Location: Bangkinang, Riau Province, Sumatra
Sound: Calempong oguong (also called Oguong calempong)
Riau is not a province that most Indonesians (or anybody, really) would associate with the arts. Say “Riau” and most folks think of Pekanbaru, the province’s charmless, steamy, and oil-rich capital, or maybe the vast tracts of palm oil plantations that stretch homogeneously across the marshy lowlands of the place, set ablaze each year and annoying nearby Singapore and Malaysia with smoggy clouds that waft for thousands of miles.
Few folks realize that in the inland area called Kampar, far from Singapore and oil (but not immune to palm plantations), a rich musical culture has long thrived. The people in Kampar are ethnically Malay, or Melayu as they say in Indonesia, and thus have cultural and linguistic ties to the main ethnic group of Malaysia and a handful of other provinces across Central and South Sumatra. But their proximity to the rich cultural plenty of the Minangkabau heartland in West Sumatra has had such an influence over the centuries that Kampar people think of the Minang as cultural brethren.
Kampar looks and feels like a very different place from much of West Sumatra, with uniformly flat, river-filled jungle and palm plantations replacing the dramatic Bukit Barisan mountains to the west. Their musical traditions, however, have much more in common.
The prime example is the calempong oguong ensemble, its main instrument only one letter off from the Minangkabau talempong I’ve written about before (and even there in West Sumatra, people sometimes use that old spelling.) And from an instrumental standpoint, talempong and calempong are indeed nearly identical: in West Sumatra, the talempong Unggan (played quite near to the border with Kampar and said by Unggan locals to originate from there) typically features five small gong-chimes, sometimes six - in Kampar there are almost always six. Both traditions are anchored by two double-headed drums (the Kampar variety, called katepak, is a little bit stouter, and musicians often sit on the drums while playing!). However, In the Minangkabau tradition, at least in Unggan where I recorded, only one gong is used to anchor the rhythm and divide rhythmic cycles, while in Kampar two oguong gongs, conceptualized as male and female (as in Mandailing), are used.
Just looking at the instruments isn’t very helpful, though. Take a listen to the two traditions, talempong and calempong, and you’ll hear a world of difference, at least for gong nerds like me who immediately hone in on such things. For one, in Kampar, you can’t play the calempong by yourself - it's an instrument designed for duets, with the gong-chimes shifted around on their ropes for each song so that each melody can be shared between the two musicians. As you may remember from my article on the wooden variation of the calempong, one musician plays a repeating phrase or series of phrases called the tingka - it functions as a kind of signature for the song, and it’s played on just two of the gong-chimes, either on the far left or right of the row. The neat thing to watch and listen for in calempong music is how the main melodic line interacts with the tingka - watch in the video how the two musicians sometimes share one gong but each moves out of the way just in time so as to avoid a mid-song sword fight with the sticks. The tempos, too, are not as intense as the talempong found in West Sumatra - the melodies have more room to breathe, with a subtlety to the dynamics that I find refreshing.
Another neat little detail is that the tunes are linked to vocal melodies - in I was happy to find the calempong oguong tradition still quite healthy in modern day Kampar - as you can see, many of the musicians I recorded in this session are young, and it seems that the lack of taboo on who can play the music (in contrast with areas like Unggan in West Sumatra, where only women play) has broadened the potential for a future generation of calempong players in Kampar. Nowadays calempong is even being taught in modern, mainstream-Melayu Pekanbaru, where young folks are just beginning to realize that there’s a rich musical tradition in the forgotten interior of Riau.
There was a neat continuity to my travels in Sumatra on this trip - after finishing up my recording in West Sumatra with the delightful gong ladies of Silantai, I immediately got a seat in a shared taxi (called, confusingly, travel in much of Indonesia) and made the long descent from the Barisan mountains into the sweaty flatlands of Riau, where another gong tradition awaited me.
Taufiq’s dad picked me up near the city center in Bangkinang, an unremarkable provincial town whose greatest point of pride was the new KFC. Taufiq only showed up at his house later, having come from Pekanbaru - he was a music teacher there, but Kampar born and bred. I’d met him through Facebook, where I’d seen that he had singlehandedly revived the mouth harp tradition in Kampar (that’s a story for another day!) and had to get in touch.
I could see how Taufiq was a natural teacher - I was immediately at ease with him and his family, and his goofy, always-smiling demeanor made for an odd contrast with his seriousness about his heritage and musical traditions, not to mention his confident musicianship on the calempong.
Sitting in his living room with a set of calempong, Taufiq and his family schooled me on the history of the area - his dad was a history nut (a teacher as well, it turned out) who had what you could call a Kamparcentric ideology. For example, I showed him my collection of mouth harps, knowing that he was familiar with the Kampar variety, and his remark was “Oh, you can see Kampar’s influence has spread across Indonesia - our instrument can be found everywhere!” He also expounded on fascinating but questionable tales that figured Kampar as the site of the lost city of Atlantis, with the nearby ancient Hindu temple of Muara Takus as the crux of the whole theory.
It was in this atmosphere of local pride that the musicians played for me the next day, assembling their instruments, big gongs and all, on the porch of the family home. The leader of the group was Pak Salman, a man who Taufiq and family seemed to revere as a legend - if there’s anything you want to know about culture in Kampar, they told me, Pak Salman has the answer. Despite being middle aged, Pak Salman was brimming with a youthful energy. Taufiq mentioned that while he saw the elder Salman as a role model, he had studied with him for so long that they’d become best friends, and I could see how all the time with local youth had rubbed off: half the time I was with him, he wore a baseball cap with the words “SORRY I’M FRESH” on the front.
Pak Salman and Taufiq invited some local students of theirs to round out the ensemble. The group of enthusiastic, fresh-faced and talented young musicians was refreshing after a week in West Sumatra recording almost exclusively with old people. The kids showed a cool confidence when they played, and I asked them after the recording sesh whether they found calempong as cool as I did. One of the young drummers mentioned that other kids in his school were surprised that he wanted to play this music - it was distinctly uncool in their eyes.
Don’t listen to them, I said. You guys are playing music that’s in your blood, and you’re doing it with style. That’s cool as hell.
I later saw he had posted a picture of me playing calempong on his Instagram, and to my greater surprise he had quoted me in a white text overlay: “Mempelajari musik tradisi buat saya itu gaul.” "Studying traditional music - to me, that’s cool!”
Thanks a million to Taufiq and family for their hospitality and friendship, and to Pak Salman for being so fresh and keeping calempong cool for the next generation.
Musician credits: Salman Aziz, Syawir Rahmi, Sabri, Ayu Lestari, Muhammad Rafi, Taufiq Pratama