[Tracks recorded by Joseph Lamont and Palmer Keen; "Woleka" mixed and mastered by Joseph Lamont, "Gaza" mixed but not really mastered by Palmer Keen]
Location: Ramadana Village, Loura District, Southwest Sumba
Sound: Musik Gong (also called gaza)
I didn’t expect to hear gong music in Sumba. While I knew that gongs are played everywhere on the island, its usually not the kind of music you can politely request, like other Sumbanese folk forms such as gogah or jungga. Traditionally gong music is played only in very specific contexts connected to adat or customs, such as for harvest rituals and funerals.
These performance contexts often have deep roots in Marapu, the ancestral religion of Sumba. Sumba’s gong music is deeply entrenched in this complex cosmology of Marapu, with sounds both calling and repelling certain spirits. Marapu beliefs are still widespread in Sumba, but for almost two hundred years these beliefs have also both competed and combined with Christianity.
Largely out of the reach of the historically Hindu-Buddhist and Islamic sphere to the west, the whole swath of Indonesia called East Nusa Tenggara must have felt like a goldmine to early missionaries: a whole land of heathens waiting to be saved (even now you find missionaries lamenting that the Sumbanese people are "trapped in the past and held in bondage by their Marapu religion.") The missionaries were largely successful: most folks in Sumba now have either Kristen (read: Protestant) or Katolik (Catholic) on their state-issued ID cards. The fact that Indonesians must officially be a member of one of the six state-approved monotheistic religions makes things complicated, though: while there is no shortage of die-hard Jesus lovers in Sumba, there are also plenty of “Kristen KTP”, people who claim to be Christian on their ID cards but largely still follow Marapu beliefs.
That’s not to suggest that there’s a strict dualism at play in Sumba between Christianity and Marapu: just like in other nominally Christian areas of Indonesia like Toraja in Sulawesi and large parts of Kalimantan, Christianity and indigenous beliefs often gel into an inseparable blend. It’s not unusual, for example, for Sumbanese Christians to be buried in the megalithic stone or cement tombs of their ancestors, but with a Christian service and a cross inscribed in the rock.
What does this complex confluence of beliefs mean for music with deep roots in Marapu? While many Protestant missionaries and churches have banned such Marapu-based practices as un-Christian, many Catholic churches and communities have made room for this spiritual music. As I wrote in my post on Catholic “inculturation music” in Timor (an island to the east of Sumba), Catholicism has been surprisingly tolerant of indigenous traditions and beliefs ever since the convening of Vatican II, a landmark moment for the religion. The council led to a larger focus on making the religion accessible to the people, from holding mass in local languages to opening Catholic music-making to outside influences.
In Sumba, this meant finding a place for gong music. Gong music is still played at traditional funerals where dozens of buffaloes are sacrificed to the Marapu gods, but its also played in church halls for recitals and Sunday service. The music I’m sharing here was played as part of an informal rehearsal leading up to a big Christmas event at the local Catholic church.
In contrast to the Timorese ratapan lament which was smoothed out for the church, sweet thirds-based harmony and all, I don’t get a sense that this music was changed much, if at all, to make its way into the church. You’ve still got your very Sumbanese seven-beat rhythms and fevered drumming, and the patterns and melodies don’t differ dramatically from other gong music played outside of the church in other parts of Sumba. This particular group’s gongs do have a surprisingly sweet, consonant sound, a factor which may have made its entrance to the church (a land of major key hymns) smoother. Check the tuning against a keyboard, though, and it's immediately obvious that the scale is still very much in a world of its own.
While gong groups differ across the island, this particular one featured six gongs, all made from recycled scrap metal painted gold. One musician plays the three hanging gongs called kaduruka and bale (kaduruka on left and right, bale in the middle), while the handheld rada bedu and kaghukeka gongs as well as the hanging, high-pitched kabonguka are shared between two or three players. Beaten in complex interlocking parts with soft palu tala mallets, the gongs combine to spell out both minimalist, rhythmic patterns as well as clear melodies (while its a bit of an arbitrary division, most gong-based music in areas like Sumatra and Java are usually melodic, while those in this eastern corner of Nusa Tenggara are usually more rhythmic, with tight, repetitive patterns giving a less melodic feel; this group had maybe the most melodic style out of any gong music I’ve heard in this region.)
Anchoring the rhythm and providing rhythmic cues are the drums called bedu. Some are held under the arm and have the long, tapering cylindrical shape of the tifa drums common across Melanesian Indonesian from Maluku to Papua, with the sound of the goat or horse-skin head escaping from the open bottom of its hardwood body. The other variety is goblet-shaped and closed off at the bottom, with the drum stood on its end and beaten with two hard sticks called palu bedu. Inside these goblet-shaped drums lie a secret tinged Marapu beliefs: before closing off the drum's bottom, three candlenuts and a chicken feather are placed inside. The result, I was told, is a sweeter sound.
The pieces we heard that night were given two general titles: Gaza and Woleka. Gaza itself is a broad term for many associated rhythms or “songs”, many with the theme of “success”: success for the harvest, success during the planting season. Gaza can also be refigured for the church: in the rehearsal session we recorded, sections of looping gong melody were spliced by a capella singing of pujian or Christian hymns or prayers (the singing didn’t get picked up on our mics, which were arranged to pick up the very loud gongs.) Woleka, with its straight-ahead, bedu-driven beat, is associated with upacara adat, or traditional ceremonies, but may also be played in the church to accompany prayers and ceremonies to welcome honored guests.
