Location: Ds. Gunturu, Kec. Herlang, Kab. Bulukumba, South Sulawesi
Sound: Ganrang Konjo
Where I live in Java, perhaps the most spiritually powerful instrument in music is the gong. Across the island, the beautiful bronze gongs that serve as the anchor of gamelan are revered and respected; some are given ritual baths every year, others are passed down from generation to generation for centuries.
Across the Java Sea in South Sulawesi, another instrument arguably reigns supreme: the drum. In his great book Calling Back the Spirit: Music, Dance, and Cultural Politics in Lowland South Sulawesi, American ethnomusicologist R. Anderson Sutton describes the importance of the ganrang drum to the Makassarese people of the lowlands of that province. Sutton explains that the ganrang “is considered to be the most sacred of all Makassarese musical instruments, comparable to bronze knobbed gongs in Java.” Sutton goes on to explain that the sacredness of Makassarese ganrang can be seen in everything from local origin stories, where people attribute the drum’s origins to “supernatural forces, not to foreign visitors,” to its importance in ritual (Sutton explains that “[e]ven local government ceremonies are opened by an official sounding a ganrang, not (as in Java and Bali) a gong.”)
Of all music in lowland South Sulawesi, it is Makassarese ganrang pakarena drumming and dance which has captured the world’s imagination with its huge drums, virtuosic musicianship, and slow motion dancing. In addition to Sutton’s work, which devotes a fascinating chapter to the music, recordings of Makassarese ganrang earned a spot in Philip Yampolsky’s regularly cited Music of Indonesia album series; it was the subject of a beautifully shot film by globetrotting cinema legend Vincent Moon; and international artists like Arrington de Dionyso have hunted down ganrang legends like Serang Dakko to collaborate.
Meanwhile, on the other side of this peninsula, another fascinating, spiritually potent drumming tradition has gone largely unnoticed: ganrang Konjo, or Konjo-style ganrang. Konjo is the name of both a language (or set of languages, with highland and coastal varieties) and a so-called sub-ethnic group of the Makassarese. The Konjo are often ignored in descriptions of South Sulawesi’s cultural landscape: the Makassarese have the historical prestige of once massively powerful kingdoms like Gowa and a famous geographical hub in the huge, historically important city of Makassar (once called Ujung Pandang); the Bugis, the other main ethnic group of these lowlands, are also renowned throughout Indonesia for their role as sailors and, at one time, fierce pirates (some folk etymologies even link the Bugis to the word bogeyman!); even the Kajang, a tiny subset of the Konjo famous for their strict, Amish-like adherence to tradition, are better known.
The Konjo’s home turf is in the southwest corner of South Sulawesi’s massive peninsula, mostly in the regency of Bulukumba. It is the Konjo who are mostly responsible for building the famously grand (and nail-free) wooden ships, phinisi, which the Bugis and Makassarese are famous for sailing as far as Papua and even Australia. And it is in the hands of this often overlooked group that one of the musical treasures of South Sulawesi was born, this musical style that’s come to be known simply as ganrang Konjo.
While the musical style has in some ways come to find a voice and cultural context of its own, Konjo-style ganrang is just one node in a vast network of drumming ritually connected with the martial arts. In South Sulawesi, this martial arts tradition is called manca’, while across Indonesia and the Malay world there are dozens of related styles, many called silat or variants (pencak silat, silek). Across Indonesia, from West Sumatra to Kalimantan, Sumbawa to the Kangean Islands, these martial arts are performed with and intrinsically linked to a set of musics which are remarkably consistent given their wide geographical coverage (I’ve made a map to explore this spectrum here). As men ritually spar, music is often provided by a core instrumentarium: two or three gongs, two small barrel drums playing interlocking rhythms, and often a double reed wind instrument providing an intense, wailing backdrop to the fights.
Manca’ martial arts are now incredibly rare in the Konjo world, so the music has in one way been divorced from that sphere. But the hallmarks are there in the music, both in the style’s instrumentation and its musical signatures. Let’s zero in on the drums first: just like the ganrang pamancak (drums for manca’) described by Sutton in his survey of South Sulawesi ganrang, Konjo-style ganrang are smaller than the huge, 80-100 centimeter barrel drums called ganrang pakarena and ganrang Mangkasarak. Unlike other drums in this wider family which are often shaped like oversized batteries, Konjo drums are what you could call “stout,” with one slightly shorter and fatter than the other.
