(Recordings by Palmer Keen and Jo Lamont, Mixed and Mastered by Jo himself)
Location: Pengadangan, Pringgasela District, East Lombok
Sound: Selober (also spelled slober)
Selober will always have a special place in my heart. In 2013 I made a trip to Lombok with my old friend Jared, hoping to show him a bit of Indonesian-style adventure by roaming the island in search of music. I’d heard of selober through Pak Asep Nata, an ethnomusicologist and professor in Bandung whose karinding towel diatonic mouth harp innovation was partly inspired by the instrument. Armed with just the name of the village where selober was played, Jared and I managed to find some selober-ists and make some crude recordings. It was one of the first times I felt the thrill of this style of DIY ethnomusicology - the buzz of following curiosity into obscure corners, hearing music that few outsiders have ever heard. A year later, Aural Archipelago was born and life has never been the same since.
Allow me to geek out a bit - I can get a bit worked up about mouth harps, like a kid ranting about Minecraft or a craft beer fanatic obsessing over hops. There’s just something about these instruments that have made me search them out wherever I am, from rinding in Java to knobe oh in Timor and karombi in Toraja.
Selober is a really special one, though. For one, almost all Indonesian mouth harps have essentially the same construction - a bamboo or palm fiber body with a vibrating tongue set into motion by pulling an attached string. Lombok (and most famously, Bali) also has a variation on this called genggong. Even professional mouth harp players remark at how hard these string-activated harps are to play, with a very precise pull of the string needed to get any sound. Selober, though, is no strings attached.
Amaq Asih of Pengadangan described the selober as being an evolution from the older, more common genggong. As he told it, as early as the late 19th century some ingenious Sasak got sick of his genggong’s string constantly detaching during play. Stuck with a stringless genggong, he carved the instrument down to a thinner profile, gave it a pluck with his thumb, and it worked!
The resulting instrument is a marvel of simple engineering. Just like the kubing of the Philippines or the Hmong dàn môi, the selober is sounded with a quick flick of the thumb to its end. It is the exact firmness of the palm fiber (sourced from pelapa enau or the aren palm) which allows the whole thing to work, as the material is strong enough not to break but springy enough to vibrate efficiently. The instrument itself is shaped something like a big nail file: the player holds the instrument in front of his mouth by the otat, or “head” of the instrument, and flicks the other end, called awak or “body.” This in turn sets the the elak (tongue) into motion, with the resultant vibrations manipulated by the mouth of the player.
Unlike most of the world’s mouth harps, the selober can’t be played alone. The instruments are played in pairs, with one selober called mama (male, confusingly!) and one called nina (female.) This minimal pair plays melodies constructed from the combined harmonics of both instruments, with the higher-pitched mama playing the notes Sasak call dang and ding (equivalent, the musicians explained, to the solfège la and re) and the nina contributing deng, dong, and dung (sol, do, and mi.) By threading these notes together, a duo can play melodies taken from the gamelan klentang repertoire, with each note corresponding to one of the five tones in klentang’s scale (penggede, ceroncong, gegonteng, pengempat, and pengelima, at least in Pringgasela - if you note the vocab used in Interlocking Lombok Pt. 1 and Pt. 2, there’s not a lot of consistency across the island!)
The selober’s roots are in this duo formation. Relaxing after a day of hard labor in the fields, farmers would find relaxation and solace in the bonding and interplay of an informal selober jam. In fact, Amaq Asih explained, the name selober has roots in two Sasak words, seber (vibration) and selemor/selembor (solace). The etymology is revealing: Vibrations of Solace. For this harpophile, there are few better descriptions of the soul-soothing joy of playing this unique instrument.
This music wasn’t just for after-work leisure time with the bros, though. Just like so many other mouth harps the world over, selober was also a tool of love. Young Sasak guys would always be sure to have their selober when performing midang, a kind of ritual courtship. As Amaq Asih told it, young suitors would stand at the door of their crush, playing selober like John Cusack with a boombox. While these days young Sasaks are more likely to flirt over social media, evidence of this old-school courtship is evidence in the titles of songs like “Teruna Midang” (one musician translated it into Indonesian as “Visiting Your Girl’s House” - something like a booty call?)
It was only in the 1970s that selober began to be played in more formal contexts outside of teenage booty calls and intimate bamboo hut jamming. Probably inspired by the more elaborate, performative klentang groups that they’d been mimicking all along, selober-ists began to grow and refine the sound with additions like small gongs (petuk), drums (jidor and gendang) and cymbals (kecrek.) The musicians stressed that this was a good thing - it made it easier to play the complex klentang tunes called gending, with the rhythmic leadership and cueing of the gendang allowing for more dynamic and controlled performances.
