Location: Ds. Padang Ngoge and Ds. Padang, Selayar Island, South Sulawesi
[This post is a kind of sequel: to get more in-depth info on this music, you should read the initial post here.]
Explore the archives of Aural Archipelago and you’ll find not only dozens of musics, bundles of instruments odd and beautiful, but also people. Hundreds of them, by now: guitar-playing farmers in Timor, dirty possessed punks in Bandung, a giggling shaman in Kalimantan. I try, when I can, to build a relationship with the beautiful people who share their music so generously with us here, and to share the human side of this music with the world. This is something that has so often been absent in “ethnographic” recordings from the past century: anonymous singers and musicians, names with no faces, faces with no names.
While humanity always shines through in music, it’s easier said than done to share this human element in writing. My meetings with musicians are often awkwardly brief: hoping not to take too much time out of a person’s day, I often rush through our sessions. We swing in out of each other’s lives too fast to make a deep connection, to get beyond the noting of names and into the personal histories, the myriad personalities that lurk just beyond reach.
I wanted to return to batti’-batti’, and to the people behind it, because they returned to me. I first met these musicians in Selayar, a quick and dirty recordings session in a government building, government sponsors watching from the sidelines, adding an awkward, formal vibe to the meeting. But the meeting had been also been a promise: I’m going to invite you to Europe, to play for Europalia, an international arts festival on the other side of the world in Belgium. They didn’t know me at all, but they put their trust in me, said yes, “dengan senang hati” - with a happy heart.
And so, nearly a year later, I found myself travelling across the world with five near-strangers, soon to be friends. There was Ata Ratu, the queen of jungga from East Sumba: a painfully shy, tough as nails stoic who made my heart swell every time I got a rare, unguarded laugh out of her. There was Thambun, aka Thambunesia, the larger than life sape’ maestro from the heart of Kalimantan who proved to be the bravest of the bunch: wandering the streets of Brussels on his own, recording every moment with his smartphone on the end of a selfie stick.
And then there was the batti’-batti’ trio we came to call Turikale. A trio of humans who stole my heart in that whirlwind week in Belgium, whose kindness called me back to their island a year later.
The clown of the bunch was Sapriadi, aka Om Sapri. The singer in a style where improvised witticisms are an artist’s bread and butter, Om Sapri was constantly putting his teasing powers on display, whether goofing on the stoic Ata Ratu until she cracked a betel nut-red smile or cracking bawdy jokes about his two wives back home in Selayar. With every joke, Sapri would explode in a wheezing laugh, slapping his knee, tobacco-stained teeth flashing in a wide grin. I had my turn to tease when I would catch Om Sapri shivering in the frosty cold of that Belgian winter, pulling his wool hat over his ears and puffing his smuggled kretek clove cigarettes outside venues while cursing European smoking laws.
The baby of the bunch was Aryantho aka Antho, the twenty-two year old gambus prodigy, a lanky kid with a whispy moustache that made him look like a high school freshman. In our time in Europe, Antho was shy and deferrent, an attitude towards older strangers whipped into young Indonesians from an early age. It was only after a week of pulling him through the culture shock, freezing weather, and foreign flavors of Europe did I see Antho begin to open up. I found out he was from a musical family: his dad was also a batti’-batti’ gambus player and artisan. Antho had just begin studying with his pops the tricks of making Selayar’s famous electric guitar-shaped gambus. He was a good kid: not only did he plan to give all of his earnings from the tour to his parents to save for his future wedding, but he’d left school early to support his family. When I visited him later in Selayar, he proudly showed me pictures of the bulldozer he’d been operating at a nearby construction site. Once shy, on meeting again he was giddy, personable, nostalgically flipping through photos of our trip on his phone: standing on top of a castle in Ghent, posing with me, thumbs up, in front of our Brussels hotel. “I’ll never forget our time there,” he said to me whistfully, on our reunion in Selayar. “I remember every moment. I never wanted to leave.”
