Location: South Solok, West Sumatra
Sound: Gandang Sarunai
I’m in West Sumatra, and I’m out of my element.
Over the years of doing Aural Archipelago, I’ve found a kind of comfort zone in the disparate worlds of traditional music that I encounter here. Coffee and clove cigarette-filled introductions with musicians have been commonplace, a familiar routine built up around tracking down, recording, and investigating music in far-flung places. My Indonesian vocabulary is now centered around a locus of musical terms: lagu (song, piece), irama (rhythm), alat musik (instrument), nyanyi (sing.) It’s not always an easy journey, but at this point I at least know what to expect.
I’ve been thrown into a different world this time. My friend Albert, a young ethnomusicologist from Solok, West Sumatra, has invited me to his hometown to take part in Lapuak Lapuak Dikajangi, a nearly month-long exploration of silek, a complex network of disparate martial arts traditions found across the Minangkabau heartland of West Sumatra and abroad. I’m the only music guy invited: other artists have come in from across Indonesia to explore the world of silek through their respective fields, from photography to performance art and painting.
Soon we are fully immersed in this overwhelmingly deep tradition, meeting daily with silek gurus who describe their art form in countless ways: as self-defense, spiritual practice, esoteric science. We learn that there are almost as many strains of silek in West Sumatra as there are villages, such as silek harimau (tiger silek, a style made famous by the silek-inspired action movies Merantau and The Raid) whose deadly moves are based on the movements of the Sumatran tiger.
Though it’s actually refreshing to be out of my element (that’s why I moved to Indonesia in the first place!), I start asking around and reading about the role of music in silek. The relationship, I find, is complicated. To understand more, I begin to tear through The Fighting Art of Pencak Silat and Its Music, an amazing collection of essays edited by Uwe Patzold and Paul Mason in 2016. Mason’s chapter, “Silek Minang in West Sumatra, Indonesia” is particularly illuminating. In it, Mason describes how no one style of music is inextricably tied to silek; rather, silek is often accompanied by whichever music is common and on-hand in the area, be it the handheld talempong paciek gong chimes or a gendang tambuah drum band.
In many ways, actually, silek is an art form at odds with music. Some say silek finds its truest form in rehearsal and in non-performative contexts, as in intimate backyard sessions between guru and students: in these cases, the sound of silek is simply the padding of footsteps, the slapping of skin on skin, and quietly whispered mantras. Mason writes that, even in a music-filled silek performance, “many audience members do not recognize the musical accompaniment as part of the performance.” “Ask a Minangkabau person about music for silek,” Mason writes, “and most will respond ‘there is no music for silek minang.’” When music accompanies silek, it seems, it is almost an intrusion. As allowing themselves to follow the music’s rhythm makes their actions more predictable and thus more easily foiled, silek fighters “must attempt to insulate their concentration from musical sounds.”
I had a hunch, though, that the uneasiness of this pairing may not always hold true, that there may be a Minangkabau musical form with surprisingly close ties to silek. I’d heard about a style called gandang sarunai, a combination of two interlocking drums called gandang and a double reed instrument called sarunai. I could find nothing in the literature on gandang sarunai about a link to silek, but my intuition suggested there may be. As I wrote recently, this format - interlocking drums accompanied by a double reed wind instrument - is often tied to martial arts practices across Indonesia and beyond. In South Sulawesi, the music called ganrang konjo once accompanied the martial art style called manca’; in nearby Selayar, the music of ganrang adat still does, as does the Sulawesi-rooted style of gendhang dhume’ in the remote Madurese islands of Kangean. The Sundanese have kendang pencak, two sets of multi-part kendang drums matching the intensity of a wailing tarompet. Even abroad, in mainland Malaysia, Malay-style silat is performed to the sounds of gendang silat, a format featuring interlocking drums and a serunai. By following these patterns in performance and material practice, we can get a tempting glimpse at possible patterns of dissemination of martial arts traditions across archipelagic Southeast Asia and beyond. The musical similarities made me wonder: is gandang sarunai also a part of this extended musical-martial arts network?
To find out, I headed from our homebase in Solok to Solok Selatan (South Solok), one of the few areas in West Sumatra where this music is played. Far from the mountainous heartland of West Sumatra that the Minangkabau call darek, the area is nonetheless a center of its own, an ancestral area from which Minangkabau tribes or suku once spread out to farflung migratory areas or rantau like the Pasisia Selatan or South Coast. Sitting not far from the southern border with jungley Jambi and the very active Kerinci volcano, the primary villages in Solok Selatan sit in a fertile valley bordered by the Bukit Barisan mountains and spotted with geothermal hot springs. The area is equally rich culturally, with the main town, Muara Labuah, famously spotted with more than a thousand rumah gadang, traditional Minangkabau communal homes with dramatic buffalo horn-like roofs pitching into the sky.
