Location: Leboni, Poso, Central Sulawesi
Of the twenty albums released as part of Smithsonian Folkways' seminal album series Music of Indonesia (probably the inspiration for my ongoing musical quest), one album has stood out as a popular favorite: Indonesian Guitars. Forsaking the exotic gongs and lutes of other albums in the series, it shines a spotlight on the variety of ways this quintessentially western instrument has been appropriated to brilliant affect by Indonesian musicians, from Batang Hari Sembilan music of South Sumatra to the kroncong-esque Sayang Sayang of Mandar, West Sulawesi. I still remember listening to this album on repeat before my move to Indonesia, transfixed by the simultaneous accessibility and total foreignness of the music heard within.
Driven by a fascination by all things that slip between the cracks, I became obsessed with researching other indigenous guitar styles left off that album. One such genre immediately grabbed my attention: karambangan. While there is little information on the internet about the style (and literally, last time I checked, nothing in English), I found YouTube to be littered with gems like this, little windows into a part of Sulawesi where men fingerpick sweet melodies on guitars to haunting vocal harmonies. I had to go there and find it for myself.
"There", it turns out, was quite a trek away from my home in Java: Poso in Central Sulawesi, that floppy-limbed island that hugs the Philippines as much as it does Borneo. Poso is a name that all Indonesians know for all the wrong reasons: sectarian violence tore the region apart at the turn of the 21st century, with Christian and Muslim militias terrorizing each other for years with dire consequences. Hundreds of people were murdered, with the violence finally ceasing, for the most part, by 2005.
It's hard to imagine something as sweet as karambangan, with its humbly picked guitars and sweet harmonies, coming from a place haunted by such darkness. Perhaps its sweetness comes from simpler times, with its roots being traced back by its current practitioners to the early decades of the 20th century. It started simply enough, with locals picking up guitars brought by Portuguese traders and using them to woo girls with heartfelt love songs.
From there, the history (as usual, it seems) gets sticky - the chords and melodies are undoubtedly Western in origin, but from what direction it seems hard to prove. The Western tonality is probably Portuguese in origin, but whether that came straight from the traders in Central Sulawesi or from the Javanese-Portuguese hybrid kroncong music that swept the nation starting in the 20s and 30s is not entirely clear.
Similarly tangled is the origins of the karambangan's homemade ukeleles (the group I met in Leboni played two, one they called juk and one they called kulele, both of which were fretless, with the kulele being constructed ingenously out of the bottom of a tin can with a hand-carved wooden neck nailed to it's side!) While it's likely that these, too, were inspired by the nation's keroncong craze, it's also possible that they were inspired by the later Hawaiian music boom of the 60s and 70s.
In the 70s, three part harmonies, almost unheard of in most Indonesian music, came to dominate the sound, likely brought in from the hymns sung in the area's hundreds of churches (the Poso area is Christian by a large majority.) Later developments include the adaption of local folk instruments like the geso-geso, a one-stringed bowed instrument played by the local Pamona people, and the seruling, a bamboo flute.
While it is this thick instrumental tapestry that first catches outsiders' ears, those who play and enjoy karambangan music in Central Sulawesi see this instrumentation as a plate on which to serve the main course, the kayori poetic verses which sometimes stretch the songs, three chords repeating cyclically, into the 10-minute territory. The topic, I was told, can be anything from love to faith to fate. For those of us who don't speak the local Pamona and Rampi languages, we're simply left to soak in the harmonies.
(This video was shot by myself and my good friend Greg Ruben, who skillfully edited it with some footage of the surrounding area.)
In one of my long, late night treks through YouTube in search of musical gold, I came upon this video of a karambangan group sitting around a table playing and singing their hearts out. As soon as I saw it I knew I had to meet them, and after dropping a YouTube comment and getting an enthusiastic reply, I had been invited to do just that. The uploader of the video got me in touch with the group and told me that they were making plans for our arrival (I was travelling with my friend, Greg, who was visiting from the states) - all we had to do was choose where we wanted to stay - in the village or next to the waterfall? It wasn't a hard choice.
After a drive from Palu to Poso made tense by news of a recent presence of ISIS in the mountains nearby, Greg and I arrived safe in sound in Leboni, a small, scrappy village stuck to the edge of the massive Lake Poso. After we met our new hosts, we were sped on motorbikes to our new home for the next few days, a charming, stilted wooden house situated in a cacao farm within spitting distance of the area's famous Saluopo waterfall.
Leboni, our hosts told us, was made up almost entirely of transmigrants from a nearby regency, members of the tiny Rampi ethnic group who were nearly all literally one big family, cousins marrying cousins and all. The karambangan group, unsurprisingly, was itself a family band, with two generations of fathers, sons, uncles and nephews playing together.
After serving us up some hearty babi hutan (wild boar) and squash stew, the family almost immediately broke out their instruments and, settling along the porch that stretched the length of the house, broke out in song. Palm wine flowed and those three chords cycled endlessly into the night as my dreams of karambangan were finally realized.