Location: Desa Silantai, Sumpur Kudus, West Sumatra
Sound: Talempong Unggan (also known as talempong duduak)
The Minangkabau people of West Sumatra are known for two great things: their firey rendang beef curry and their powerful women. Minang, as they’re often called, are famously matrilineal: property and land are passed down through the women of the family, according them a unique place in society (That’s not to be confused with matriarchal, as just as in the rest of intensely patriarchal Indonesian society, men still hold much of the privilege and systemic power - West Sumatra is not exactly a feminist utopia!)
It's tempting to draw a line from this matrilineality to another fact: Minang women are a major presence in local gong music. In contrast to many other areas of the archipelago where men dominate the production of traditional music, Minang musical life is atypically full of women, in some areas exclusively. While in some parts both genders play music, in the Unggan area of inland West Sumatra, women reign supreme on the local variety of the talempong gong and drum ensemble.
The women in Silantai, a remote village near Unggan, made it clear enough: “Only women play talempong Unggan.”
Can men play? I asked.
The response was clear enough: “That would be weird.”
Perhaps it’s a result of instruments being passed down from woman to woman in Unggan families, or it may simply have something to do with simple division of labor, as talempong Unggan is often played at key moments in the cyclical rice harvest when men may have taken on dominant roles in the fields, leaving women to play the gongs. The locals couldn’t help with my hypothesizing: it’s always been like that, they said.
Girls start playing talempong as soon as they’re physically able: one woman mentioned starting at the age of five. At such a young age, the instruments themselves (the five or six gong chimes, two gendang double-headed drums, and the single gong) are off-limits. Just as I mentioned in neighboring Kampar, the gongs and drums are highly respected, not to mention expensive, so not just anybody can bang on them. Instead, girls practice on substitutes made of wood (talempong kayu) or even those handmade from scrap metal and cookie tins.
As I’ve already shared in some previous posts, West Sumatra is brimming with talempong variations. In contrast with the more widespread talempong pacik tradition, which involved handheld gongs often played in procession, the Unggan variety is famous for its fixed row of gongs played sitting on the ground, thus the alternative name talempong duduak, or sitting talempong. In contrast to pacik style, where melodies are split up between a number of players through complex interlocking parts, talempong Unggan melodies are played almost entirely by one woman with two fast hands (occasionally one or two of the gongs will be played by an additional musician, but I only saw this formation in one song.) The small gongs rest freely on fabric, allowing them to be shifted around from song to song to allow for certain melodies to be easily played.
In a beautiful example of how local mythology and histories can be wrapped up in traditional music, the main reportoire of talempong Unggan is made up of a series of songs that act as abstract chapters in the origin story of talempong. A similar story and nearly identical songs were explained to ethnomusicologist Jennifer Fraser, who recounts the tale in her fascinating book, Gongs and Pop Songs: Sounding Minangkabau in Indonesia. The story details the journey of two ancestors who first brought talempong to the area from nearby Riau province (or just inside its border with West Sumatra according to Fraser's version.) Various episodes are related through song titles, from a journey upriver ("Kancang dayuang mudiak") to a peaceful encounter with butterflies in the forest ("Ramo ramo terbang tinggi.")
From these local roots tied to regional mythology and beliefs, talempong Unggan has found a wider audience and new, cosmopolitan contexts. According to Fraser, it is one of a handful of indigenous talempong varieties to be institutionalized in West Sumatra’s influential arts university ISI Padang Panjang. This institutionalization, Fraser notes, is often problematic. In an awkward shift away from the oral/aural transmission of talempong tunes in Unggan (a style of study found literally everywhere in Indonesia), the university has transcribed the pieces using Western notation, and it is through this form that students learn the music.
In part due to this institutionalization and the evolution it has spurred, talempong in all its forms have become a key symbol of Minangkabau ethnic identity. A diatonic version partly inspired by the gong rows in Unggan is hugely popular: sometimes called talempong kreasi baru, these modern talempong groups play in universities all across the country: I first encountered the music, pop songs and all, at a rehearsal on the Bandung Institute of Technology (ITB) campus in Bandung in my first weeks in Indonesia. I remember in that moment vowing to someday make it to West Sumatra to see the origins of those poppy gongs firsthand. It may have taken me four years, but I made it to the land of talempong.
I found this word in my Indonesian-English dictionary app as soon as I arrived. It looks like ‘pencil,’ but it means “remote.”
As in “really hard to get to.”
As in “two hours nauseously careening through cliffside hairpin turns on a road about as wide as I am tall.”
Pulling up at my hosts’ home in Silantai, I remarked in the brief Indonesian way, “Terpencil, ya?” This got laughs and merry agreement. This was about as off-the-beaten-path as I was to get in West Sumatra.
I’d found the place, as I often do, through YouTube: I’d stumbled upon some wonderful footage of a handful of women jamming out on talempong Unggan in some anonymous West Sumatran village, one of those YouTube treasures that really shines despite the cell phone camera quality. After an exchange in the comments section, I’d met with the video’s uploader, a man named Al Aritos, in Solok. He had subjected me to countless selfies in front of his wife’s beautiful Minangkabau style house, so I hadn’t felt bad requesting a performance with the ladies in his video.
The next day, following that harrowing shared taxi-ride through the mountains, I was in the village surrounded by Al’s curious family, all seeming suitably perplexed that a bule had made it to a place so terpencil.
A cousin or nephew and Al’s sister-in-law shuttled me over to the headquarters of the local sanggar or studio. Four immaculately dressed women greeted me in the living room, all shiny dresses (handmade from local tenun, they proudly told me!), perfectly wrapped headscarves, and careful make-up. They’d clearly gone all out, and I was hoping they weren’t underwhelmed by the arrival of a solitary nauseous looking bule with a digital recorder.
I looked around the sitting room and immediately felt out of my element - I was so used to dealing with old men, patriarchal types who make it quite clear who’s the top dog in the room. But here, I found myself unsure of who to address: The wrinkly matriarch sitting on the floor in front of me was the logical choice, but it soon became clear that speaking in Indonesian was something of a chore for her. Besides this proud nenek, the other ladies all seemed equally in charge and, I quickly learned, equally happy and capable of answering my questions.
This egalitarian vibe continued as we moved into the gong-filled room that would be our performance space. While the talempong was clearly the focus of the ensemble, all of the women were equally proficient in it, so it took some time to decide who would take the reigns. With grandma sitting gong-side with a wise and watchful eye, the group began their first song.
From the first bang of the gong I could feel something was different about this group. Beginning and endings in Indonesian traditional music are notoriously sloppy because the cyclical, loop-based structure of many tunes make these points irrelevant. This talented group of women, however, were obviously incredibly well-practiced: they could start and stop on a dime! So tight was their final beat that I literally giggled in surprise.
In this way they ushered me through their reportoire, expertly playing through a set list of short, catchy tunes. The bubbly, surprisingly complex talempong lines (fiendishly difficult, I’ve been told) mingled with the interlocking drums and the unique morse code beat of the hand-damped gong. All the while, the ladies maintained a distinct air of elegance in their fine outfits and prim positions on the floor. Only occasionally would a shy smile steal across their faces, replacing the looks of intense concentration as they summoned hypnotic rhythms from their instruments.
These women were kicking ass and they knew it. No wonder the men stay away from the gongs in those parts: they don’t want to be put to shame by the skillful shreddery of those remarkable women, the glorious gong ladies of Silantai.
Terimo kasi Pak Al Aritos dan keluarga dan Uni Yas dan grup di Silantai.
The Glorious Gong Ladies are: Yasmalena, Rosmainar, Erno Delita, Hilda Yeni, and Rosmani.