Location: Citengah, Sumedang, West Java
As I've travelled around Indonesia for this project, I've arranged something of a speech upon meeting new musicians, delivered time and time again from Sumatra to Lombok, beginning with the declaration: "I'm looking for traditional music." But what is "traditional music" anyway? The phrase summons up images of dusty gamelan sets hauled out dutifully for longwinded ceremonies, of wrinkly old men playing songs and instruments unchanged for centuries, passed down from the ancestors. "Traditional music", it seems, with it's roots in the notion of "tradition," must be a product of days and ways past, inherited like a mystical kris by a reverent but passive new generation.
Is this true? Has it ever been true? Or is traditional music as ever-changing, fluid and evolving as everything else in this tumultuous world? I have to admit that I am easily seduced by stories of ancient traditions and musical forms passed down from exotic, unimaginable past eras. But I'm no Indiana Jones, and the traditional music found in Indonesia today is not some embalmed mummy in a dusty tomb - it is a living, breathing practice performed by creative citizens of the magical Present.
Songah music is, to me, a beautiful illustration of this notion, of the shapes that traditional music can take in 21st century West Java. The genre's name is an acronym crafted from "song," a reference to its primary instrument, here called song-song, and "ah" from Citengah, the small village in South Sumedang in which the music was born. The song-song, a bamboo tube that varies from one to two meters, was named by the musicians in Citengah after a traditional tool, similarly shaped, used to stoke the flames of a fire.
While the name is new and its accompanying ensemble is a recent permutation, the instrument has deep, fascinating roots. Jaap Kunst, the Dutch ethnomusicologist famous for coining the term "ethno-musicology," documented it in villages all around West and Central Java and Madura during his expeditions around the area in the 1920s and 30s, recording its name variously as bumbung, gumbang and go'ong awi (Sundanese for "bamboo gong.") Today the instrument can still be found in a shrinking handful of villages in these areas, although it has been embraced and spread by the growing movement of bands in Bandung that fuse Sundanese bamboo music and metal (that's a tale for another day!)
Despite looking and sounding remarkably like the world-renowned Aboriginal Australian didgeridoo, the song-song doesn't spit out endless throaty drones like its more famous cousin. Instead, it functions, as Kunst put it, as a "wind-gong." Gongs play an undeniably fundamental role in a huge amount of Indonesian music, rooting and dividing the cyclical rhythms so common to Java and elsewhere in the archipelago. Gongs, however, are big, expensive beasts, in the past largely relegated to the palaces of those who could afford them. That musical role of time division, however, was not exclusively tied to this pricey hunk of metal. At some point, some clever folks realized that the resonant, time-splitting boom of the unwieldy gong was easily replicated by a booming toot on a tube of ubiquitous bamboo, and so the "wind-gong" was born.
The songah ensemble of Citengah has taken the humble bamboo ingenuity of their ancestors and run with it in equally creative new directions. In addition to the standard suling, the typical Sundanese bamboo flute, they've added kokoprak, forked bamboo tubes that give a tonal buzz when smacked, and hatong, a tool traditionally used to make bird-calls for hunting, here used to trill out goofy rhythmic accents. Together with chanted and sung vocals, the songah ensemble takes the old and new, the repurposed and revived, and twists them into something wonderfully Sundanese, a genre which expands the very notion of "traditional."
At the forefront of this new tradition is a charming Sumedangite named Krisna Supriatna. I first heard songah music in an atypically professional YouTube video, titled "Musik Etnik Songah Sumedang," in which Kang Krisna and his songah crew pose in the misty greenery of Sumedang and jam out on their motley assortment of eccentric bamboo instruments. Upon watching the video, I was immediately seduced, dying to know more, and luckily it was Kang Krisna himself who had uploaded the video, complete with his cell phone number in the video description.
A few SMS's and a week later, I was rolling into Sumedang with Sinta, my partner and diligent liaison, in tow. We met Kang Krisna on a quiet road on the outskirts of the town (Sumedang, like hundreds of places in Indonesia, is both the name of an extensive rural area, equivalent to a county, and its largest town.) I was unsurprised to find him in full baju Sunda, an outfit made up of loose black pants and shirt and a batik iket, or headband, which has become a modern badge of Sundanese ethnic identity. He was all smiles, clearly pleased to hear my promises of sharing his music with the world. With the confident charisma of a TV host, Kang Krisna explained how he and others in the village of Citengah had molded this new tradition in 2013, with Krisna using his connections with a local TV station to get the word out. Within a year, they were playing for local government functions and leading songah workshops for Sumedang's youth.
Eager to let us hear and see for ourselves, Kang Krisna hopped on his motorbike and sped off into the mountains towards Citengah, leaving me struggling to keep up as we zoomed through the verdant countryside of Sumedang, all fertile rice paddies and sparkling rivers. We zipped through a small village, angled up a rocky path, and parked near a small waterfall, the foot of which was dotted with young couples and a simple warung selling coffee and instant noodles.
At the warung we met the songah crew, a friendly group of young musicians seemingly drawn in by Kang Krisna's charisma and the earthy fun of this reimagined bamboo sound. The least shy of the group led us up past the waterfall to some boulders amongst burbling rapids, explaining that they liked to play amongst the sounds and vibrations of the area's natural splendour. Songah, with its natural materials and its bird-calling hatongs, seemed at home in this natural habitat - one of the musicians even told of birds coming to join their performance at times, seduced by the buzzing song-song and the whistling hatongs, Despite knowing that the white-noise rumble of the water would muddy the recording, I couldn't help but feel this spot was a prime choice.
The crew expertly arranged themselves and their instruments in a photogenic tableau on the rocks and, after a quiet prayer amongst waterfall thrum, launched into song. The twin song-songs lent a bassy rhythmic foundation, just as they had in centuries past, while the suling weaved about the hoots and buzzes of the kokoprak and hatong. Over it all, Kang Krisna intoned in melodramatic Sundanese as if he were a dalang, the powerful puppeteer of the musical wayang golek puppet show.
As I listened, I was reminded of so many Indonesian genres the rely on clever imitation, like the guitar-as-kecapi of tarling or the cello-as-drum of keroncong. Here was a bamboo tube playing as a gong, and bird-song whistles hooting out the rhythm usually played by the ketuk in gamelan ensembles. And here, I was elated to find, was a genre that looked one way in mimicry while simultaneously looking forwards, towards a sound that seems like an oxymoron, a music that is newly traditional.