Location: Kalibening, Banyumas Regency, Central Java
Sound: Slawatan Jawa
Another part of Java, another style of frame-drum rooted song! Here we have slawatan Jawa, a local Javanese twist on the sholawat genre of sung poetry, praise songs to the prophet Muhammad. Just like its name, slawatan (a Java-fication of the base word sholawat) is a music that has taken its roots in Arabic-style devotional song and Java-fied it to the core.
Most slawatan songs take their texts from the kitab Barzanji, a set of poetic texts about the life and work of Muhammad which is sung and revered throughout the Muslim world. In slawatan Jawa, though, these texts are Java-fied in both content and form, with Javanese language sprinkling the songs and tunes sung in the classic Javanese pelog and slendro scales. Despite Arabic being seen as the one and only language of Islam, most Javanese Muslims do not speak or understand Arabic beyond common prayers and proclamations like the shahada (la ilaha illa’llah, it goes: there is no god but God and Muhammad is his prophet.) Perhaps because of this, the inserted Javanese is a way of making slawatan accessible to the common folk; meanwhile elements of the shahada (approximations like la-i-la-e-la-la) enter into Javanese slawatan in a broken form (likely incomprehensible to Arabic speakers) used purely as magical, holy language without literal meaning.
Just as in West Java, the texts are rooted in rhythmic parts played on the large wood and skin frame drums called terbang (other frame drums, like the jingle-rimmed genjring, are also sometimes used). In Banyumas, where I recorded this slawatan performance, the terbang are called terbang gong, terbang kempyang, and terbang keneleng. A Banyumas style kendhang drum leads the ensemble while a wooden kenthong, a kind of simple slit drum, frames the beat like a small gong.
In Banyumas, this ensemble can be used to play both slawatan songs and local Banyumasan songs taken from the karawitan repertoire. However, it’s only in the slawatan songs that you hear the remarkable vocal technique called ngelik. Ngelik is quite similar to the Sundanese beluk of West Java - piercingly high-pitched vocals are produced in the falsetto register and mingled with lower chest tones, for an effect unlike anything heard in secular Javanese song.
Speaking to one of the singers capable of producing a very loud, clear ngelik, I was told that many singers use a kind of traditional medicine in order to prime their vocal cords for the strain. They call it gurah: the root of the sirgunggu bush is ground, mixed with water, and slowly poured into a person’s nostrils; soon afterwards the root causes phlegm to drip from the patient’s nose and mouth for up to an hour. This technique was supposedly developed in an area of Yogyakarta in the 1940s to assist qari, or reciters of the Koran. Free from phlegm, the singers voice is free to shine and soar as needed. I was also told that slawatan singers will strengthen their lungs by repeatedly plunging their faces into a bucket of water, holding their breath until they can bear it no longer.
In Kalibening, the small village in Banyumas where I recorded, slawatan is mostly associated with an annual ritual undertaken every Maulid (a holy period in the Islamic calender) wherein sacred relics like holy kris are ritually washed. Other than this context, slawatan is also performed for life cycle rituals such as mitoni (celebration of a newborn baby’s first forty days) and sunatan (circumcision.)
It was my last night in Banyumas: I’d already spent the week with my friend and fixer Yusmanto roving the countryside recording local musics like kaster, ebeg, and buncis. Finally, before I was to continue to the long drive from Bandung to the tip of East Java, I wanted to hear one more treat, the ngelik-filled songs of Banyumas-style slawatan Jawa.
Yusmanto recommended we record in Kalibening, a village famous for wells which are revered by locals for the mystical power. It was clear from the stories that Yusmanto shared that here was a village where Islam and pre-Islamic Javanese beliefs mingled freely as they so often do in Java.
It was already getting late when we pulled up to the village in Yusmanto’s beat-up minivan. A handful of old men were already sitting about, smoking and chatting in sarongs and peci caps. We were led to the leader’s home where red clay roof tiles hung over a large sitting room decked out with a large table - a rarity in a country where most sitting and eating happens on the floor. One by one, the room was filled with the men of Surya Muda, the village’s slawatan group, and their large terbang. We sat and drank tea as the terbang were tuned with hammers, Yusmanto providing the appropriate small talk and introductions. I noted that no women were around, even to serve the tea (a job usually relegated to the women of the household). I’ve found quite often that in the highly segregated realm of Indonesian Islam, women rarely join for such events.
That special table made for a perfect locus around which to arrange the group: the kendhang player who would lead the men sat at one end while I sat at the other with my recorder and camera; the other men arranged themselves on either side of the almost medievelly long table. Offerings typical of syncretic Javanese rituals - burning incense, a glass of water with small, fragrant flowers floating- were placed beside an ancient-looking copy of the Barzanji text. This was to be recited by the group’s equally ancient-looking leader, Pak Ardja.
After a short prayer in Arabic, the group set the songs in motion with the ringing of the terbang, their voices warming up before soaring high when, at certain points in the songs, it came time to ngelik. The vocal style wasn’t as showy as the virtuosic beluk I’d heard in West Java. Rather, it had a more humble essence: these guys were clearly not professionals, as flat notes pierced the monophonic vocal lines and the occasional voice cracked and strained. It was clear enough: this music is not necessarily played and sung to be received by an appreciative audience. Fairly often, it seems, the music is played with no audience at all, just a handful of men playing music for themselves and for god, their voices reaching for the heavens as the earthy rhythms ground them here on earth.
Grup Slawatan Surya Muda is: Terbang Gong - San Parta, Terbang Kempyang - Taswiharjo, Terbang keneleng - San Sunardi, Kendhang - Tarsono, Kenthong - Imam Muharis, Vokal - Ardja Semita, Rohmat Artadi, Tarwan, Hadi Wasito, Sumedi, Silam, Kaswari. Terima kasih Bapak bapak!