Not far from Muara Labuah is the area traditionally called Sungai Pagu, the center of gandang sarunai in West Sumatra. I headed there with my friend Datuak, a local artist who had studied gandang sarunai in the past. It was already dark when we headed out of town on Datuak’s motorbike, clad in plastic ponchos to keep out a persistent drizzle that hadn’t stopped since we’d arrived. The road slithered past the horns of rumah gadang jutting darkly into the cloudy skies, past wandering hunting dogs and glistening rice paddies.
We soon arrived at the home of Pak Yasrial, an artist at the center of Solok Selatan’s world of gandang sarunai. Pak Yasrial ushered us into a living room where musicians were already gathered, mostly older men sitting cross-legged with small glasses of coffee and clove cigarettes strewn across the floor. Datuak and I went down the line shaking hands and joined them on the carpet, spreading out our offerings: six packs of cigarettes, a big bag of ground coffee, and sugar. Together with the goodwill fostered by their previous relationship with Datuak, this seemed to be enough: soon enough there were drums before us and we were diving deep into gandang sarunai.
It soon became clear that the drums were the heart and soul of this music. Even as physical objects, a reverent kind of intentionally seemed to be poured into their construction. The drums are stout and double-headed, identical in construction but thought of as a male/female pair, jantan and batino. One head of each drum is made with the thick skin of a kijang deer and struck with the rounded corner of a buffalo horn or tanduak. The other head is goat skin, struck by the hand. The skins are secured to bulging jackfruit wood bodies with nylon string subbing in for the traditional palm fiber as rattan rings inside give the heads a proper tightness.
In play, the drums (themselves called gandang sarunai) are placed against each other in opposition, but the rhythms played are complimentary: in a musical format mirroring many others across the region, one drum plays a relatively simple dasar (literally “basic”) part while the other plays the more complex peningkah or filler part. This relationship, Mason suggests in his chapter on silek, is also mirrored in the structure of the martial art:
“Some artists suggest that the interlocking patterns of the percussion instruments are a strong metaphor for the interlocking movements of the silek minang performers. The beauty of the art relies on the synchronous performance of essential footsteps by the two performers, which the percussion instruments symbolically replicate.“
In gandang sarunai, the symbolic relationship between this form of drumming and the martial art is made even more explicit when the drummers are accompanying silek: rather than sit head on, the drummers slant their bodies away from each other in a position the musicians call berlawanan. This mimics the positioning of bodies in silek, where it is common practice to never face one’s opponent directly so as to better protect oneself from attack.
With the drums at the center of the music’s form, the sarunai is almost an afterthought. The form, for one, is not really important: in the group that we recorded, the sarunai consisted of a thin bamboo body with four fingerholes, a wooden corong or bell, and a buzzing reed made from a strategically broken rice stalk plucked, still green, from the paddies. It’s not unthinkable, though, to sub this style of sarunai for a sarunai bambu, a version with a single idioglot bamboo reed and a buffalo horn bell. Even the music that the sarunai plays is fairly inconsequential: gandang sarunai songs are differentiated by the drum rhythms, while the sarunai plays a mostly unchanging, looping melody throughout. Still, the sarunai is important for the way it complements silek. In his article, Mason touches on a possible reason why sarunai and similar aerophones are often played to accompany silek: “The loud and buzzing sounds of a reed aerophone are a dynamic and logical match between combat displays and audience engagement,” he writes. “[…]The circular breathing used to play the woodwind instruments evokes a penetrating sonic representation of the unrelenting attention required by the silek minang practitioners during a fight.” The gandang sarunai musicians agreed: when in combat, one’s attention must be as unbroken as the sound of sarunai.
The primary role of silek in the world of gandang sarunai can also be seen in the music’s repertoire. Unique for music in this area, gandang sarunai has a very well-defined set of lagu pokok, or key pieces. Numbering twelve in total and almost always played in a back-to-back medley in the same order, the repertoire is opened by two pieces specifically for accompanying silek, “Gandang Solok,” and “Gandang Pado-Pado.” Both feature gandang rhythms that are thought of as being more consistent than the other more rhythmically diverse pieces, thus allowing for a steadier groove to match the intense focus of the silek practitioners. While the fighters may not time their movements to the rhythms of the drums, the reverse is often true: with certain drum flourishes, the peningkah part is timed to match certain movements in a choreographed fight display.