My discovery of these “church gongs” was a pleasant surprise. It's not rare in Indonesia for musical traditions to be quickly abandoned at the command of fearful, intolerant religious leaders. For musical traditions to survive in a cultural environment that is constantly shifting, both musical traditions and their environments must be flexible and accommodating. The Catholics of Sumba have thankfully found no conflict in letting the spirit-filled gongs of their ancestors ring out in their modern churches and halls, finding meaningful new contexts for ancient music.
We arrived at Virgo’s house totally exhausted. Logan, Jo, and I had already woken early in the morning in Waikabubak in Central Sumba, taken a crowded bus to Waitabula in the northwest, then met with Virgo and driven to Kodi to record dungga in the village that afternoon. Virgo was a sweet, intelligent young midwife who we’d been hooked up with through her uncle, a dungga-playing Kodi pop star named Kun Mally. As we were in Kodi recording dungga, Virgo casually mentioned that there’d be a rehearsal with gong music later that night in her village. I think I may have actually giggled with excitement: it was our last night in Sumba, and I’d already given up on hearing gong music, thinking I’d have to chance upon a funeral to hear it for myself. You can join, Virgo said, but first you have to eat dinner with my family!
It was just getting dark when we finally pulled up to Virgo’s home in Ramadana. Her parents greeted us warmly as we entered, her mom serving us hot tea as we sat in elaborately carved wooden chairs, talking about our countries and their politics with Virgo’s curious father. In the next room was a television, always on, splashing light onto a humble Christmas tree. It was a week before Christmas, and while we’d stayed with other Christian families across the island and spotted dancing, sax-playing animatronic Santas in dusty shop windows in Waikabubak, I hadn’t felt that holiday spirit until we were at Virgo’s.
We were treated to a feast befitting of the festive spirit: pumpkin soup, fried chicken, local greens from the backyard. As we sat with Virgo and her folks around the dinner table (itself an oddity in Indonesia!), we three agnostic foreigners subtly fibbed about our religious habits, not quite up to explaining the widespread irreligiosity of the West as we dined under a glowing picture of Mother Mary with sweet, pious folk. After dinner, our bellies full, Virgo’s mom brought out her Catholic hymnbook and we looked through the selection of Christmas hymns, trying to find out which were familiar despite their translations (“Silent Night”, for example, becomes “Malam Kudus” or “Holy Night.”) When we chanced upon a familiar melody, we sat together and sang from the book, an odd sense of comfortable nostalgia mixing with the unfamiliarity of the Indonesian lyrics. Even after I’d flown home the next week and spent Christmas with my family in California, that moment at Virgo’s house was still the warmest holiday moment I’d had in years.
The gongs were waiting, though. At Virgo’s neighbors house, a handful of fellow churchgoers had already assembled and music was ringing out, their golden gongs hanging from the rafters of a kind of thatched-roof veranda, its dark interior chock-full of drying cobs of corn. The musicians, all men, were dressed in church-like Batik and collared shirts, but the rest of their get-up was more relaxed and very Sumba, all jean shorts, loose sarongs, and colorful woven headbands.
As the song wrapped up, the gang let out a fierce, joyful cry in unison, a ritual they’d enact at the end of almost every piece. We took the pause between songs to finagle our microphones into some key locations (recording gongs is tough work, actually, as unless you get close enough it all becomes cloudy on tape.) Meanwhile, Virgo’s mom was gathering the women, dressed in gorgeous woven ikat sarongs, to practice some coordinated dances which accompanied the Gaza pieces. Virgo’s mom clearly had a special kind of matriarchal power here: she led the women in dance, but when the guy played kaduruka messed up, she shoved him over and took over on gongs, confidently showing the guys how it was done.
Because it was a rehearsal for an upcoming Christmas celebration and not the “real deal”, the vibe was delightfully relaxed. The musicians switched out from piece to piece, occasionally sitting out from a piece for a cigarette break, while a trio of dirty-kneed boys laid on some blankets on the bamboo veranda, watching their dads beat out the complex seven-beat rhythms and playing along on their own bedu drum, effortlessly following the stilted rhythm. Each song would end with that infectious cry, a spirited yelp that shook the whole bamboo structure. As the ring of the gongs faded, the mechanical clatter of a rice-threshing machine running off in the distance would seep into the sonic space, its own steady rhythm replacing that of the gongs.
I wish we could have stayed to join the Christmas recital, to hear these ancient gongs resonate amongst the crucifixes and hymnals. Between dense sections of gong music, the congregation would sing out Catholic hymns in their Loura language, their syllables stretching and shrinking to match that primal seven-beat rhythm. Reverberating in that holy space full of spirit and love, the music must feel right at home.
Huge terima kasih to the musicians: Petrus Negongo Kum, Stefanus Ama Nuru, Dominikus Kadanga Kui, Dartomus Kohunu, Martinus Umbu Matana, Martinus Malokii, and Dowa Pate. Also of course huge thanks to Virgo and her lovely parents, and to the legendary Joseph Lamont for caressing that cloud of gongs into something even more beautiful.