Location: Sungai Cocang Village, Silungkang District, West Sumatra
Sound: Talempong botuang (also called talempong sambilu)
From gongs to stones to bamboo tubes, there’s a remarkable kind of fluidity in West Sumatra in the way that a single musical idiom can be expressed through such disparate materials. In the culture of the Minangkabau people who call West Sumatra home, perhaps no instrument is more central than the talempong, a small kettle-gong most often played in groups, with each player playing one or two gongs in interlocking patterns with the others. However, the rhythmic tunes that are played on these gongs are not tied to the instruments themselves - they are, it seems, eminently transferable. Its a good thing, too, as gongs are expensive and hard to come by, not to mention you need handful of friends handy if you want to play anything at all.
As I’ve explored in other posts, Indonesians are particularly ingenious at making other instruments and materials, particularly bamboo, do the musical work of the ever-essential gong. In West Sumatra, the Minangkabau took a material that is abundant and free, a variety of bamboo called botuang, and made something remarkable - an entire gong ensemble in the palm of your hand.
Did you know that bamboo has skin? I sure didn’t before diving into the weird and creative ways bamboo is crafted in this country. It turns out that this skin can be separated from the bamboo tube’s body along its length and raised with bridges in the middle, all without tearing it off completely at the ends. Through skillful manipulation of the length and thickness of this new "string" and through careful spacing of the two wedged-in bamboo bridges, the skin of the bamboo (sambilu in the local language, thus the alternative name) can be made to sing.
Make enough strings along the length of the perimeter, and you’ve got yourself what organologists call a “tube zither.” This instrument can be found all around Indonesia in various forms - I’ve discussed the Sundanese celempung before, and other versions are played by other ethnic groups in Sumatra, but the talempong botuang may be my favorite for its sheer melodicism. The major key-sounding talempong pacik melodies ring out beautifully from the talempong botuang, even when played solo - the left hand plucks the lowest note with the thumb while the remainder of the notes are struck with a thin bamboo stick. I was surprised to find that the instrument can additionally be played with two or even three players to an instrument (or each with their own instrument), with looping interlocking parts divided between the players just as they are in talempong pacik ensembles.
Back in the time when Sumatra was still a part of the Dutch East Indies, talempong botuang was played quite often in the fields around Silungkang and Payakumbuh in the highlands of West Sumatra, the cheaply made and easy to play instrument always readily available to add a festive mood to life in the fields, especially around harvest time when everyone would gather around to bring in crops together. However, starting during the time of Japanese occupation, life changed forever around Indonesia as thousands were killed and villagers were forced into labor, often far from their homes. In these dark times, the festive harvest music of talempong botuang was forgotten.
It was only in the 1990s, after decades of being essentially extinct, that the art form was revived again. Officials from the Department of Tourism and Culture, scouting the West Sumatran countryside for unique art forms to elevate and promote as proud examples of Minangkabau culture, heard stories of this long-forgotten instrument and ordered more to be produced again. In those late years of Suharto-era Indonesia, the talempong botuang rose again, with the few remaining craftsmen pumping out instruments to send to universities and primary schools where courses were taught to a whole new generation of Minangkabau people.
It sounds like a happy ending, but the few craftsmen capable of building the instrument are getting older and older, and now, more than twenty years after the instrument was revived, most Minang people still know little of this obscure rural instrument. Only time will tell if this humble little piece of musical innovation will carry on, bamboo skin ringing out sweet melodies into the future.
I was lucky enough to meet one of these remaining craftsmen, one of only two left in West Sumatra. After reading a blog post about the instrument, I contacted the author, who turned out to be a brilliant guy named Albert, a young, recent graduate from the ethnomusicology department of the local arts university in Padang Panjang. Upon my arrival to the Minangkabau motherlands, Albert became not only a great fixer but a good friend and gracious host, shuttling me around the West Sumatran highlands on his motorbike searching for sounds.
Our first expedition was to Silungkang, a green, jungly area in the ever-rolling Bukit Barisan mountain range that cleaves its way through Sumatra. Albert’s bike struggled up an unreasonably steep hill and into Sungai Cocang village, where the home of Pak Umar Malin Parmato sat streetside, clinging to the hill.
Pak Umar’s wife greeted us and led us into the home, where we were greeted by the man himself, a relatively-spritely 96-year-old with a fine white mustache and a pressed batik shirt. As we sat on the floor of his living room, Pak Umar’s wife retrieved two rather weathered-looking talempong botuang from a back room. While the split down the instruments’ length was intentional, Pak Umar explained, allowing for the instrument to resonate more clearly, the broken strings were not - a consequence of poor storage and careless grandkids.
As Pak Umar struggled to find a way to play a tune on the four remaining strings of one of the instruments, he regaled Albert and I with his personal history of the talempong botuang, full of those universal elderly digressions. His mother had made and played the instrument when he was a boy, and it was from her that he'd learned the twin arts of producing and playing it in the years before independence. He recalled with far-off eyes the series of unfortunate events that led to the instrument’s eventual slumber, from a house fire that destroyed all of his mother’s original instruments in the early 40s to the Japanese occupation which tore apart their traditional way of life.
"Those were the cruelest times,” he said, the instrument in his hand seeming to take him back to those days when his mother still played it. “The Japanese threw our rice into the sea. We were forced to work. There was no time for music - we had to work hard just to survive…people died in the streets.”
Just as Pak Umar seemed to be lost in reverie, he looked down at his instrument and seemed to remember the task as hand. “A single broken string is no matter - I’ll just make a new one!” And so he did, taking a knife to the skin of the bamboo and, after cannibalizing another nearby talempong for its bridges, refining it and tuning it with intense and silent concentration for nearly half an hour.
When the tuning was finally up to his standard, he shared with us the songs of his childhood, those talempong songs he said his village would play during harvest, or even when a tiger was killed. Each song came with a story, a link to a time when music still filled the rice fields and tigers lurked in the jungles. While it's clear that those times are past, it seemed that as Pak Umar played, he returned once more to those talempong-filled days.
Huge thanks to my friend Albert for connecting me with this amazing music and selflessly helping me on my journey around West Sumatra. His blog can be found here.