Location: Ds. Tosoa, Kec. Ibu Selatan [South Ibu], Kab. Halmahera Barat [West Halmahera], Maluku Utara [North Maluku]
Sound: Yanger (sometimes spelled yangere), once called tali dua, gumi romodidi, or orkes
Maluku has been through a lot in the past five hundred years. Once called “the Spice Islands,” this place was once a central axis on the capital-driven maps of the world, with whole histories swirling around these scattered islands in the east of the Malay Archipelago. As an American, I learned that Christopher Columbus bumped into the new world on the way to this exotic-sounding land, a corner of the world that was once the only place to get important herbs like nutmeg, cloves, and mace. It was Maluku (or The Moluccas, as they’re often called in English) which fueled a whole new era of empire and trade as various foreign powers (the Portuguese and the Dutch chief among them) battled for control of the lucrative spice trade.
The histories of these colonizers are well known - we can trace the creation of the Dutch East India Company, follow the paths of European ships as they sailed from these exotic peripheries to burgeoning centers, their holds loaded with fragrant spices. Famous also are the names of the regional kingdoms which played (and were preyed upon) in this game of power, kingdoms like Ternate and Tidore. Often ignored, though, is the history of the common folk in Maluku. They too, it should be said, have been through a lot in the past five hundred years. What changes have manifested in their lives, in their arts?
It would take whole dissertations to answer these questions, but we may as well start somewhere. We can begin by zooming in on Halmahera, an island shaped like a pair of chromosomes, a miniature twin of the lotus-like Sulawesi to the west. One of the largest islands in Maluku, Halmahera was nonetheless historically dwarfed by the tiny island kingdoms which cling to its eastern shores: the small, volcano-studded Ternate, Tidore, and Bacan. Halmahera had its own mysterious kingdom on this western flank called Jailolo, a name so powerful it was once used to refer to the whole island. Still, it’s a peripheral place, especially in modern day Indonesia.
Spend a week in Halmahera, like I did, and you’ll find a place where traces of these rich, world-changing histories are still apparent: nutmeg trees cling to the perfect volcanic dome of Mt. Jailolo, and old colonial-era forts crumble near its black sand beaches. You’re also bound to find music: there’s tifa, booming log drums also found across Melanesia; there’s togal, music for conspicuously western dances played on a violin-like fiddle called fiol. Then there’s my favorite of all, a music at once familiar and enigmatic, a music which wraps up hundreds of years of history in a tuneful package: yanger.
Yanger, you could say, is the local take on a string band tradition that spans the Pacific. It is partly from this angle that yanger gets its familiarity: just as yanger combines upbeat lutes, rubbery bass, and major key melodies, so too do its cousins across the Melanesian and Polynesian world, from string bands in the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu all the way to joyous yospan in Papua and similar forms across the border in PNG. While Halmahera sits on the edge of the Melanesian world, yanger's link with this wider world of Pacific Island string bands is a mystery. While those musics seem intuitively like long-lost cousins, their histories are completely different, with those styles often being the result of Western contact during and after World War II. A different, perhaps more complex set of histories is at play here with yanger in Halmahera.
All it takes is a look at yanger’s instrumentation to start digging into its history. You’ll be forgiven for taking a look at the pictures in this post and guessing it’s full of ukuleles, but they’re really small lutes called juk. They may share a history with the ukulele, though: remember that the Portuguese swung through these parts on their quest for spices. Portuguese migrants from the island of Madeira also made their way to Hawaii, where they introduced what we now call the ukulele. Some musicians I met in Maluku also suggested that the juk has been around since the Portuguese were in the area in the 1500's. It’s a neat story, the idea that the Portuguese brought their music through Maluku hundreds of years ago and traces of it have stuck around just as steadfast as those old, beachside forts. It’s a story that’s tough to prove, though.
Another tangled history, another possible theory: hundreds of years ago, freed Portuguese slaves made lives for themselves in Batavia (current day Jakarta) and began to play a music which would come to be called keroncong. Keroncong to this day is played by a kind of string band whose common European instruments like guitar, cello, and double bass mingle with those Portuguese lutes (in Java usually called cak/cuk). While Java is in many ways a world away from Halmahera, keroncong was once a national sensation, spread across the country through radio and eventually records and casettes. You can hear its traces in guitar-centric styles in East Indonesia like sayang sayang in the Mandar country of West Sulawesi and karambangan in that island’s central regions. Could the history of keroncong be the key to understanding yanger’s string-filled present? Clues emerge if you look for them: yanger is a relatively new name, only tacked onto this music around the nineties. Before, it was sometimes called orkes, the Malay word for “orchestra” and a term often used for keroncong bands. Another old name for the music is tali dua (“two strings”) or strombas, two names for the western-style double bass found in both keroncong and yanger.
