Location: Cikeusal, Tasikmalaya, West Java
Sound: Terbang Gebes
Islam, some say, spread through Java with the drum. Some of the Wali Sanga, the nine Sufi saints who are traditionally said to have spread Islam through Java, used frame drums to anchor their message. Such drums likely existed before Islam ever arrived, but despite these pre-Islamic roots there are thought to be strong religious links between these drums and Islam.
Today these instruments and their accompanying traditions go by many names - rebana, gembyung, terbang, salawatan. Some place the emphasis on rhythms, others, like salawatan, on the accompanying sung religious texts. What’s fascinating is the sheer diversity of these traditions, despite ostensibly sharing a common root. Some of these traditions don’t veer far from the Arabic style, with simple rhythms and lyrics sung in Arabic with scales more typical of the Arab world than Java. Others have been ingrained with deep regionalisms, with each tradition firmly rooted in its place. These are the traditions I’d like to explore in this series, Drums of Java.
Terbang Gebes is one hyper-regional style found in Tasikmalaya, West Java. Terbang is a name common throughout Java for the larger style frame drums - the name possibly comes from the Indonesian word for flying, linking the drums to Sufi notions of religious ecstasy through music. Gebes comes from the Sundanese word for “slap”, a reference to the strong, sharp beating of the drums with the fingers.
The art has a long, interesting history in Cikeusal, the small rural village in Tasikmalaya where it flourished. Terbang as an Islamic art was said to be brought from the southern coast by a sheikh, or holy man, called Abduh Muhlyi (it’s unclear whether terbang existed in the area in a pre-Islamic, Hindu form before this - some locals hinted at this.) It was through this sheikh that terbang was used as a tool for proselytization - this style, with terbang accompanying religious and poetic texts, was called terbang seja, a related form still played in Cikeusal to this day.
As with other terbang forms throughout Java, these practices were infused with aspects of pre-Islamic Sundanese beliefs. Some elders in Cikeusal trace terbang gebes to terbang sered, an earlier style deeply rooted in magic and mysticism. I was told that men would gather to play terbang in a kind of battle of magic and physical endurance: musicians would sit back to back with a wooden board between them. Magical spells would be recited to give strength to the players, who would proceed to play as loudly and long as possible, sometimes playing until their hands bled and the wood between them shattered. According to Dr. Neneng Yanti, an anthropologist who wrote part of her fantastic dissertation on terbang gebes, these practices of magic and macho displays of strength are linked with Cikeusal’s past reputation as a kampung baragajul, or as Dr. Neneng translates, “a village with ‘tough guys."
Unlike other terbang traditions that are heavily rooted in religious texts and are situated as forms of devotion, terbang gebes has always had a less explicit connection to Islam. It’s traditionally a purely instrumental style unaccompanied by vocals, but nonetheless it is considered today to be a seni Islam, or Islamic art. Despite having no explicit religious content, terbang gebes is tolerated, even embraced, by local religious figures as a religious art because of its supposed historical link to frame drums played in the time of Mohammad, and because it is often played and practiced in the context of pesantren, or Islamic boarding schools.
Unlike some frame drums which can have a build similar to a tambourine, shallow and open, the terbang played in Cikeusal are huge, heavy things with a thick body (kaluwung) made from kayu nangka (the wood of the jackfruit tree). Vaguely wok-shaped, this body narrows to a small hole which allows the sound to escape. The skin of the drum is either cowskin or buffalo skin, with each material having a different sound; this skin is firmly tightened to the instrument with a system of straps (rarawat), rope (teureup) and some unique wooden wedges called paseuk. Through this system, terbang makers and players are able to tune the drums to have a high, sharp, tonal sound.
These drums are played with three distinct interlocking rhythms called degdog (roots in dogdog?), balaganjur (also the name of a Balinese marching gamelan!), and jeujeleung. The musicians hold the heavy instruments between their legs as they sit on the ground, and as they beat heavily on the skins, they sometimes bounce to the beat, even scooting around on their butts as they play. The ecstatic behavior in performance reminds me of trance-filled percussion found elsewhere in Indonesia (like gordang sambilan in North Sumatra) but I heard no mention of trance in Cikeusal.