Most magnetic, though, was Selayar’s most renowned batti’-batti’ diva, Diana. When we first met at our recording session last year, I’d been both bewitched and intimidated: she’d arrived clutching a bootleg designer purse and black high-heeled boots, style one doesn’t often see in the rural corners of Indonesia. She’d been shy then, too, but her voice had blown my mind: sharp as a knife, negotiating melismatic turns of melody with confidence. In our time together in Belgium, the shyness faded and I found her utterly charming. Despite having just met, she took in Ata Ratu, the only other woman of the crew, like a proud and protective daughter, leading her by gloved hand through the unfamiliar streets of Belgium. I also came to learn more about her: her dimpled babyface betrayed the fact that she had a teenaged daughter with an estranged husband. She had been singing since her early teens: first in the wild world of dangdut and Indonesian pop, only later, in her mid teens, being brought into the traditional, hyperlocal world of batti’-batti’. She’d already proved herself a skilled singer, but she was soon found to be a natural with batti’-batti’s improvised verse, fully formed kelong poetics spilling out of her mouth without hesitation. Even now, she rarely remembered what she’d just sung: it was as if she were possessed, the words coming then disappearing once more from her mind a minute later. Audiences in Selayar ate it up, though: her beauty and quick wit made her a star in Selayar before she’d turned seventeen.
This past July, I returned to Selayar with my wife, Sina, after an epic trip to all corners of Sulawesi. I wanted to see my batti’-batti’ friends again, to record them once more (the first session last year had resulted in recordings I couldn’t ultimately use), and to spend more time with these fantastic people in their element, far from the bewildering cold and incomprehensible languages of Belgium.
As soon as Diana knew we were coming to Selayar, she offered to take us in. I’d played the odd role of host on our tour (despite the country being just as foreign to me), shuttling them around, translating, guiding the gang through sound checks and unfamiliar foods. On arriving in Selayar, Diana returned the favor tenfold: she put us up in her family’s home in the green interior hills of the island, a colorful house in a small village with more goats than people. The whole village gathered in her house that weekend in preparation for her younger brother’s Selayar-style marriage proposal ceremony. My wife and I hung out, flies on the wall, as women baked pili nut-filled cakes in crude ovens on the wooden floor of the kitchen and men played dominoes in the living room late into the night.
The next day, we went into town to call up Antho and Om Sapri, eager to arrange a recording session. In a brilliant stroke of fate, we ran into them at a busy intersection, both dudes meeting us on big, manly motorcycles and sporting even bigger grins. “We were looking for you!” they explained as we pulled over: we’d been in a cell phone signal black hole back in the kampung, so they’d struck out to find us, knowing we were in Selayar somewhere.
Om Sapri led us to his village in the south of the island, a stretch of wooden, stilted houses amidst nutmeg and pili nut trees. Om Sapri’s house was a work of art: a climb up the ladder-like front steps deposited us on a balcony painted pastel colors in the local style, a bright face to match Om Sapri’s constant grin. He introduced us to his wife and showed us his proud mementos: lo-res cellphone pictures of Om Sapri and gang posing around Belgium, blown up and laminated at a nearby print shop.
We were on the balcony, eating fresh young coconut mixed with palm sugar, when Diana arrived. There was a fourth member too, a young nephew named Sono who would double the gambus power of the group. The balcony proved to be an ideal recording spot: high off the ground, we avoided both the blurting of passing motorbikes and the whoosh of a rising wind which set the nutmeg trees swaying.
