Location: Boni, Insana District, North Central Timor
Sound: Feku solilo (also called feku, feko or feko ana)
There’s something that I love about the way humans can turn something dull and pragmatic into an opportunity for expression, from utility to creation. You can find this kind of thing all around the world, sure, but it is delightfully common in Indonesia, from rice threshing-turned-percussion jams to musical jingles played on cotton candy containers.
Maybe my favorite example of this is the humble feku, a wooden flute that I encountered all over Timor. It seems to be an essential part of any rural Timorese’s everyday carry: just as we might always bring along our keys and smartphone, nearly every Timorese man always keeps their feku close at hand (I never heard of women playing them, but I can’t categorically say they don’t.)
The first time I saw and heard one was in the remote village of Babotin in the rugged mountains that rise from Timor’s south coast. I was there documenting the jew’s harp called knobe (more on that soon!) and saw that the musician, Yoseph, had a large feku tied to his field machete with a piece of chain. He explained that he used it to call his cows, and demonstrated some simple, bird-call like whistles on it. The instrument was handcrafted by the man himself, a figure of a snake carved along its length. I was smitten.
Only as I continued across Timor did I start to realize that the feku was everywhere. Nearly every man in the bidu band in Miomafo carried one, sometimes wearing it around their neck like a necklace (and, as I wrote in that post, they even used it as a straw to drink palm wine!). As we rode in the back of a pickup after that session, the musicians’ dogs followed happily behind along the dirt road. Ocassionally they’d be distracted by some neighbor dogs, only to be called back to the truck with a short, high-pitched whistle. Every dog knows the sound of their owner’s feku, they explained - each one had a slightly different pitch.
While it’s easy to call the feku a whistle, its actually in the class of musical instruments called ocarinas. An ocarina is what organologists call a vessel flute - that is, rather than a typical straight cylinder as found in most flutes, the interior of an ocarina is curved, even egg-shaped. This interior carving is not possible with the bamboo usually used for flutes in Indonesia, so the feku is carefully carved from kayu merah, a kind of redwood. Timorese count each hole, even the top and bottom, when talking about feku, and so an instrument with a small hole in the front and back of the feku is said to have four holes - this seems to be the most common. Just as with most ocarinas, every hole is fingered (apart from the one used for blowing), including the bottom hole, which is covered with the index finger.
I soon found that from these four holes (following the Timorese logic), remarkable sounds can be summoned, pure and piercing. The instrument is hard to sound at all for a newbie - all that may emerge is a single, shrill tone. But in the hands of a skilled musician (and, it seems, nearly all men in Timor are skilled musicians!), the feku becomes remarkably expressive. As a melodic instrument in bidu bands or as a solo instrument played idly in the fields, the feku blooms from utility to pure expression. Bluesy slides and bird-like warbles sing out from the tiny instrument with subtle adjustments of the fingers and the lips.
Yearning to have one of my own and figure out those slides and warbles for myself, I asked one of the men in Miomafo if I could buy a feku off of him. He seemed confused by the notion. If I gave you mine, he suggested, how would I call my dog? If I used another, the dog wouldn’t recognize me!
I had been so seduced by its sweet sound that I had forgotten that the feku was, for these men, first and foremost a tool, something useful that just so happens to sing. I couldn’t help but admire that, how this remarkably expressive vessel is so tied into the every day life of rural Timorese as to be almost invisible, like a house key. It reminds me that the Indonesian word for musical instrument, alat musik, literally translates to “music tool” (the word “instrument”, of course, also has similar connotations, but less explicitly.) The feku, then, is a multi-tool, isn’t it? A tool, you could say, with soul.
Remember Pak Barnabus? He was the grinning fiddler in Boni’s bidu band, a man who loves to smile and show off the English he learned in seminary (“God bless you”, he’d say.) In addition to being a competent fiddler and a brilliant composer, Pak Barnabas was also the first person to show me the true potential of the feku.
We were sitting in front of Pak Barnabas’ house beneath his zinc-roofed lopo, the ubiquitous wall-less hangout hut found beside homes all around this part of Timor. As I showed him my collection of instruments (mostly mouth harps picked up in my travels), Pak Barnabas would one-up me, showering me with mouth harps, musical bows, and bamboo flutes. When I showed him the large feku I’d picked up in Babotin (the mouth harpist had generously unhooked it from his machete and given it to me, unasked!), he replied, “Oh, we’ve got those, too!” and asked a relative to fetch his from inside.
His was smaller, but with more holes (four, in the Timorese conception, as opposed to three for the large Babotin cow-caller.) Placing his fingers expertly over the holes, he explained that he’d use it while in the field to call his dog. Sure enough, as soon as he started playing, a dog tied up nearby started howling wistfully! Pak Barnabas would respond by finishing every song with a call to his dog: "Ey, Bis!"
As we were sitting by Boni’s sole noisy road, I asked if we could head somewhere quiet to record Pak Barnabas’s beautiful playing. Saying he knew just the spot, Pak Barnabas led us down the road and into some brush, tailed always by another older man he called his cousin - they would joke and laugh in the Dawan language as we pushed through tall, leafy trees.
We emerged, much to our surprise, at a spot far beyond our expectations. The trees gave way to grass, shorn short by goats and cows but looking like a country club lawn. After a short way, the grass gave way and plunged down into a forested river valley, affording gorgeous panoramic views of the springtime greenery that erupted all around us. Pak Barnabas looked around us proudly. “This is where I bring my cows to pasture,” he said with a smile.
We sat in the grass at the cliff’s edge, a cool wind whipping up from below. Luckily Greg, ever the planner, had brought a great fuzzy wind screen, a tool which I’d never thought to use with my recorder. Pak Barnabas led the session like a seasoned master, introducing the music with nostalgic explanations of how he used to play, way back when, sitting idly as his cows ate their fill. However, rather than a recreation of an extinct cultural context, as I so often encounter in Indonesia, Pak Barnabas' songs were an image of an era not yet past. The feku, I’m happy to say, sings on through the hills of Timor, piercing the wind with its warbling soul.
Great thanks again to Denny Neonnub for being the best fixer and friend I could ask for, and terima kasih banyak Pak Barnabas, Pak Lukas, dan Pak Yoseph untuk main dan berbagi kesenian ini sama saya. Terima kasih juga Pak Barnabas untuk kasih feku dia :)