As I mentioned in my previous post, an interesting new development in terbang gebes has arisen in the past few years. Two artforms - the instrumental terbang and the a capella beluk sawah have been fused, with the high, distinctive beluk yodeling soaring over the insistent, driving rhythms of the terbang. It’s an interesting approach to revitalizing an art form that has in some ways stagnated- its a new twist but still seen as a pure, Sundanese form of expression. In this way, it can be a useful model for how to create new variations on musical traditions without succumbing to the lazy postcolonial practice of throwing a keyboard or Indonesian singing into the mix. Rather, musical alchemy using indigenous ingredients can lead to a fresh new recipe.
My journey to record and research about terbang gebes was part of a “two birds with one stone” kind of day where I also recorded beluk sawah solo - I already told the story of our trip to Cikeusal in that post, so I’ll start where I left off.
You may remember Pak Ipin, the retired schoolteacher who acts as leader and patron of the one and only terbang gebes group in Cikeusal. Arriving at his home, we sat on his pristine lawn (a rare sight in rural West Java!) and chatted about the history of terbang. He explained how when he arrived in the 1960s, he heard whispers about this mysterious terbang gebes, but nobody was playing anymore. Understandably, as it was a period of great, violent upheaval in Indonesia (read up on the events of 1965) and very few people were playing music anymore. As Indonesia eased into the Suharto era, though, Pak Ipin worked with local musicians to revive the music, arranging performances once more. Originally terbang gebes had been linked, like beluk, to the rice growing cycle, with informal performances arranged every harvest. Later, as the village transitioned into a modernist Islamic mindset, terbang gebes would be played for religious holidays and ceremonies such as syukuran and Muludan.
Despite his intentions of presenting terbang gebes in an Islamic frame, Pak Ipin seemed to have no issue with acknowledging its pre-Islamic, agrarian roots. After our discussion, I suggested we move to a quiet place to record the music. I was surprised to find that rather than taking us to a pesantren or other religious space, Pak Ipin led us down the street and up a small hill to a simple wooden hut which was used for processing rice. The terbang masters Pak Asep, Basar, and Endang arranged themselves on a small wooden platform in the hut, sandwiching the heavy terbang between their outstretched legs. The beluk singers, Pak Muhri, Usup, and Hador sat on the edge, in the hopes that their voices, closer to the microphone, would be able to compete with the sharp sound of the terbang.
As the men began to play, I could see that the levels were indeed atypical. With other terbang ensembles, the lyrics are sung as a group, with the booming choral vocals rising comfortably over the slap of the drums. Here, however, the high, thin sound of solo beluk didn’t rise above in quite the same way. Rather, it mingled, almost hidden at times, in the loud, overpowering texture of the terbang.
I was happy to see that as the first song, “Sinom”, wrapped up, the drummers were loosening up. As the next song, “Pankur”, rolled around, the bouncing began, smiles spreading across the men’s faces as they hopped on their butts to the rhythm, letting the embodied beat take over. If I wasn’t busy filming, I may have done the same!
We stopped after two songs, as the drummers already seemed exhausted - maybe their behinds were already getting a little sore. Despite the brevity of the performance, I assured them with a smile that it was more than enough. We spent the rest of the afternoon getting treated to other local musical treats, from the rice pounding rhythms of tutunggulan to the noisey rice harvest rhythms of rengkong, but the terbang and the howling beluk that accompanied it stuck with me for weeks and months later.
Tracks mixed and mastered by my good bud Jo Lamont, nuhun Jo!
Huge thanks and terima kasih banyak to the musicians: On terbang, Pak Asep, Pak Basar, and Pak Endang, and the juru beluk, Pak Muhri, Pak Usup, and Pak Hador. Also huge thanks to Dr. Neneng, whose dissertation is a fascinating read on Islamic musical arts in West Java and was great for providing a larger cultural context for this very local art form.