Location: Suru Village, Wonogiri Regency, Central Java
Sound: Rinding kompreng
When I arrived in West Java in 2012, a little instrument called karinding was all the rage amongst young people in Bandung. Karinding, a kind of bamboo mouth harp, was so ubiquitous at the time that it felt like a cornerstone of Sundanese musical identity. A local band called Karinding Attack had popularized the instrument by fusing the droney sounds of the mouth harp with the attitude and aesthetic of heavy metal - suddenly every metalhead in Bandung was rocking a karinding tied to their head in a batik iket headband.
This mouth harp boom, it turns out, was localized to West Java, the Sundanese corner of the Javanese majority island. The ethnically Javanese chunk of the island had its own mouth harp tradition, at one point quite a strong one. The early musical surveys of Dutch proto-ethnomusicologist Jaap Kunst suggest that such instruments were at one point widespread throughout the island, but today these traditions seemed to be nearly extinct.
In fact, in all my searching, I’d only found two areas of Central Java that have what you could call a surviving mouth harp tradition: a village in Banyumas, near the border with West Java, has a variety which had recently exhumed by local academics, while in Gunungkidul, a rugged rural area on Java’s south central coast, a variety called rinding gumbeng was still being played for annual harvest ceremonies.
As far as I could tell, that was it for the poor Javanese mouth harp. While karinding boomed in Sundaland, the Javanese variety had been forgotten, thrown away like the gumbeng and the angklung. If all it takes is forgetting for a musical tradition to die, though, the reverse is true: all it takes is some memories and a bit of ambition to revive a music once more.
In 2015, a farmer named Suliyo began that crucial act of remembering. The organizers of a village arts festival in Wonogiri (a rural area east of Jogja) were requesting something fresh for that year’s event, something more than the typical gamelan and wayang kulit. Pak Suliyo thought back to his youth, to a time when a special instrument had been ubiquitous in his village. Rinding, it was called. Whatever happened to it?
In those days (it must have been the 70s, he thinks now), farmers had a deep understanding of the earth, and of the plants and animals which provided sustenance for their families and ancestors. One aspect of this ingrained knowledge was pest control: anyone who worked in the fields knew that critters fled at the sound of a buzzing rinding. It seemed that the subharmonic vibrations produced by the instrument were a natural repellent, sending insects and mice scurrying away from the precious crops. Farmers, then, would kill two birds with one stone, amusing themselves with crop-side music while keeping their crops pest-free.
Just as with so many other mouth harps in Southeast Asia, including the yori in Central Sulawesi, the rinding was also a key tool in courtship amongst the youth of Wonogiri. Guys would carry their rinding with them and, upon seeing a girl they liked, would play a song to get their attention. One of the musicians called this kind of improvised flirting tune "Pinatut",
As Pak Suliyo remembered the rinding, other musical memories began to pop into his head. He and his friends would take the shells of the giant snails that lived in the rice paddies and impale them on sticks, clattering them together like a vibraslap. And what about the kompreng, those bamboo tubes some farmers would use to carry water and sugarcane juice? Kids would make strings from the skin (just like Banyumas’ gumbeng) and play them like gongs.
As these memories came rushing back, Pak Suliyo was inspired. He called his buddies, other neighbors around his age (50s-60s) who remembered those days, too. A new group was formed, songs arranged, old instruments with a fresh new format. A handful of kompreng would hold down the percussive side of things, subbing in for the gamelan’s kenong, kempyang, gong, and kethuk. A few rinding could play together on top of this, with one playing the metronomic kempyang part, the others play in the interlocking style called imbal. Those snail shells (rumah siput or cangkang bekicot in Javanese) would spruce it all up. It would all act as a bed for sing-songy tembang, folk songs sung in Javanese, with some sung from memory and others, like “Aku Cinta Wonogiri” (“I Love Wonogiri”) invented for the occasion.
In dreaming up this new folk ensemble, Pak Suliyo transformed rinding from an introspective solo style into a performative art worthy of the stage. I was shocked to find that from a technical standpoint, the music of the rinding within this new context is completely transformed as well: while the solo style is full of tricky breath-based syncopations and busy rhythms, the ensemble rinding is toned down, its texture simplified in order to fit together within the new musical tapestry of the group format.
When I met with Pak Suliyo, I was surprised at the depth of his knowledge. Before the show in 2015, he and his friends hadn’t played or even thought about rinding for more than forty years. Despite this, Pak Suliyo had remembered not only how to make the instrument, but also the whole constellation of myths and meanings that had once surrounded it. Take the instrument itself, a strip of bamboo with a thin tongue carefully carved in the middle, along its length. Even now, Pak Suliyo could reel off the name and meaning of each part in the rinding’s anatomy: the base of the tongue was called pita, or vocal cord; the small vibrating extension, ilat ilatan, or tongue; between these two, where a gum-like sap could be added to change the pitch, was a bit called sentil, or uvula. This whole assemblage vibrates between the lamben, or lips.
