Location: Pancor, East Lombok
Its always great to see fresh young faces playing music with deep roots. The music we’ve covered so far in the Interlocking Lombok series has not exactly been the domain of sprightly youngsters, with the old rebana beaters of Langko and the bapak bapak (older men) of Montong Betok’s klentang group mostly pushing their fifties and sixties.
If there’s one genre of traditional music that always seems to draw the younger folk, it’s what I’ve called Ramadan Wake-up Jams: the surprisingly varied array of traditional music played to wake up neighbors for their pre-fasting meal during Ramadan. It might sound highly specific but traditions like this are everywhere, from obrog-obrogan in West Java to musik Patrol in Banyuwangi, Jember, and elsewhere. As I’ve expounded in those posts, these styles are largely the domain of the young and naughty, with young musicians attracted by the subversion and camaraderie of making loud music in the middle of the night.
Lombok’s take on this Ramadan musical tradition is called tongkek. Played in only a handful of villages near Lombok’s east coast, tongkek takes the deconstructed rhythms of klentang (called kelenang tunggal in this area) and transfers them to bamboo. While klentang features interlocking rhythms and melodies played on single iron bars, tongkek interlocks single bamboo cylinders not unlike the bars of a bamboo angklung or rindik. Each musician beats their own tongkek with a small, rubber-covered mallet, led by the sounds of a single kendang drum and either kecek (small cymbals, common in Balinese and Sasak gamelan) or the unique bamboo variation, renjek, where a split piece of bamboo is hit to emphasize the kendang rhythms and cues.
The tradition of playing tongkek during Ramadan traces back at least to the 1970s, when gangs of kids playing bamboo slit drums called kenthongan (see: musik patrol Banyuwangi) roamed the neighborhoods of Pancor making noise. Just as in Banyuwangi, the cacophony of kenthongan was eventually refined into something far more complex and tonal. The groups played gending (songs) taken from klentang (Arje, Ngosak beras), tongkek’s main forebear, and from gendang beleq (songs like Lalo Nyongkol), another common gamelan form in Lombok. Tongkek, then, is just the latest in a long line of processional arts in Lombok, music designed to be portable and paradeable.
At the roots of much of tongkek is a three part interlocking rhythm (listen at 0:25 in the recording for the first example.) The first part, pantokan seke' or gempul plays a straight, metronome-like beat (the name gempul likely comes from kempul, a time-keeping gong found in many gamelan.) Weaving around the gempul are pantoken due and pantokan telu, also called gontengan and male'. Long passages of gending tongkek (tongkek songs) can consist of just this pattern, gradually crescendoing until the rhythm is at a fever pitch. Other parts are more melodic, with the musicians sharing linear pentatonic melodies through precise strikes (these parts are the hardest and thus often the sloppiest, just like with the klentang group!)
These days the youngsters of Pancor are still banging away on their tongkek, with one of the groups we met featuring kids as young as seven years old. Following the story of musik patrol Banyuwangi, the style has been refined and turned presentational through a modern tradition of lomba, or competitions. What were once rag-tag teams of kids are now highly practiced groups with matching t-shirts playing medleys of classic songs and kreasi (newer pieces in the same idiom). The groups mix the fierce rhythms of the tongkek with playful, synchronized dance routines, with much of the choreography taken from dancing gendang beleq troupes.
It's interesting to note tongkek’s place in Lombok’s ongoing cultural struggle between agama (religion) and adat (customs or traditions.) I mentioned in my post on rebana reong how that style is a clever compromise, taking adat-rooted, pre-Islamic-tinged gamelan and masking it with the pious Islamic essence of rebana in order, perhaps, to make the music more acceptable to conservative Muslim leaders. Could tongkek be another take on this? Its music has all the hallmarks of more traditional, pre-Islamic musics rooted in adat, from the cyclical structures to the pentatonic melodies. The material, though, is not bronze (once forbidden by conservative religious leaders) but bamboo, and the context of playing during Ramadan embues the tradition with an abstract religious air. Maybe this is another key to the music’s continuing vitality - it’s inoffensive fun, rooted in tradition but with a modern freshness about it.
There’s literally nothing about tongkek in previous surveys and texts on music in Lombok, a curious thing considering how vital the tradition seems today. As is so often the case, I first found out about it from YouTube: while on a binge of musik patrol videos from Java, a tongkek video (there are plenty online, have a look) popped up in the recommended videos. I impulsively sent out a message to the uploader of the first video I saw, hoping for help looking for this tradition on my next trip to the island.
I instantly got in touch with a guy named Faishal, who, upon our meeting in Pancor months later, turned out to be a young guy himself, no older than thirteen. He and his dad met up with us at the park near Pancor and took us to a nearby fusbal field where two groups were already waiting! I’d told Faishal that we’d be happy to just hear the tightest, most senior group, but the news had spread through the community that some bules want to come research tongkek and suddenly everyone was vying to play for us.
Their plan was to have us shoot in the big, empty space of a futsal court, but I didn’t think the grunts and shouts of the matches going on behind us would make for the best recording backdrop. Instead we moved to a weird kind of abandoned property next door, a kind of concrete expanse that must have once been basketball courts.
The little ones played first, and they were as in sync if not more so than the elders busting out interlocking rhythms on klentang the night before. I had asked them to save the dancing for later, fearing that the movement would mar the recordings. The music ended up fairly lifeless that way, though, and the kids looked bored. I’d forgotten that with so many processional and dance-rooted musics, often the spirit is locked in the movement, the music flowing with the choreography.
For the senior group, a gang of smiley teens who already seemed like seasoned pros in the tongkek scene, I said sure, go ahead, dance away. Right from the start, the performance was so much more alive, with the kids running through the choreography they must have worked on tirelessly before Ramadan earlier in the year. After they played, the tongkek were handed over to the bule trio (me, Jo, and Logan) and we tried our best at the simple three-part rhythm at the root of the music. It was surprisingly tough, and the kids laughed as we clumsily tried to replicate the rhythms they were so tightly, almost mindlessly pounding out just minutes before. At some point it all devolved into a kind of tongkek dance party, with the kids running about goofily with their tongkek, playing that same cycling rhythm as we tried our best to keep up.
Audio mixed and mastered by Jo Lamont, recorded by Palmer Keen, Jo Lamont, and Logan Hallay. Huge thanks to the tongkek community of Pancor, especially Pak Alim and Faishal. Check out Faishal's YouTube channel here.