Location: Lebong Rejang, Bengkulu, Sumatra
Sound: Krilu (also spelled kerilu)
I felt bad for Bengkulu. A sleepy province stuck in an obscure corner of Sumatra, it attracts few visitors and has little to brag about except a famously huge, smelly flower called Rafflesia. Take a drive around the area, though, and you’ll find that it’s full of a surprising amount of cultural diversity, with a handful of obscure but proud Melayu ethnic groups (those with linguistic cultural ties to the main Melayu ethnic group of Malaysia) scattered throughout. Many of these ethnic groups, like the Kaurs and Besemah of the south, share a similar musical culture, with kulintang gong chimes and gitar tunggal guitar music spread rather evenly and homogeneously throughout the region.
Head into the province’s cool highlands, in the area locals call Lebong, and you’ll find what some consider one of the oldest ethnic groups in Sumatra - the Rejang. While Rejang musical culture features the same kulintang and gitar tunggal found elsewhere around the provinces of South Sumatra, its got a secret up its sleeve: a humble little bamboo flute called krilu.
Bamboo flutes are a hallmark of Indonesian traditional music - I’ve found and recorded them in various forms in Sulawesi, Lombok, and West Java, and dozens of other ethnic groups have their own version. Measuring around 29 cm (a little less than a foot) in length, the krilu is half the size of other flutes like those linked above. Its shortness limits its range but gives it a sweet, high sound - three holes in the front and one on the back allow the musician to play a pentatonic scale spanning a few octaves through skilled manipulation of fingering and breath. The krilu is in a class of instruments called ring flutes, named after the rattan ring tied around its top which guides the player’s breath into the instrument through a small hole. Interestingly, while most bamboo flutes are closed at the top with the natural node of the bamboo plant, the krilu, perhaps because of its length, has no natural covering at its top. Instead, a cork-like piece of the sago palm is traditionally used to plug the top, although these days some man-made foam serves the same purpose.
I rarely hear origin stories about the instruments I meet in Indonesia. Usually musicians just tell me that an instrument has been around “since long ago,” and that it simply comes “from the ancestors,” so I was pleasantly surprised when, upon asking the krilu musician in this recording about its origins, I was treated to a weird little origin story:
The creator of the first krilu, it is said, was a man named Patai Juangin. I got the sense that this was a real guy in the not-incredibly-distant past, as the musician explained that the remains of his house could still be seen by folks in his village back in the day. One day, Patai Juangin was bathing in a nearby river when he saw a piece of bamboo floating alongside him, upon which was perched a bird. As he walked upstream, the bamboo mysteriously followed him, bird and all. Three times this happened, so he snatched the bamboo from the water and, taking inspiration from older flutes fashioned out of rice stalks, made the first krilu.
The krilu made quite a splash, it seemed. As village ladies took their dishes to wash in the river, Patai Juangin would sit outside his house and play his flute for them. The women would stop in their tracks, dropping their dishes to the ground, entranced by the sound. Patai Juangin’s father was not happy with this situation (maybe he just wanted clean dishes?), so he broke his instrument in two and cast him out of the village. Poor Patai never came back, but his instrument lived on in Lebong, much to his father’s chagrin!
Pak Haludin was my favourite kind of folk musician, as proud as he was friendly. I arrived at his house in Lebong at the suggestion of a local artist who had told me, with the familiar sad shake of his head, that he was one of the last of his kind, a Rejang man clinging to a shrinking tradition. His house was in a beautiful valley, at the end of a small dirt path winding through fields of vegetables. Outside was a neat garden, while inside shiny gongs sat in a corner: kulintang ordered from Java, he told me, nine million rupiah a piece!
Pak Haludin sat me down in his guest room and took turns switching from dreamy suggestions that I bring krilu music to America to sly boasts about his appearances on national television and music festivals. He would disappear into a dark corner of his house and return with musical instruments: first, the shiny, expensive gong from Java; next, a large, resonant frame drum; after that, a hundred-year-old sdem flute which even his parents had never seen played. It was my favorite kind of show-and-tell.
After finding me suitably impressed, Pak Haludin sat before my recorder and launched into a medley of short tunes. They were largely indistinguishable from each other (even Pak Haludin admitted this) and, through the magic of circular breathing, seemed to flow from one epic breath.
The tunes were as follows:
“Bekedeu” (“Calling”) - tells the story of birds calling out through the forest in search of a mate.
“Kijang Mertas Tuang” - A group of deer goes looking for food, leaving one of their friends behind. This lone deer tries to find his group by singing this song, going up and down the mountains looking for his buds.
“Mdula” - “This story is too long for me to tell,” Pak Haludin explained. “It would take up four cassettes, front and back.”
“Mnggendo” - A greeting song played for royalty in the days of kingdoms past.