In this anatomy lies an understanding of the magic of the mouth harp: in using the oral cavity as a resonating chamber, the instrument becomes like a second voice. Just as we use our vocal cords, tongue, and palette to speak and sing, the mouth harp gets its voice from the surprisingly complex mechanics of its parts, sentil, ilat ilatan, lamben, and so on. The voice, Pak Suliyo told me, is a powerful thing in Javanese society. As if to prove it, he shared two Javanese proverbs:
Bejo ciloko gumantung soko kondho - Your fortune depends on your words.
Ajining dhiri gumantung soko lathi - Your dignity depends on your tongue.
If the human voice (and the mouth from which it sings) has this power, imagine the symbolic energy of the rinding, the second voice.
I’m beginning to wonder if my reliance on YouTube is becoming a cliche. Again, a musical discovery in the depths of a late night YouTube trawl: a video titled “sENI mUSIK rINDING, dIPERCAYA bISA mEMBASMI hAMA” (“The Musical Art of Rinding, Believed to Eradicate Pests”). In typical local pride, the location was given in the video description: Wonogiri, Central Java. Wonogiri was a place I’d only heard of in the context of warungs, Wonogiri Meatballs or Wonogiri Chicken. Looking on Google Maps, I saw it was a few hours east of Jogja, an hour at least from the well-documented rinding tradition of Gunungkidul.
A few months later, I was driving from Bandung to Bali on my trusty little Suzuki Skywave, zooming through the hilly broadleaf forests of Gunungkidul on the way to Wonogiri. Armed with the name of the rinding village, Suru, and little else, I followed GPS until I was sure I was lost. Finding myself on a suspiciously narrow road, I pulled up to some kids on a motorbike ahead of me and said, “Hey, which way to Suru?” They looked shocked at first - what’s a bule doing around here?? - but then said, “Just follow us!” I was lucky to meet them, as I soon realized that this part of Wonogiri was a maze of cement footpaths snaking willy-nilly through crops at all angles, and with each random turn I breathed a sigh of relief knowing I had a guide to lead the way. After twenty minutes of criss-crossing through beautiful rice paddies and corn fields, we passed under a gate which read: SURU SELATAN (South Suru.) We pulled over and had a chat with some surprised villagers: Who are you looking for? Rinding? Oooo, Pak Suliyo! This way, this way! And we were off again.
Another ten minute drive through dusty crop-lined footpaths and we made it to Pak Suliyo’s home, a traditional Javanese house with brick walls and a red clay tile roof. He wasn’t home, so a family member went to fetch him as I sat outside enjoying the rural peacefulness of it all, cows mooing in a stable beside the house, chickens pecking their way around my feet.
I instantly recognized Pak Suliyo as he pulled up on his motorbike: he was the guy from the video! He greeted me with a smile and an invitation inside without even asking what exactly I was doing there. As we sat on the floor of his living room, I explained my fascinating with rinding and my YouTube discovery. He immediately began to unload his rinding wisdom on this strange new pupil as I rushed to take out my notebook and get it all down.
The sun was just setting when Pak Suliyo’s rinding pals began to show up, having been summoned an hour before. I realized that despite being just a farmer like anybody else, Pak Suliyo seemed to command respect from the others. Just as I’ve seen elsewhere, it was an odd fact that despite being the leader, Pak Suliyo didn’t really play rinding - he left that up to his friends. Rather, he was the ambitious music-lover, the rekindler of the tradition, the mover and shaker who was bringing rinding back into Suru after years of hibernation.
We recorded in the living room, instruments strewn amongst cups of tea and plates of shrimp crackers. Pak Suliyo led a few other men in vocals, reading from a printed out page of lyrics. I had the rinding players crowd around my recorder, as their relatively quiet sound struggled to compete with the full, gong-like boom of the kompreng and the increasingly confident group vocals.
As the night wore on, the set list dried up and we settled into a comfortable silence. Some of the guys lied down in exhaustion, having worked hard in the fields earlier that day. Soon a handful were snoring as Pak Suliyo and I sat and worked through the history and meaning of rinding. In these hyper-local traditions, I’ve always noticed how the survival of an art form can hang on the efforts of just one soul. The rinding tradition of Wonogiri is lucky to have a soul like Pak Suliyo, a man whose humble passion has let a beautiful musical tradition have a second life.