[^^^ Track titles forthcoming! Waiting on the info from friends in Semut Ireng]
Location: Pamekasan, Madura (East Java Province)
Sound: Daul (also called ul-daul and tongtong)
One of the loveliest times to be in Indonesia is during Ramadan, the holiest month of the Muslim calendar. Often called bulan puasa or “fasting month” in Indonesia, Ramadan is not only a kind of spiritual reset for Indonesia’s Muslims, but also an occasion for communal gathering. Friends and family gather each evening to buka bersama or break their day-long fast together, with informal vendors lining city streets pre-sunset to sell sweet fast-breaking snacks called tajil. The early morning is an equally important social moment: families gather before the early morning prayer, subuh, to eat a big, final meal before a day of hunger.
Accompanying this early morning Ramadan ritual is a whole genre of Indonesian arts I’ve called Ramadan Wake-Up Jams. Communities all across Muslim Indonesia play in informal neighborhood bands to wake up their neighbors for this pre-fasting meal: in West Java, folks play obrog-obrogan; in Lombok, tongkek; in East Java, styles get hyper-local, with special “musik patrol” varieties in Banyuwangi and Jember.
This tradition is huge in Madura, an island off the northeast coast of Java. The Madurese people who call the island (and large swaths of East Java) home are renowned for being devout Muslims, so it’s no surprise that the holy month is an especially festive time in these parts. Here, the local “wake-up jam” variant is called daul, a Madurized take on the name of that pre-fasting meal, sahur. The music has its roots in the eighties, when gangs of young people around Madura would patrol their neighborhoods in the early morning hours of Ramadan, banging on empty galon water bottles and gendhang drums, singing “uuur, sahur!, uuul, daul!” In East Madura, these impromptu bands would throw in bamboo slit drums or tongtong perreng, leading to the other popular name for this music, tongtong.
The modern daul trend was led by Semut Ireng, a troupe based in Pamekasan on Madura’s south-central coast. As Semut Ireng’s founder, Pak Hanan, explained to me, modern daul took its current shape in 1999, at the time of an electrical blackout that plagued the whole island. Playing music for sahur had fallen out of fashion since the eighties, but suddenly there was a need for communal noise-making: a plague of thefts were sweeping Madura as maling sapi or cattle thieves were taking advantage of the pitch black nights to make off with folks’ prized cows. Communities around Pamekasan started up nightly patrols, or siskamling, to protect their property. To make their presence known, they started playing music again, creating a new take on the music they’d once played during those early Ramadan mornings in the eighties.
Those early formats had been processional, with bands banging on anything they could carry or hang from their shoulders with a sarung. Pak Hanan claims to be the originator of the trend in daul bands towards massive, homemade percussion: when teaching in the countryside, he spotted a large, blue plastic barrel or bak. The bak, usually a place to store fish, was being used to collect rainwater in front of a neighbor’s house. In a lightbulb moment, Pak Hanan had the idea to flip the bak over, whacking the plastic barrel with a soft mallet for an awesome bass drum sound.
Modern daul bands always have a handful of these bak, now sometimes joined by large industrial drums with rubber stretched across the top (with the occasional addition of a cheap rubber flip flop glued to the top to absorb the beat of the mallet!) Semut Ireng also popularized the use of cheap, locally made saron (metallophones from the gamelan tradition) to carry a song’s melody. With the boom and clack of massive drums all around, there’s no room for subtlety with these saron, so gone is the traditional technique of playing with one hand and damping the note with the other. Instead, saron players double-fist it, making up for the dry sound of the cheap, iron instruments by banging out sixteenth-note flourishes on each tone of the melody.
While other bands have begun to popularize a new variety of daul called daul kombo which plays upbeat dangdut songs in a diatonic style with the addition of Western instruments like bass and keyboard, Pak Hanan prides Semut Ireng on maintaining a “traditional” flavor even in this modern, creative style. Local flavor is found in the addition of percussion like rebana, a frame drum often used in Islamic music like hadrah, traditionally handheld but here placed in a frame and played sharply with two sticks to lead the whole ensemble. Another key ingredient is the kentongan, a wooden slit drum made popular in Jember-style musik patrol but with roots in Madurese styles like okol. Finally, Pak Hanan is insistent on keeping the saron and group vocals pentatonis, or pentatonic, eschewing more popular diatonic pop styles for classic Madurese songs or lagu daerah with melodies in the common slendro scale.
Despite these elements borrowed from deep-rooted Madurese traditions, daul is firmly in the world of kreasi baru, literally “new creation,” an Indonesian term used to describe modern compositions and arrangements based on traditional music, often with a Western flair. Daul may not use any Western instruments, but its arrangements - full of instrumental breaks, group choruses, and drum solos, are clearly inspired by Western forms. Pak Hanan stresses the importance of these creative arrangements as a key aspect of what makes daul music fresh. Despite having no formal music education, Pak Hanan’s daul arrangements have a surprising sophistication, transforming traditional songs with tight, flowing structures.
