Musical Megaliths: West Sumatra's Talempong Batu

Location: Talang Anau, Lima Puluh Kota Regency, West Sumatra

SoundTalempong batu (literally "stone talempong")

Indonesia is full of megaliths. They often sit in rice paddies, inscribed with writing or bare-faced, sometimes revered but rarely understood by modern Indonesians.  From Sumatra to Sulawesi and beyond, the country is scattered with hundreds of these enigmatic stones, menhirs and dolmens left behind by unknown people in millennia past. 

Menhirs and inscribed megaliths are strewn throughout the mountainous area around Talang Anau, a village in the highlands of the Lima Puluh Kota area of West Sumatra. While there are plenty in the countryside, in the village itself something even more remarkable can be found: a set of megaliths that villagers call talempong batu, or stone gongs.

These megaliths have an aura of mystical power about them, what Indonesians call kesaktian. The stones, likely dating back thousands of years, were crafted by a culture largely lost to time, likely quite different from the Minangkabau who live in Talang Anau now. However, the locals can purportedly trace their relationship to the stones seven hundred years, which is when they suggest the stones were first discovered by a mythical figure named Syamsuddin. Syamsuddin, I was told, was called by the stone in a series of dreams, after which he collected them in one place.

As the name suggests, these were no ordinary megaliths - they were musical. When struck, each megalith lets out a distinctly pitched tone, short but clear. The stoned seem to have been tuned, but exactly how is still not particularly clear, as the stone is unusually hard. In decades and centuries past, this aural aspect was surely known to locals - I was told that the stones would be struck as a call for villagers to gather. 

Only in the 1980s and early 1990s did the megaliths take on a remarkable new musical life. Visiting university students and professors from the nearby university, ISI Padang Panjang (then called ASKI), realized that the stones had pitches close to those used in talempong pacik music, a form of kettle gong music popular throughout West Sumatra. Rearranging the stones in order to fit the talempong pacik style and transcribing a handful of talempong tunes, these academics re-inscribed these ancient megaliths with modern musical forms.

Talempong pacik is traditionally played with five or six handheld kettle gongs, with each musician playing one or two gongs. Two of the gongs set the rhythm (the so-called peningkah) while two more pairs, the talempong jantan (male talempong) and talempong betina (female talempong) play low notes and high notes respectively. Using interlocking patterns, the gongs can create singular melodies that are at once rhythmic and melodic.

                                                                             Women playing talempong pacik in Sumpur Kudus

                                                                             Women playing talempong pacik in Sumpur Kudus

It's pretty amazing how comfortably this fairly modern musical idiom fits when transferred to these ancient megaliths. Played with smaller stones as beaters, the megaliths sing out this talempong music as if they've been waiting for centuries for just that. Many locals have embraced these instruments anew, playing the talempong batu for ritual occasions, like the inauguration of a new village head, and for any curious visitors who happen to make the trek to see these remarkable stones.

                                                              Incense must be burned before playing the talempong batu.

                                                              Incense must be burned before playing the talempong batu.

While the talempong batu have been cast into a new context, that mystical power of kesaktian still remains to the point that some villagers, I was told, refuse to go anywhere near them. In order to be played, incense must be burned beforehand - it's said that the stones will otherwise not sound like gongs. In local lore, stories about the megaliths' mystical powers abound: a Dutch officer in the colonial era was said to be struck dead after he made public his idea to crack open the stones in search of gold, while even within the past few years, a visiting university student was said to be plagued with feverish dreams after breaking one of the stones by pounding too hard. 

The stones themselves seem to have inexplicable physical properties as well. The smallest stone, I was told, was meant to be taken to a nearby museum in the 1990s, but when villagers tried to lift it, it was found to be stuck in place, unable to budge despite countless attempts. There are also stories of the stones ringing and buzzing on their own before local disasters such as an earthquake, a kind of mystical warning call.

Despite the contrived nature of their modern use (those meddling ethnomusicologists!), it's fascinating to see how megalithic remnants can be repurposed and renewed by situating them in a cultural context that makes sense to modern Minangkabau today. While locals may not know who made these stones or what songs they played on them, the talempong music is in their blood, and it is partly this coupling that has allowed the stones to be recognized and revered - the stones remain to this day not in a forgotten field but in a place of honor, in the heart of the village.

Context:

Together with my Minang ethnomusicology buddy Albert, I set off to Talang Anau with little hope of hearing these rock songs (pardon the pun) for myself - I'd seen a handful of cellphone videos of the site, of university students clanging haphazardly on the stones, but it seemed that the talempong batu were rarely played formally - perhaps the ritual required was far too great to play for any old visitor.

Setting off from Payakumbuh, we headed to the mountainous area called Suliki. Here, dramatic stone cliffs unlike any I'd seen elsewhere in Sumatra rose dramatically out of roadside rice paddies, themselves littered with stones like zen gardens.

Luckily for this bule with an extreme lack of local hookups, Albert had a friend nearby whose father was an important figure in the Talang Anau community. With this friend (a professional drag racer, Albert told me!) in tow, we drove down the sole street that makes up Talang Anau until we saw it: the bale endah and the rather ugly concrete home of the talempong batu.

A caretaker was called and, upon dropping some names, the gates of the talempong's cage were opened and the requisite incense was ritually burned. The stones had clearly been arranged with great care, all resting on a foundation of thick bamboo cylinders, themselves resting above an earthen pit which acts, I was told, as a kind of resonator (echoes of the gong tanah in nearby Riau!) A tunnel supposedly runs from the pit to another location in the village, where the sound of the instruments are said to be audible despite being quite far away.

After going through the bizarre origin stories and myths surrounding the talempong, the caretaker called his friends to join - they were going to play after all! While the youngest of the three was admittedly shaky with the rhythms, confessing to have only just started playing, the musicians were able to demonstrate a handful of tunes for me, the sounds familiar but ancient, a strange mixture of megalithic and modern Minangkabau sounds. How lucky these stones are, I thought, to have been protected throughout the centuries in order to be played anew. What would their ancient creators think?

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For those whose curiosity has been piqued, another fantastic resource (in fact one of the few examples of academic research on the talempong batu) is German researcher Uwe Pätzold's research from the 90s, which is accessible on his website here. Its in German, but if you don't speak German (I don't!) just throw it in Google Translate - it's worth it!