One more enigmatic element to follow: one of the instruments that stands out in modern day yanger bands is what locals calls kaste. The name probably comes from “kas teh” or tea chest, which makes sense - the instrument is a local variation on the tea chest bass, a folk instrument found everywhere from Australian bush bands to the string bands of Vanuatu. How it made its way to Halmahera is anyone’s guess; the bands I met couldn’t explain it, only saying that the instrument became popular in the 80’s and 90’s, with instruments literally made from tea chests recycled by Chinese shops in town. The kaste differs from other tea chest basses around the world, though, in the way that it’s played: while other varieties might change the pitch by bending its flexible neck, the kaste in yanger is always fretted (but fretless!), with the optional technique of beating the two strings with a stick instead of plucking it (a technique I’ve only ever seen in Transylvanian ütőgardons!)
The kaste leads to another thread to follow. As far as I know, these instruments are found in only one other part of Indonesia: Sangihe, an obscure archipelago swimming in the liminal space between North Sulawesi and the Philippines. YouTube has a good handful of videos of guys from Sangihe playing the instrument solo, sometimes sitting on the instrument and rapping along with its percussive beat. If it feels like I’m getting sidetracked, I am, but there’s something here: in both villages where I recorded yanger, people claimed that the music was originally brought there by migrants from Sangihe. I haven't found much evidence for yanger-like string bands surviving in Sangihe today, though I’ll give it a closer look when I’m in Sangihe for an upcoming expedition next month.
Yanger may have rich and tangled roots, but one thing is clear: it is not an ancient music. In West Halmahera, where I did my research, people seemed to remember it emerging after World War II. Both villages told similar stories: as mentioned before, both once called the music tali dua after the standard two-string double bass which sometimes supplies yanger its infectious bass lines. The Wayoli people in Tosoa also called it gumi romodidi, “two strings” in the Wayoli language, while the folks in Taraudu also called it bas tidur, or “sleeping bass”, after the tradition of laying the bass in a supine position (a technique also found in the yospan and songgeri string bands in Papua and its surrounding islands!)
In Tosoa, one elder explained that tali dua was once played to accompany a kind of socialization or courtship dance (tari pergaulan) called ronggeng selo. Variations on this dance where young men and young women form separate lines and come together in sudden, flirtatious pairings are found across Maluku, from Ambon (where it’s called katreji) to Makian (where it’s linked with the aforementioned togal music.) The only two Western ethnomusicologists to do any serious work in this part of Indonesia, Philip Yampolsky and Margaret Kartomi, have both puzzled at the clearly Western roots of these dances and their music. Kartomi’s work especially may be useful here: as paraphrased in Yampolsky’s ever illuminating liner notes for the Halmahera-featuring Music of Indonesia, Vol. 19, Kartomi suggests that katreji “developed in the late nineteenth century, in military camps of the Dutch colonial army (KNIL), among Ambonese and other Christian soldiers from Maluku.”
It’s a tantalizing lead: in addition to sharing a similar “socializing dance,” the katreji music that Kartomi recorded features similar strumming strings (there, it seems, on guitar) and that familiar three chord structure. It also makes sense on another level: just as katreji supposedly has roots in Christian soldiers, the music now called yanger seems undeniably borne from the church. While North Maluku is a fairly even mix of Christians and Muslims (a mix which led to brutal sectarian conflict at the turn of this century), yanger bands are overwhelmingly Christian. The music, with its uniform three chord structure and soaring vocal harmonies, feels intuitively as if it’s a product of Christian musical practices brought over by Dutch, German, and American missionaries in the past few centuries, and sure enough, yanger is often played at church, with bands often tied to specific congregations.
I could follow other leads for days: what to make of the maracas commonly found in modern yanger bands? Folks call them ceker, a confusing term - it’s identical to the Indonesian word for chicken feet, but say it a few times and you’ll realize it’s just the word “shaker” said with an Indonesian accent. You could see these ceker as a sign of Latin influence - not improbable, as Latin music forms like the cha-cha swept Indonesia just as it did the rest of the world during the middle of the twentieth century. At other moments, the more languid songs in yanger’s repertoire remind me of Hawaiian music, another style which was once wildly popular in Indonesia, especially in Maluku.
I recently posted some iPhone footage of yanger (the video shared above) to my Facebook only to have a friend ask, in so many words, where’s the traditional music? This is vanilla Western stuff. I got a bit defensive, and was soon playing social media warrior on behalf of yanger, trying to make a point that I’d like to repeat here: yanger’s immediate familiarity is actually what’s so remarkable about it. While there’s almost nothing about its elements which could be called indigenous, this enigmatic conglomeration of influences could have been borne in few other places than Maluku, that nexus of trade and empire where cultures have been colliding for centuries. And what’s more remarkable, is that despite the inherently foreign nature of its constituent parts, people in Halmahera have embraced yanger wholeheartedly as their own, as musik tradisional, as musik daerah, local music.