Like other drums in this network of martial arts musics, the two ganrang of ganrang Konjo are an inseperable pair, often played with the instruments pushed up against each other and the musicians looking right at each other, a formation which helps them to perform this music's tight interlocking rhythms. I’d have to make a wider survey of these different drumming styles I keep mentioning, but what strikes me about ganrang Konjo is the way that one drum in particular is, I guess you could say, the show-off: it’s the longer, narrower drum called pangngana (on the right in the photo below.)
The Konjo speak of both drums, the pangngana and the pattahang, in similar terms. Both have a louder, more resonant head (ulunna) with a softer-sounding “butt” or pajana. Both are made from similar materials: sandalwood, teak, or jackfruit wood with goatskin heads. In a symbolic pairing, the pangngana’s heads are made from the skin of a female goat, while the pattahang’s are made from that of a male. The sound, and thus the function, are made different in other ways, though: the sound of the pangngana’s head is made sharp and tight by using thinner skin and pulling tight on the fishing-line strings which span the drum. The sharp, almost snare-like sound of the pangngana’s head contrasts sharply with the comparatively dull, bassy sound of the pattahang’s.
This all may sound pedantic, and well, sorry, it is. But it’s also a key to what makes this drumming special. Other drumming I’ve heard in South Sulawesi, like Makassarese and Bugis styles, feature the same interlocking parts, but the tuning of the drums is duller, with no other style featuring that shocking TAK TAK TAK of the pangngana’s head. We’ve only gotten started with what makes ganrang Konjo, special, though. Bare with me.
With most manca’ drumming styles, the drums are accompanied by a double reed wind instrument like pui’-pui’ or sarunai playing melodies while a set of two or three gongs play a driving ostinato (a repeating rhythmic figure) which remains unchanged throughout what can be hours of playing. In Bulukumba, though, the melody-bringing double reed has never been a feature, which maybe explains why some other instruments have stepped in to kick up the variety: the gongs. The gongs in ganrang Konjo are not just a glorified metronome; they are a funky rhythmic powerhouse with just as much variety as the pop and lock of the ganrang drums.
There are three gongs in a ganrang Konjo ensemble: the jong is the largest, a hanging gong which, okay, is metronome-like - a steady pulse amidst an ever-changing percussive texture. Of the two drums, it is the bassy, rock-steady pattahang which locks onto that reliable jong, letting the other instruments go wild with syncopation. The jong is played by one musician together with another large, handheld gong called taha’-taha’. Another musician, meanwhile, holds the smallest gong or katto’-katto’.
One of the things that makes ganrang Konjo music so fantastically dynamic is the interplay not just in between the two drums, but between the tight, improvised syncopations of the pangngana slipping in and around the taha’-taha’ and the katto-katto’ in a web of interlocking madness called sibali-bali. The rhythmic accents of the katto’-katto’ especially are almost like those of a good cowbell in Afro-Latin music, somethings sticking regularly to the offbeats, other times clicking out incredible variations deep in the pocket of the rhythm.
This conveniently leads us to the real trick of ganrang Konjo’s percussive excitement: the polyrhythms! Polyrhythms, or the simultaneous use of multiple rhythms, is far from unheard of in Indonesian music, where drums especially love to beat out mad triplets against the overwhelmingly common 4/4 meter. But ganrang Konjo always features a triple meter, something that is actually pretty rare across the archipelago (but, I’ve found, a standard feature of martial arts musics across the region.) Ganrang Konjo musicians play with this triple meter with delight, adding polyrhythms (four on top of that steady three, mostly) and triplets on top of triplets, all features that may sound esoteric for those of us who don’t understand music theory, but in layman’s terms in makes the music funky as hell.
Ganrang Konjo, I found out, wasn’t always this funky. The kind of rhythmic variations that musicians delight in today was unhead of in decades past, when a more consistent rhythmic emphasis made the music sound, I was told, both more “asli” (“traditional”, “original” or even “authentic”) but also monoton - monotonous. Starting in the mid-nineties, though, bands started experimenting with what they call kreasi pukulan, or rhythmic innovations. The dynamic funkiness of this newly style has allowed for the music’s continuing prevalence in Bulukumba: while other music has been left behind, ganrang Konjo is still popular, with musicians finding no shortage of work playing at events across the region.
