-inspired gending, however, are more complex, with all ten rebana supposedly doing different things.
To my ear, the rebana reong structure has fewer of the nested cycles that make gamelan, well, gamelan: the large “gong” drums are playing the same time-dividing role, a single small drum might be playing the metronomic petuk, and the double gendang is playing the same leading role as a typical kendang, but the pitched, interlocking rebana all seem to be playing what are called elaborating melodies, the flurry of notes often played on the reong or other melodic instruments. A layer or two is missing, perhaps because the long, slow tones of the less elaborate layers in colotomy are hard to replicate with the dry, sharp sound of the drums.
The ban on bronze instruments is long gone and traditional gamelan is still fairly common in Lombok, but the rebana reong style continues on to this day. Its harder to find than in decades past, but groups, especially on the West side of the island, still play to enliven khitanan circumcision ceremonies and nyongkolan wedding processions. The art form continues to evolve, with the group we recorded mixing gamelan-based tunes with songs taken from the repertoire of cilokaq, a kind of folk pop form hugely popular throughout the island. Even when the rebana are played acoustically, the drums are now sure to be accompanied by fluttering bamboo flute (suling) and catchy vocals with lyrics in Sasak elaborating on local history and beliefs.
The young generation, though, aren’t biting. Almost anybody can pick up a big bass drum and bang on it as they do in the hugely popular marching bands called kecimol that parade about Lombok every day. Few, though, have what it takes to play rebana reong. The younger generation, Pak Saturi lamented, “doesn’t understand.” “If you don’t understand the melodies, you can’t possibly play the rhythms.” It makes sense: imagine how deeply you must know a song to know exactly when a particular note falls each time in the piece. Its a frustrating double-edged sword: the music’s complexity is what makes it both special and nearly impossible.
Notes on the Songs:
"Cepung" shares a name with a Sasak art form featuring sung poetry read from an old lontar manuscript and vocalized mimicry of gamelan instruments. The song, the musicians told me, is about "babad Lombok" - the history of Lombok.
"Sekatian Nurhate" is more of a mystery. I didn't realize at the time, but sekatian is a term used in Balinese gamelan, a kind of playing style - I wouldn't be surprised if the patterns in this piece are taken from the Balinese repertoire.
I couldn’t wait to get out of Mataram. The city may be the provincial capital and largest on the island, but really its a steaming overgrown village disguising itself with a handful of unreasonably large malls. Tourists head through to rent a motorbike and get a night’s sleep before getting as far as possible, usually to the party-filled Gili islands or the gorgeous beaches of Kuta Lombok.
I was there waiting for my friends. First to arrive was Logan, a fellow wandering American with a huge, overgrown beard and a similar obsession with music of all shapes. He’d written me an e-mail and I’d invited him along on my next adventure (any other takers?) sight unseen. Luckily he turned out to be a perfect travel companion, wooing the folks we met with dangdut covers and a skill at being funny in bahasa Indonesia despite having only studied it for six months. The next day Jo arrived, another fan turned friend, from Australia but Bandung based, whose career in music production instantly made him the resident sound guy.
Logan and I escaped Mataram first, fleeing to the village of Langko on the city's outskirts. There, a friend of a friend had promised to introduce us one of the better known rebana groups in Lombok, Beringin Sejati. We had a quick meeting with Pak Saturi, the head honcho of the group, an older man with a big toothy smile who clearly took delight in sharing his music with us. As soon as we were in his small, furniture-less living room, Pak Saturi was fanning an assortment of small rebana before us, tuning each one with quick, precise bangs of a hammer on the wooden wedges that line the drums’ circumference. Pak Sukri, our guide, nailed down a rhythm on the double gendang while Pak Saturi played melodies with both hands on the tuned drums before us, our first glimpse of the magic of melodic drumming.
The next day we returned with Jo in tow and an appointment to meet the whole group at four in the afternoon. We had hoped in aiming for the afternoon that we would get some light for the video, but as soon as we arrived we realized we had perfectly synchronized our recording session with the daily afternoon downpour. Pak Saturi and his gang struggled to find a place near his home that was big and dry enough, eventually settling on a open-air woodworking studio next door where someone had been crafting the body of a new drum out of jackfruit wood. We threw down mats on the wood shavings and looked up nervously as a blue plastic tarp threatened to drip overhead.
With the white noise drone of the monsoon rain as a backdrop, we arranged the group in an elipse. Things were getting elaborate: Jo and Logan had both brought digital recorders, so we arranged all three as evenly as we could throughout the space, trying to pick up both the boom of the drum gongs on one side and the sharp crash of the rincik mini-cymbals on the other. A flautist and singer sat ouside the circle near the growing audience of villagers, their voices piped through a crude series of cables to a klaxon-like loudspeaker blasting the air above us.
Listen to the result of this set-up and I hope you can hear the difference from my barebones single-mic standard: Jo did an amazing job mixing and mastering the recordings from the multiple gadgets into one incredible whole. That melodic ringing of beaten skin overtones tumbling through the air is like nothing else I’ve ever heard in the world, like a phantom gamelan broadcasting from the heavens. Each player performs that interlocking magic act perfectly always hitting their drum at precisely the right moment, just in time to move the cycle along. The sound is fresh, frenetic, and surprisingly trancey. Who needs gamelan when you’ve got this?
Beringin Sejati is: Saturi, Rumsah, A. Nur, Pii, Bikan, Mahrup, Mahmut, Tukade, Sudin, Sahdi, Rapii, Jumasih, Kasin, Rumawi, Sanusi, and Sukri joining on a few tracks. Recordings mixed and mastered beautifully by Joseph Lamont, THANKS JO!