I wouldn’t be surprised if selober evolved into a performance art for other reasons. I’m sure I’ve said it before, but starting in the era of the New Order, music was most valuable as something to be displayed, performed on well-lit stages for all to see the united diversity of the Indonesian state. The privileging of formal, presentational art forms often left informal and ritualistic musics in an abandoned state, with many groups around the country shifting their performance practices to get in line with the all-important state ideologies. That’s my theory, anyway.
Nowadays, selober is almost as elaborate as Bali’s genggong ensembles, with up to ten selober-ists not to mention the additional gongs, drums, and flutes. Perhaps in an effort to make the music appear more “Islamic” (and thus acceptable to conservative Muslim leaders on the island), the group in Pengadangan has even started playing together with gambus, a kind of lute with roots in the Middle East.
In this performative format, selober music seems to exist solely to be an example of kesenian daerah or “regional arts,” really only played for government events and local arts festivals arranged by the Cultural Department of the province. Unlike other music in Lombok like tongkek, kebangru’an and gendang beleq, selober no longer serves any ritual purpose, and thus has little importance for anyone other than the people who play and love it. What does it mean for a music to be completely divorced from its original context of ritual and solace? Is it enough just to play for the governor and the occasional random bule who swings through the lone village where this music is still played? Only time will tell.
My initial search for selober with my friend Jared had the feeling of a treasure hunt. All we had was the name of the hamlet where Pak Asep had recorded selober years ago, and this was years before my Indonesian skills and internet sleuthing were of much help. Our first encounter in Pringgasela, the largest nearby town, was lucky - we’d pulled over to the side of the road to think of what to do next, only to have a thin man walk up and ask, in perfect English, “What are you looking for?”
That man, Pri, became something of a legend to Jared and I - turns out he was a brilliant college professor who spoke seven languages and played a mean harmonica. Our chance encounter with Pri led us to meeting a whole gang of Pringgasela locals who were happy to help us search out selober, despite the fact that most of them had never heard of it. It was more of a challenge than we expected- even in the tiny village-within-a-village where selober is played, mentions of selober were met with blank stares. Had we gone looking for the most obscure instrument on earth?
Eventually we had tracked down Amaq Asih, who quickly threw together a selober gang before we could even ask. Having only heard the thin recording of a selober duet on Pak Asep’s YouTube, we were blown away by the mass of overtones which weaved its way from a room full of mouth harps. I was instantly obsessed.
The recordings and video I made that night in 2013 were, sadly, almost unusable - the recorder I was using at the time was pretty lo-fi, and the low light of the performance space made the video an abstract jumble of different shades of black.
I was happy, then, to find myself in the area again with a new team (Jo and Logan of the other Interlocking Lombok editions) and a nostalgic drive to document selober with the quality it deserved. I had also learned almost nothing about the music’s history cultural context from the first trip, as at that point my Indonesian had been good enough to ask “Where’s selober??” and little else.
The second time around was much easier, as I tracked down Amaq Asih at the bamboo selober studio where we’d first met three years earlier. He seemed to barely recognize me, maybe because I was a bit beardier and fatter this time around. I hadn’t forgotten him or his music, I explained, and I would love a chance to hear and learn more.
Earlier in the year I had sent another harp-lover, genggong master Steev Kindwald, on a pilgimage to Seloberland to study with the gang, and he had written back telling me of the new, gambus-ified ensemble. I was not thrilled with this news. The selober ensemble I had heard had felt so Sasak, so asli (original, authentic.) Gambus felt like switching out adat (tradition at the roots of ethnic identity) for agama (religion.) I just wanted to hear that magical sound of 2013, with the soaring suling flute and rough vocals. So I made the request - can you play like you did the first time? No gambus?
Something got lost in translation, and when we arrived later that evening to meet the group, the only instruments present were selober and a single suling. The gendang, they later explained, was unavailable - the only drummer was off playing a wayang gig. They’d forge on in this pared-down format. Happily, they said: it was closer to the old style, anyway.
Was it right of me to make such a call, to choose one format over another based purely on what I deemed more “authentic” or even just “better”? I didn’t question it at the time, but I’ve recently listened to a fascinating podcast on the author and field recordist Paul Bowles and his epic recording trips through the Maghreb of Morocco. Bowles had been widely criticized by later ethnomusicologists for tampering with the music, for example by asking for a flautist to play solo when he would never do so otherwise.
I can only defend myself by saying that none of this was by force- the musicians themselves enjoyed the format (Bowle’s flautist, it was said, was forced to play by local authorities.) I like to think though that this whole “bloggy” part of my project is in order to be transparent about situations like this, to say hey, this is how I do things, for better or for worse. I can only hope that the resulting footage and recordings make the musicians as happy and proud as they make me.
Big thanks again to Jo Lamont for his amazing mixing and mastering of the difficult selober tracks. Also to Amaq Asih and crew for their amazing playing and flexibility, and the Pringgasela gang, Erwin, Han, and Pri, for their amazing hospitality.