While musicians have played with newly diverse and syncopated rhythms, even imitating dangdut pop music with their drums and gongs if asked, there’s one thing they haven’t messed with: the repertoire. And here’s an odd fact: Ganrang Konjo has really only one piece, or tunrung (literally “rhythm”), in its repertoire: “Tunrung Tallua.” Tallua is the Konjo word for three, which refers not to the meter but to the tunrung's three-part structure. Tunrung Tallua begins with an opening, or ngampa, where all instruments except the jong play, strangely, in perfect unison, all joining in a chorus that crescendos with the entrance of the jong. As soon as the jong jumps into the scene with its metronomic beat, the interlocking interplay immediately erupts but at a measured pace: this is part two, or tahang sere. After a few minutes of relishing this measured pace, the speed is ramped up for the third and final part, or tahang tallua. It is in tahang tallua where the musicians' virtuosity really shines, with whip-fast interlocking parts and shifting polyrhythms reaching a fever pitch.
The whole piece can last anywhere from five minutes to twenty; when it's over, the musicians take a break, maybe switch instruments, then launch into the same tunrung all over again. It’s the ultimate example of creative limitation, with one single rhythmic framework allowing for musicians to push the limits of that form, exploring every nook and cranny of the rhythmic space.
Of course, I’m coming at this music as if it's pure artistic expression, but ganrang Konjo, like any other music, doesn’t exist just to be funky: it plays a very specific role in Konjo society, a web of ever-changing contexts just as compelling as its musical contents. As I mentioned before, ganrang Konjo was once played to accompany manca’ martial arts performances, but it is also intrinsically tied in the Konjo imaginary with the ritual events it accompanies, from passunnakkang (circumcision) to akkalomba (the ritual sacrifice of an animal to mark a child’s birth.) It is most associated, though, with pabbuntingang or wedding ceremonies, where the music is believed to protect the bride and groom from malicious spirits who are otherwise likely to possess them.
It’s an important ritual role, so not just anybody can play ganrang Konjo. In Konjo society, there is a kind of caste system with three levels: karaeng, or those of noble lineage; puang, or those descended of both nobility and aristocracy; and ata, or slaves. While long gone are the days of kings and slaves in Sulawesi, caste remains important to this day, and this is manifested in the world of ganrang: ganrang musicians are usually from the puang class, and those who request ganrang at their ritual functions must be of the karaeng or puang class: those descended from slaves settle for more egalitarian musical accompaniment like dangdut or gambus.
With few cultural possessions that truly set them apart from the Makassarese to the West, the Konjo have seemingly settled on ganrang Konjo as a kind of symbol of their evolving ethnic identity. The name, in an odd way, is a testament to this: in the past, the music might have simply been called ganrang by locals, but nowadays Konjo is always stamped on as a point of pride. The Konjo may not get much credit for building those magnificent phinisi ships that sail throughout the Indonesians seas, but with the Konjo brand firmly stamped to this remarkable music, they are finally able to firmly attach themselves to something great.
[Amateur ganrang konjo footage courtesy YouTuber Andi Ikhwanto]
It took a lot of patience to find ganrang Konjo, but it was worth it. The journey began, as it so often does for me, on YouTube: switching out search terms in search of local specialties in far-flung corners of Sulawesi, I came upon a handful of videos that, frankly, blew my mind. They all featured the same, addictively funky groove, popping drums, ricocheting gong rhythms. One I soon deemed Best YouTube Video of All Time (shared above): it was a ganrang Konjo group playing casually in someone’s house; as the band played, the katto’-katto’ player folded his leg behind his head, propped himself up, and began hopping around the room on one foot like a mad, gong-playing flamingo, all the while beating out syncopated magic on his little gong.
With an upcoming trip to Sulawesi planned, I dropped a dozen comments in different ganrang Konjo videos, hoping at least one uploader would see my ganrang fever and lead me to the source. On this first trip, last year in 2017, I didn’t luck out: one lead turned up cold, while another led me far astray (someone suggested I go look in the heart of Bulukumba, to the Kajang enclave of Tana Toa, but their drumming was completely different! I did get to crash a Kajang wedding and hear some great kacapi music there, though, so not a total loss.)