The drummers are able to anticipate such movements because, quite often, they are silek practitioners themselves. As the musicians explained to me that night, silek and gandang sarunai are sejiwa: of one spirit. In the past, silek practice was highly entwined with gandang sarunai. As Pak Yasrial explained, he and others learned gandang concurrently with silek in the local surau, a kind of Islamic prayer room-cum-male social space unique to the Minangkabau. Both disciplines, Pak Yasrial went on, require close and intimate study with a guru to master. Silek gurus are famously picky, requiring their pupils to enact a series of rituals or persyaratan to be accepted as a student. The same is true for those wishing to learn gandang: a hopeful pupil must present his gandang teacher with a chicken to be slaughtered and a set of black and white cloths. At each practice session, the pupil must bring gifts for his teacher, cigarettes and snacks. After the complete repertoire of twelve pieces has been learned, the pupil must then gift his teacher once more with more cloth: if not, the pieces will vanish instantly from his memory.
While gandang sarunai clearly shares a special link with the world of silek, it is not exclusively of that world, just as talempong can accompany a silek fight just as well as it does a wedding procession. Of the ten other gandang sarunai pieces (Gandang Duo, Sikapiciak, Duo Iliu, Sikudidi, Sikudidi Mandi, Barabah di Ateh Paki, Kumpai Anyui, Tajak Guya, Siamang Tagagau, and Cancang Mudiak Aiu), only one, “Gandang Sikapiciak”, is tied to a specific performance context, often being played to accompany tari piriang (the famous “plate dance” where dancers skillfully move about while balancing porcelain plates in their hands.)
The other pieces in the gandang sarunai canon are a beautiful illustration of the Minangkabau concept of alam takambang jadi guru, or “nature as teacher.” Just as the first creators of silek harimau were said to create the style’s deadly moves by observing a tiger’s movements, the rhythms and song titles of gandang sarunai are largely taken from nature. Take “Gandang Siamang Tagagau,” or “Surprised Gibbon”: Pak Yasrial explained that the gandang rhythms in that piece are inspired by a frightened siamang gibbon jumping from the trees to the ground and back again. “Gandang Barabah di Ateh Paki” or “Barabah Bird Above the Ferns,” illustrates a yellow-vented bulbul hopping from fern to fern, the plants swinging and swaying under its weight.
Such titles are not only a window into the poetic mind of the Minangkabau but also a peek into a rich cultural landscape that is now in a state of flux. Gandang sarunai was once a key ingredient in the ceremonies that hold Minangkabau ritual life together, from baralek, the Minang wedding ritual, to rituals like mengangkat datuak, wherein a respected village male is given a gelar adat or ritual title to befit his position in the complex hierarchies of Minangkabau adat or customs. While people are still getting married and honorific titles are still a thing, events are just as likely to have a synthesizer-filled pop Minang band filling the space, and the importance of adat has shifted with a modernizing populace and ever-changing systems of government. Even silek, once part of the package at these events, has changed: with few people interested in the esoteric version of silek that was paired with gandang sarunai, the music has had to divorce from this long-standing association.
These days, gandang sarunai is most often performed as a demonstration of “local arts” at government functions, or when asked to perform for music students at West Sumatra’s art university, ISI Padang Panjang, where gandang sarunai has entered the curriculum. The music has even begun to change with the times, as people find the combination of just gandang and sarunai to be monotonous. Now, the band often performs with three musicians playing handheld talempong paciek gong chimes, a lively sound that is also more pan-West Sumatran (the talempong melodies being played aren’t even from around the Solok area, but from Lintau, hundreds of kilometers away.) The irony is that with the talempong chiming away, the once-primary gandang take the backseat, reduced to mere accompaniment.
However shaky the future of gandang sarunai (or gandang sarunai as it once was), the music filled Pak Yasrial’s living room that night with a vital energy. Pak Yasrial himself filled in the simpler dasar role as his older brother, Pak Sarifuddin, whipped out a complex rhythmic counterpoint, buffalo horns against deer skin providing a resonant bassy boom. The older brother was functionally deaf, I was told, but could play the gandang with masterful control nonetheless. The key, I was told, was raso, a kind of feeling or intuition which is central to silek as well. Pak Sarifuddin, I was also told, had studied the dasar parts with his father, but was only revealed the complexities of the peningkah part in dreams, long after his father had died. He then passed these parts onto his younger brother, who in turn is looking for his own disciple to keep the tradition alive.
Pak Yasrial insists with a laugh that these days, studying ganrang should be more accessible: no chicken sacrifice necessary, just the will to learn.