In an embrace of modern yanger, illage bands often write their own yanger songs in their local languages, often proud texts which sound like they were written by the local tourism board. The odd specificity of these songs ("Beautiful Jailolo District, West Halmahera Regency!") is explained by the context - most new songs and arrangements are created specifically for government sponsored festivals and contests.
In addition to the self aware regional pride, there’s also an unexpectedly dark story of social change and “civilizing” forces lurking in this music and its texts. Maluku, remember, has been dominated by foreign colonizers for half a millenium. To better bend the people of Maluku to their will, the Dutch spent centuries “civilizing” the indigenous people they didn't outright exterminate, converting many, including a large percentage of people in Halmahera, to Protestantism. Further south in Ambon, the people were famously so successfully “tamed” that they were often called belanda hitam or the “Black Dutch.” The people of Halmahera have agency, of course, and play yanger because they love it. But it’s true that much indigenous culture has been lost in these past centuries, and yanger is now far more popular and well known than deeper rooted musics like tifa. Rather than lamenting this loss, the people in Halmahera often look proudly forward, seeing yanger, with all its Western tools and idioms, as a sign of their “salvation.” Take the song “Masida Moju Mi Ahu Sangi’sara,” or “We Once Lived in Sorrow,” a Wayoli yanger text that uncannily fits a kind of missionary’s “civilizing” narrative: “We once lived in sorrow,” their church-trained voices sing, “we only lived in the forest/we trapped the maleo bird.” The subtext is something along the lines of "but look at us now, we're playing yanger." Western strings and parallel harmony fit into and reinforce their modern, "civilized" identity.
It’s a complicated story. Maluku, as I’ve said, has been through a lot in the past five hundred years. Some of the forces that we now call “globalization” have been at play in this part of the world for hundreds of years, and yanger is a result, for better or worse, of that complex system. There’s a darkness, sure, to this narrative, but its a history that the people now own in the same way that they’ve claimed yanger as their own. The music, too, continues to change, with additions of local flavor like the Tosoa band’s fiol fiddle sliding in comfortably with the guitar and the plastic drumkit. Unlike the deeper rooted tifa music, there's nothing sacred about yanger, which means its ripe for change, a fluid style fit for expressing the people of Halmahera's ever complex identities.
It felt like a dream to finally arrive in Halmahera. In a beautiful arrangement with the local Culture and Tourism Department, my friend Logan and I were flown over to document the traditional music of the regency of West Halmahera in conjunction with an annual arts festival called Festival Teluk Jailolo. The idea was that I’d do what I do - document local musical traditions through audio and video - and then share it all with the local government for their own archives, to be used for whatever they’d like, from education to use in promotional videos.
And so we found ourselves ferrying across the strait between two gorgeous volcanic cones, Ternate’s Mt. Gamalama and the looming Mt. Jailolo, a slumbering giant which hovers above the provincial town of the same name. It was an amazing week, crisscrossing the area with my friend and guide Amar, another enthusiast of ethnomusicology who had pitched our project to the local government. There was lots to see and hear, from contemporary dance on the main stage to traditional roofraising rituals in nearby villages, complete with pounding tifa drums. All the while, though, I couldn’t wait to hear yanger, a music that had stolen my heart years ago through lo-fi videos on the internet.
The government connection, while incredibly helpful, certainly changed the vibe of our visits to local communities. Whereas my meetings with communities and musicians are usually as informal as I can make them when I do things by myself, being attached to the local government this time made for an interesting experience. Since we were making our visits around the time of the annual festival (a huge event in this sleepy corner of Halmahera), people were in full celebration mode, often riding the highs of a performance at the main stage by the Jailolo waterfront.
Such was the case when we arrived in Tosoa, a Wayoli village in an area called Ibu Selatan. We’d seen the band play the night before in Jailolo so we thought we knew what to expect, but when we pulled up to the town hall the next day, we were greeted by a full on sambutan tamu or guest-greeting ceremony. Women dressed in their Sunday best, all lace kebaya blouses and hairbuns, clapped to the beat as adorable children performed a choreographed guest-welcoming dance in our honor. It was a genuinely touching display: word had gotten around in the past few days that we were the only foreigners in attendance for the festival, so our reputation, it seemed, had preceded us. All we could do was lavish the crowd with thanks and say, “Aw, you shouldn’t have!”
The yanger band was ready to play right away, but we had to find a good spot for our session - the town hall was a cave of echos, not a flattering sound for the busy strumming of yanger. Explaining that he knew just the place, the village head led us down the street and behind some homes to a freshly constructed kind of canal. At first it seemed like an odd choice, but we soon saw it’s idyllic character as naked kids splashed carefree in the crystal clear water and light filtered through the massive trees that had grown on either side of what must have once been a small stream.