Finally, in July 2018, I lucked out: I was at the tail end of an epic trip around Sulawesi with my wife (an odd hybrid honeymoon/research expedition), and I was hoping to stop by the island of Selayar in Sulawesi’s far south for a reunion with my old batti’-batti’ Europalia tourmates, Turikale. This, fortuitously, necessitated a pitstop in a tropical paradise: Bulukumba’s main tourist destination, the gorgeous white sand beaches of Bira.
It would have been a romantic couple of days lazing by the cerulean blue waters of Bira if I hadn’t been fixated on hunting drums in Bulukumba’s interior. Finally, I’d excitedly explained to my patient wife as she rolled her eyes, I had a hookup: a friendly guy had responded (in English, no less!) to one of my desperate YouTube pleas, and he had family who played ganrang in Herlang, a region up the coast! He’d dropped his phone number and I’d messaged him right away, setting up a trip to the village the next day.
My Bulukumba hero, Imin, pulled up to our place in Bira the next day, his car packed with friends who were eager to see what we were up to. We squeezed in and were soon off to Bulukumba, an hour’s drive up the coast, away from Bira’s white sands and into the country roads that snake through Bulukumba’s countryside. As we passed quaint hamlets of wooden stilt houses, I chatted with our new guide. Imin was a smiley guy with a puffy little goatee clinging to his chin; he was an English Literature grad from a university in Makassar, it turns out, which explains his confident English in our messages (if not in person, where he shyly defaulted to Indonesian!) I quizzed Imin on Konjo culture: Is Konjo just a language for you, or an identity? Are you Makassarese or something else? Imin was firm: Konjo isn’t just a language - it’s who we are.
After a bumpy detour down a final stretch of kampung roads, we’d made it. Waiting for us on the porch of Imin's family home was Pak Jafar, the ganrang maestro who’d come to be my source for information on all things ganrang Konjo. We were welcomed into a sitting room rimmed with floral-patterned green sofas. A huge tapestry hung on the wall depicting a pastoral Arabian scene, camels and sand dunes foregrounded by a scene of feasting bedouins. Pak Jafar sat below looking somewhat intimidating, serious eyes in between a knit black Muslim skullcap and a dark moustache.
We made small talk, with Imin explaining my quest for ganrang, but it didn’t seem very necessary: within minutes we were on the porch again, with the other musicians - Samaluddin, Tahir, and Tasman - appearing from inside the house with drums and gongs under their arms. The guys warmed up as I tried to find a good position for the instruments and mics: those YouTube videos were great, but massively distorted, so I was eager to get a good, balanced recording to add to the growing social media ganrang archive.
The band really had no need for a warm-up - they played instantly with a fierce tightness - but the multiple test runs as I set up the mics made for an interesting chance to compare their techniques with each go-round. Remember, the ganrang Konjo repertoire has just one piece, so the magic is in those improvisations, the kreasi pukulan in each run-through where the musicians show off their virtuosity with little tricks. One favorite seemed to feature a kind of psychic connection between Pak Tasman on the taha’-taha’ and Pak Jafar on the pangngana: after a kind of hidden drum cue, both would mute their instruments in unison for a split second, creating a delicious kind of hanging effect, as if time stopped for a split second before the rapturous web of percussion popped into life once more.
All it took was one good, final take, and we were done: the maghrib call to prayer was coming, and the sky was growing dark. Pak Jafar invited us inside again, and this time he’d warmed up, sitting by my side and explaining the inner workings of ganrang, all those juicy details I tried to impart in the beginning of this post. Pak Jafar plied us with Konjo-style snacks - coconut cream porridge steamed in banana leaves, fritters dipped in spicy, creamy sambal - and we dove into the world of ganrang until Imin started looking anxious - it was getting late, and we couldn’t stay forever. We circled the room, shaking hands and heaping on thank yous, and then we were off, back to the coast. I think I was tapping my feet all the way home, the infectious rhythms of ganrang still looping in my mind.
Special thanks to Imin and family for their incredible helpfulness and hospitality while we were in Bulukumba.
Terima kasha banyak Sanggar Seni Mallessorang: Mak Muhammad Jafar, Pak Samaluddin, Pak Tahir, dan Pak Tasman.