Location: Susulaku A, Insana Regency, North Central Timor
Sound: Bonet nitu
It may have been the material charm of oddly-shaped bijol guitars and ocarinas that drew me first to Timor, but in the end it was the island's a capella vocal music that stole my heart. While the island boasts some real instrumental treasures, its most thriving musical traditions are vocal, with choral music that is like little else in the rest of Indonesia. The music is highly varied even just on the Indonesian side of the island, with fascinating examples of musical features - vocal polyphony, odd time signatures - that are really something special in Indonesia. Sung by men, women, or both together, and often structured in a kind of call-and-response style, vocal music in Timor can accompany life-rite ceremonies (from births to marriage to funerals) as well as ritual functions related to the harvest cycle so central to Timorese people's agricultural way of life.
Bonet nitu is, like the inkulturasi style ratapan shared earlier, a fascinating example of a traditional Dawan vocal style being recontextualized in a modern Catholic setting. Bonet is the name of both a circle dance and the sung poetry that accompanies it - it can be performed for anything from harvest rituals to ceremonies welcoming guests. The sung lyrics often offer advice to the listeners, as well as little bits of local history.
This particular style of Bonet nitu, however, is specifically danced and sung for funerals - nitu means "spirit" in the Dawan language, so the dance is literally "Bonet for spirits." Compared to other bonet forms, this style is understandably more mournful, with lyrics sung in the local form of pantun, or rhyming couplets, called kleat.
The bonet nitu sung here, though, is from a funeral of an entirely different sort: the song and dance is performed as part of a ritual commemorating Good Friday, the Catholic day of mourning and recognition of the death of Jesus Christ. Thus, just as in the ratapan that precedes it, the bonet nitu is a lament re-contextualized, a somber tribute to the life and death of the community's savior. As far as I know, though, the bonet has not been modified and mingled with Western church music as the ratapan has: it is simply a case of traditional vocal music (likely tracing back to the pre-Christian era in Timor) serving a new purpose, shifting to meet the needs and beliefs of the community.
We had only just begun the procession out of the church when we heard the sound of voices from outside, voices in many ways very unlike those that had filled the church for the past half hour. I was in the midst of a reenactment of the Good Friday ritual performed yearly in Insana - the ritual centered around the ratapan, an "inculturation song" blending traditional Dawan funeral laments and Western Catholic church music. The community leader had arranged the ritual reenactment for us, only briefly mentioning that after the ratapan would come another ritual song and dance called bonet.
I was expecting a quick breather after the ratapan before launching into a whole other performance, but the bonet group launched into their song midway through the finale of the ratapan: we were still carrying the coffin (symbolizing the tomb of Jesus Christ) to the chapel, the gorgeous sound of the harmonious ratapan filling the church, when the bonet voices broke through the air. At first I thought it was a mistake: had the women jumped the gun, mistaking our exit for a cue to begin immediately? The sound of the bonet nitu, raw and sharp, clashed strangely with the more subdued and smoothed-out tones of the ratapan, creating an odd momentary mash-up.
After the ratapan procession ended in the chapel to the side of the church, the peratap (lamenters), decked out in their finest tenun and habits, sat outside the church and watched the bonet proceed. The bonet singers were mostly older women sporting hand-woven scarves, gorgeous headdresses made from silver and old coins, and smiles red from betel nut. They had thrown off their sandals and linked arms in a circle outside the church door. The women shuffled in an imperceptably slow revolution, some reading the kleat couplets from papers in their hands, some carrying small woven bamboo fans.
The energy was electric, the soundscape vibrant: the metallic headgear tinkled crisply as the women slowly revolved, bare feet pounding on the earth. The audience, friends and neighbors, watched from the shade of a nearby lopo, chatting and laughing with amusement, some spontaneously joining the circle, still decked out in their habits. Acting almost like Timor-style hypemen, two men orbited the the circle, howling emotionally - were they merely responding to the song or creating a tune of their own? Their voices would rip through the church's courtyard, filling in the spaces between verses, adding to the constantly shifting tapestry of sound.
Later that night, Dr. Yampolsky (an American ethnomusicologist who had joined me to check out the ratapan) and I tried to record another set of the bidu songs - we had just finished a wonderfully polished version of the ratapan inside the church and were keen to get a clear recording of the bonet - I'd been so taken off guard by the bonet in the earlier ritual that I hadn't been able to get a very decent mic placement to capture the whole thing. It was a strange session, though - we politely asked that the audience, still sitting in the church-side lopo, to refrain from talking during the performance, even making sure that all cell phones were muted or turned off. This kind of sound policing, though, seemed to put a damper on the spirit of the piece, especially as it seems that the aforementioned "hypemen" took that as a cue to keep quiet.
The resulting performance was notably different from the "live" performance earlier - tidier, sure, but lacking the vibrant spirit of the afternoon set. When Yampolsky remarked on the difference to the singers, they replied "Oh, what you heard before was the bonet dance. This isn't dance!" Suddenly, another crucial difference became clear: we had requested that the women present the song sans dance, as the slow shifting of the voices would be problematic in the recording. I had foolishly thought that the subtle barefoot stomping and ever-so-slow rotation was secondary to the performance, when in reality it seemed to be at the heart of the song. The spirit of the bonet was embodied in those movements, the subtle pulse expressed through the dancers' measured footsteps. It was a lesson to me that in attempting to divorce a music from its performance context in order to get the clearest recording, the soul of a piece may be lost. And while I love the clarity of a well-recorded session, nothing beats the spontaneous jouissance of music lived, embodied, and performed as close as possible to its original context.
Huge thanks again to my friend and collaborator Greg Ruben, who directed, shot, and edited the Bonet video which is shared here and from which most of the pictures in this post were taken. Thanks again to Philip Yampolsky for orchestrating the recording session and sharing his expertise with me - his album of vocal music from Biboki in Timor is indispensable, and as far as I know the only vocal-focused album of music from Timor released internationally. Again terima kasih banyak to the best fixer and friend I could ask for, Denny Neonnub, and Bai Barnabas for arranging everything else for us. And of course to the women and men singers who made this performance so electric: Elisabeth Nesi, Wilhelmina Kau, Rosalina Taeki, Tuliana Eli, Theresia Nesi, Theresia Sau, Theresia Sni, Maria Eli, Monika Eli, Blandina Suni, Rufina Nesi, Yosef Safe, and Yosef Tasnin.