Location: Taeh Baruah, West Sumatra
Sound: Saluang sirompak (also called Basirompak)
In a village in West Sumatra, a boy is heartbroken.
He’s been rejected by the object of his affection, his love unrequited. As they say here, her heart was closed. He’s not just devastated but ashamed, the feeling burning its way through his skin.
It’s not hard to hatch a plan - young men in this village know their options in such a situation. Discretely as possible, he meets with the penghulu, a man somewhere between a shaman and a love doctor. An appointment is set for that night - the conditions are already right.
The penghulu and his men gather the tools of their trade: first and foremost, a saluang, the end-blown bamboo flute ubiquitous throughout the Minangkabau lands of West Sumatra. This saluang is different, however. In addition to the four finger holes in the front, it’s got an extra hole in the rear, no small detail considering the ritual involved in making it, with each finger hole burned into the bamboo cylinder only when a villager has died under certain conditions. Five holes, five deaths.
Next, the gasiang tangkurak. It has to be fetched from the branches of a tall tree, where it's been hidden from meddling hands. Rightfully so, as it’s said to be so powerful that the average person is forbidden from hearing it. Part sound-maker, part ritual device, the gasiang is a fragment of human skull scavenged from a local graveyard, preferably from the forehead of a spiritually powerful dead man. A long string made from the white fabric of a burial shroud is threaded through two holes in the bone; when these strings are pulled in the right way, the skull fragment spins like a top, buzzing audibly like a small propeller.
Only in the middle of the night can the men meet and enact the ritual, far from prying eyes. No one is likely to come anyway, as the meeting place is haunted - that’s why they’re there. Spirits are said to be thick in places like this, which should make their work that much easier.
The men provide a platter of offerings to these unseen residents, flowers and herbs and uncooked rice. With the offerings in place, the ritual can begin: the saluang sounds its breathy call into the midnight air, followed by the shriek of the singer, the cry calling any spirits who didn’t get the invitation. The shriek is followed by a string of verse, rhyming couplets called dendang which burst with metaphor and further invitations to the assembled spirits.
All of this is in service of one goal: to possess that girl with the closed-off heart, driving her mad. As the gasiang spins, so too will her heart, they say. She will become gila - crazy.
So the story goes. Such rituals, I was told, were once commonplace in Taeh Baruah, and the musical magic of saluang sirompak once struck fear into the hearts of many locals. These days, though, the music continues divorced of its ritualistic origins. The musicians explained that starting in the 1970s, the ritual fell out of practice but the music continued on its own in a new form. Saluang sirompak, they said, “dijatuhkan ke kesenian” - literally “fell into an artform.” The intense spiritual power of the music was largely cast aside in favor of contextualizing it as performance art, something to play for visiting academics and for crowds at Independence Day festivals.
One family in Taeh Baruah still acts as keeper of the tradition, and they tell their story without shame, despite the largely taboo nature of the original rituals. The skull-fragment gasiang has been switched out for one made of a coconut shell, but the death-infused saluang remains. The power, it seems, remains as well, but it lies dormant.
Curious, I asked about their current powers: what if I were sakit hati (heartbroken)? If I were to order the ritual, could they enact the magic as they once did? I was surprised when they answered yes. This makes me think - why did they stop in the first place? Was the spirituality of the ritual too tied in with pre-Islamic conceptions of the supernatural, incompatible with modern Islamic belief? Did the musicians simply give in to the Suharto-era imperative to privilege performance over ritual? I didn't get any answers.
I’m far from the first person to be seduced by such tales of Indonesian love magic. In the 1920s and 30s, foreigners began to wash ashore on the beaches of Bali, drawn not only by paradisiacal beaches but by the exotic allure of the people and their practices. Among the horde were a handful of filmmakers who heard stories of love magic and saw potential: the topless women, the aura of “primitive” sensuality and mysticism played perfectly into romanticized Orientalist ideas of “the East.”
Thus a dubious new film genre was created: the “goona-goona epic.” Taking their name from an Indonesian word for such witchcraft (guna-guna), these films were pure exploitation, some taking the form of ostensibly “ethnographic” documentaries with fully native casts, always centered on the exotic, the lurid, and the sensational. Among the most well-known titles out of Bali were films like “Goona-Goona: An Authentic Melodrama of the Island of Bali” and “Legong: Dance of the Virgins.”
This exploitative lineage was on my mind when riding into Taeh Baruah to meet with the saluang sirompak musicians. I, too, had been seduced by the exoticism of the story. Was I doomed to continue this history of Orientalist ethnographies, selling romantic tales of exotic rituals at the expense of the locals who were sharing their craft with me?
How to fight against this history? Is it possible to indulge in the dramatic nature of saluang sirompak’s origin story without verging into Orientalist fantasy? Everything I’ve written is as the story was told to me - is that enough?
As I sat in the living room, hearing these stories and probing the musicians for details, I felt a split between the lurid exoticism of the story and the banal reality of the situation, of sitting in a living room amongst the usual detritus of modern Indonesian life: an electric rice cooker, an old television, vacuum-sealed plastic cups of Aqua brand water and Nokia phones scattered all around us. In some ways I felt as if the musicians expected me to play goona-goona director, having them put on traditional dress and act out the ritual in a spooky forest.
I could have done that, but I found the reality just as fascinating - no pretense necessary. Sitting on the carpet, polo shirts, track jackets and all, no human skull fragments in sight - just a buzzing coconut shell. It was nearly midnight and rain fell on the roof, creating just the right amount of atmosphere without veering into melodrama.
No dancing virgins, no computer-generated spirits twirling through the air. Just four men sitting in a living room making beautiful music with a fascinating history. Is that enough?
I am very thankful to Nil Ikhwan for his fantastic dissertation on saluang sirompak, "Spiritualitas Musik Saluang Sirompak" - I referred to it quite a lot to corroborate the information from my interviews in the field. For Indonesian speakers it is worth a read - a very comprehensive and in-depth look into the form, function and cultural context of the art form.
Terima kasih juga Pak Erianto, Pak Endarwasih, Anaknya Pak Erianto, sama Pak Sayute untuk berbagi musik mereka sama saya malam itu :)