The band agreed on playing under one of those huge trees, vines reaching down towards our heads as we set up microphones (a nifty new stereo pair of condensers I’d been dying to try out) and arranged the band and their small army of singers to get the best sound. We settled on a convenient U-shape, with the huge purpe kaste bass in the middle, a gang of juk lutes on either side, and a choir of women filling out both arms of the formation.
It’s an odd thing, these kinds of artificial recording set-ups. I’d told my friend beforehand that I found yanger to be the most joyful music in the world, and the videos I’d seen online seemed to back me up, always full of informal bands, neighborly church congregations singing with ebullience and immposibly wide grins. Something seemed off, though, as we launched into the first song. Maybe it was the business-like gear i’d set up, all tripods and micstands and cameras. Maybe it was the song titled “We Once Lived in Sorrow.” While the sound was incredible, beautifully church-trained voices lifting up into the air with jangling strings, the band seemed a bit stiff, not sure where to look. In the next take, hoping to ease the tension, I held the camera in one hand and let the grooves unleash my white boy dance moves. I ruined the shot as my camera bounced up and down, but the vibe relaxed, smiles spreading across the crowd.
After a few songs, I felt like I may start to wear out my welcome, so I heaped thanks on the crowd, packed up my gear, and started to note down song titles with the village chief. As I was doing so, my friend Logan, ever the musician and the clown, started jamming with the band, taking over the ceker maracas and mimicking the goofy flourishes of the ceker player we’d seen before. This was seemingly much more hilarious than my dance moves, as suddenly the whole gang was playing and singing again, all smiles and relaxed strumming.
I didn’t want to ruin the moment by setting up all my gear again, but I did sneak in my ZOOM recorder on a tripod to capture the sound before being pulled to the side by some enthusiastic ladies. Soon I was being led through one of those Western style line dances that Yampolsky had written about, what people here called ronggeng selo. As the band cycled through a well-rehearsed medley of classic songs and regional pop hits, the tables were turned as Logan and I became the spectacle. Teens who’d been watching boredly from the sidelines suddenly whipped out their cameraphones, panning between the bearded bule shaking ceker to the awkward guy trying to keep up to the woman’s hokey-pokey like commands: “Right, left, turn around now! grab your partner, round and round!” When it was all over we were all sweaty and smiling, and I knew that while I’d missed a great video, it didn’t really matter at all. They’d proven to me what I’d known all along, that yanger may be the most joyful music in the world.
Special thanks are in order for Amar, truly one of my heroes here in Indonesia. Amar has been such a huge supporter of Aural Archipelago, and his help was orchestral in arranging not only this trip but also in getting the batti'-batti' band from Selayar, his native island, to Belgium last year.
A huge term kasha is also deserved for the Pariwisata dan Kebudayaan team in Jailolo for supporting this work and making our time in Jailolo such an incredible experience.
Big 'makasihs also for Logan, one of my best friends and an excellent traveling companion, with thanks especially for starting that magical second jam.
And finally, to the yanger band of Tosoa, thank you for so graciously sharing your beautiful music with me and the world. When asked for names so that I could give credit individually, the village chief gave me a list of fifty people, their entire church congregation if I had to guess (those playing and singing numbered around half that). Here it is, in full:
Sandi Hongo, Kalvin Missy, Frans May, Wilem Boka, Rolan Missy, Yanto Hama, Hermanto Koda, Hansen Koda, Minggus Sowo, Minggus Koda, Lewi Missy, Deky Missy, Dominggus Dara, Marthen Yabu, Demus Ngutji, Donal Ngutji, Denis Ngutji, Lukas Sowo, Hendra Rano, Angki Lahi, Romi Boky, Jamaludin Gise, Merak Gotu, David Boky, Radius Hama, Arson Gise Apkiran Gise, Benyamin Missy, Alber Boky, Yerry Kuda, Kansel Kuda, Yonatan Kuda, Defri Danel, Kristian Danel, Ham Missy, Yeremias Boky, Marlinton Koda, Carol Lumona, Karmel Watje, Roni Missy, Years Missy, Jefnat Sora, Frets Sora, Ronal Koda, Niklas Gotu, Otnyiel Djeremod, Naim Koda, Viktor Bessy, Agustinus Missy, Esau Langat, Aldi May, Bobi Ella, Andarias Buka, Yulias Hama, Erikson Ohowirin, Wensi Koda, Efraim Ngutji, Roy Boka, and Simson Hama. Pengurus: Agus Boka, Wiliam Calvin, Yoni Liot, and Benjamina Missy.