Far from the cyclical structure of traditional Madurese music like okol and saronen, daul’s linear arrangements and structure seem to draw inspiration from the tradition of drumben (drum bands), percussion-heavy marching bands made popular by public school extracurricular programs. Some daul bands have even made these marching band roots even more clear with the addition of horn sections, trumpets and all.
I wish I could have seen daul played in its usual context: the music is most popularly played during festivals and parades during Ramadan and government-sponsored competitions. With the popularity of huge instruments like those bak barrels, bands can no longer carry all of their instruments like the old days. In recent years, bands load up their instruments onto huge, homemade floats called odong-odong. With dragon-like shapes inspired by Chinese-Indonesian barongsai costumes, the floats are amazingly decked-out creations overflowing with LED lights, built-in sound systems, and specialized racks designed to hold all the instruments.
Just like the other Ramadan Wake-Up Jams that I’ve explored in other posts, daul has stayed vibrant while other more old-school arts fall by the wayside. The music is consistently embraced by young people (almost all male) while other styles remain the realm of an older generation. I’ve mused on this before: maybe it’s the appeal of playing loud music in the middle of the night, or the sheer, primal pleasure of banging on things. It could also be the refreshing lack of rules: while more traditional styles get weighted down by restrictions, daul has a kind of “anything goes” aesthetic which keep things fresh and fluid, with new variations always around the corner. I’m looking forward to seeing how this music continues to change from this holy month to the next.
Trawling the internet for information on daul music, it didn’t take me long to realize that this whole modern tradition seemed to be orbiting around one legendary group, a sanggar or arts community called Semut Ireng (“black ant” in Madurese) in Pamekasan, one of Madura’s largest cities on the island’s southern coast. Seduced by videos of huge bands parading the streets in those brilliant odong-odong floats, I knew I’d have to go there one day to see this whole scene for myself.
That day finally came this past February. A compulsory trip to East Java to renew my passport at the American consulate in Surabaya became an excuse to spend a few weeks bumming around that corner of Indonesia. With Madura right across a narrow strait from that bustling city, I just couldn’t resist. Soon I was heading out on motorbike with some friends from Java, crossing the Suramadu bridge and zooming across the trans-Madura highway with Pamekasan in our sights.
I’d tried to reach out to Semut Ireng over social media without luck, so our method of tracking them down was a bit old school. We knew they were based in the neighborhood called Parteker, so we just headed there and started asking around. It soon became clear that wouldn’t be too hard: I pulled up to a woman surrounded by young kids and asked where we could find Semut Ireng, and as she pointed me in the right direction the kids around her started miming a daul band, giggling as they played air drums around my motorbike.
We pulled up to a house with a warung out front labeled “Angkringan Semut Ireng” or “Black Ant Cafe.” Welcoming us in were Pak Hanan, the founder of Semut Ireng, and his son Rizal. Both had a kind extroversion, bright eyes and wide smiles. We sat on the cushioned floor of their new cafe (“my old bedroom!” Rizal explained) and chatted about daul with Rizal as Pak Hanan set up a new widescreen TV so local kids could come and watch football matches. The whole history of daul was unspooled for us in that space, a history that, in their words, revolved in so many ways around their humble sanggar or music group.
The guys were too busy setting up their new cafe to arrange a performance, so we agreed to meet in a week after my trip to Kangean. True to their word, I pulled up to the same house-turned-cafe a week later and found they’d invited the whole gang to come play - twenty five kids in all. This was the third generation, Rizal explained, with kids as young as eight all the way up to twenty-somethings all jamming together.
We set up in their practice space, a narrow driveway between their new football-watching room and the house next door (poor neighbors, I thought!) A truck pulled up with a pile of percussion in the back, hawled over from a storage space across town. A gang of teenagers unloaded it all, arms straining as they assembled the makeshift orchestra of shrimp barrels and metallophones and gleaming slit drums.
The driveway made for a funny recording spot: with all of the instruments backed up against one side, I was able to just barely fit a tripod with my digital recorder in front of the array, its plastic legs just narrowly avoiding the gendhang player. When the band began to play, the proximity of it all was made all the more clear: daul is loud! I quickly shoved some earplugs in before the clatter of the saron and the earthshaking bass of those barrels ruined my hearing forever.
The band played nearly perfectly, with Pak Hanan giving pointers in between songs. The kids were so well-practiced as to have that casual bordering on bored look, but I was thoroughly enraptured, happy to be blasted with this special sound even without the flashing neon lights and dragon floats I’d hoped for. It may not have been Ramadan or right before dawn, but I could feel in this music what had captured the spirits of a whole new generation of Madurese kids: catchy rhythms, pummeled saron melodies, and the joy of embracing your local culture while having fun doing it.