In our time in Belgium and in the past few days with Diana, I’d learned a lot more about batti’-batti’, too. When I’d first recorded them, they’d played one epic song, around twenty minutes of back and forth poetic battling between Om Sapri and Diana. When asked to play one more short selection, they’d repeated the piece, or the same melody anyway. I’d assumed, at that time, that meant batti’-batti’ had a simple one-piece repertoire, not unheard of in Indonesian traditional music (remember ganrang Konjo and its single tune.) But when practicing in a chilly green room at a venue in Ghent, I’d suddenly heard them playing a totally different song! I soon learned that batti’-batti’ has one core “song,” a piece that they call, logically, “Batti’-Batti’.” But the musicians also have a handful of other pieces in their tool belt, some with flashier melodies clearly cribbed from dangdut pop music.
I also learned more about the nature of those improvised back-and-forth verses: in my initial post, I’d typified them as “musical flirtations,” but in hindsight, that’s not quite right. The singing duo in any batti’-batti’ group are a kind of roleplaying couple, with the verses a dramatized lovers’ quarrel. “Days turn to days, months turn to years,” Diana sings in one set (seen in the video above), her words formed effortlessly in old-school poetic bahasa Indonesia, “Oh my dear, when will your promises end?” Om Sapri responds not with an answer but with an offer to elope: “If you agree, wait for me in Bulukumba…if you’re faithful, let’s go to Ujung Pandang.”
After our front porch recording sesh, Om Sapri made an announcement: they’d all be playing a show that night, providing late night entertainment for a kid’s circumcision party in a nearby village called Padang. I was ecstatic: finally, a chance to see batti’-batti’ as it's usually performed, not for an audience of two, but for a whole village, gambus’ strumming and verses trading over a crude sound-system late into the night!
We met again in Padang that night. It was a cool evening, and a seasonal force locals call “the south wind” was flapping blue tarps raised up high above a clearing, corners anchored to the tall stilted houses that bounded the makeshift performance space. After Diana sat in briefly on the tail end of a dangdut set, the band set up. The musicians sat around a long coffee table loaded with snacks and kopi, a mandatory bit of set dressing which gave the scene a casual, “jamming around the kitchen table” kind of vibe.
Joining our core quartet were two new faces: Diana’s long-term partner, another young diva named Anti, and Om Sapri’s understudy, a young rebana-slapping singer named Wawan. It was a pleasant surprise: I’d taken Diana and Antho to be the only young faces of the batti’-batti’ scene. It was actually Wawan and Anti who started the set as neighbors continued to gather: Wawan looked cool with a pop star’s head-mounted mic, while Anti was equal parts fierce and demure, her hair lightly covered by a beautiful silky shawl which slipped lower and lower as the night wore on.
The band seemed to work the crowd in two ways: the older folks delighted most in the clever verse, spooled out in formal Indonesian and poetic Selayarese that the younger crowd likely found as hard to understand as I did. The younger ones in the audience, including the just-circumcised kid holding a loosely wrapped sarong over his freshly cut bits, seemed to delight more in the atraksi, the showy tricks that Antho and Sono brought to their gambus playing, swinging their instruments through the air in Hendrix-like flourishes.
As the night wore on, the crowd thinned to the die-hards, a small gang of older men who cheered and cracked jokes from around the table and from up on nearby balconies. I struggled to hang on myself as the set rounded past midnight and the musicians cycled through a small set of core melodies, freshened by Selayarese lyrics but remaining painfully inscrutable to my ears. Eventually, Sinta passed out on a nearby neighbor’s living room floor, and around two in the morning, I followed suit. The band played, as promised, until subuh, the morning prayer around four in the morning.
Sinta and I left for “mainland” Sulawesi later that morning, saying our goodbyes to Om Sapri, Antho, and Diana in the dark of the early morning, our bags full of Selayarese snacks and a giant bag of pili nuts we’d bought in bulk. I was exhausted but happy, batti’-batti’ melodies and memories of my friends looping in my mind as the ferry lumbered back to Bira. I’d gotten closer to the music, getting a beautiful peek at the life of batti'-batti' in its natural habitat. But, more importantly, I’d gotten closer to the people behind this music, the beautiful humans behind the sounds, ethnographic informants turned friends.