Location: Gong Pinto, Berastagi, North Sumatra
Sound: Gendang kulcapi (also called gendang telu sedalanen)
Of all the myriad varieties of musical ensemble that dot the Indonesian archipelago, few pull at me quite like the gendang kulcapi. Its percussive ingenuity and dry droney sounds are like nothing else in Sumatra, the ensemble's humble, compact nature belying the beautiful world of sound within.
This music comes from the Karo highlands of North Sumatra, a fertile plateau lying on the well-trafficked road between the regional capital of Medan and the famous Lake Toba. The Karo people who call this area home are often grouped in the family of ethnic groups called Batak, and Karo language and music indeed share many similarities with their cousins the Toba and Pakpak, amongst others. However, most Karo people distance themselves from the umbrella term, proudly setting themselves apart as a culturally distinct group. Like their neighbors the Toba, a majority of Karo are Christian, with an increasing minority of Karo (mostly those living farther away form the highlands) adopting Islam as well. However, unlike the Toba, who took relatively quickly to Christianity, the Karo clung to their traditional belief systems, now called Pemena, well into the 20th century, with mass conversion to Christianity only coming about in the years following the Indonesian Genocide, when fears of getting lumped in with atheist communists became widespread across the country.
Traditionally, gendang kulcapi was played as a crucial element of rituals rooted in this traditional belief system. Most importantly, the music is tied to the still-practiced ritual of erpangir ku lau, a ceremony enacted, generally speaking, to bring good fortune. This ritual can be enacted in contexts as wide as a harvest thanksgiving to the ritual opening of a hair salon (as described by R. Anderson Sutton in the Indonesia chapter of World of Music: An Introduction to the Music of the World’s Peoples). In the modern era, gendang kulcapi can increasingly be found as a secularized performative art form as well, a compact and potent symbol of the unique Karo ethnic identity.
The word “telu” in this ensemble music’s alternate name, gendang telu sedalanen, means “three” in the Karo language, in reference to the ensemble’s three main instruments. The first element in the trifecta is the kulcapi, a small but expressive long-necked lute with two strings, one for melody, one for that insistent drone. The lute has brothers in the Toba area (hasapi) and elsewhere in North Sumatra, but the dark, filigreed melodies played on the kulcapi give it a sound that truly sets it apart.
The percussive ingenuity comes in the form of the keteng-keteng, a tube zither which you may recognize as a cousin of other similar instruments like the Minang talempong botuang or the Sundanese celempung. Just as with those other instruments, mimesis is at play here, with bamboo playing dress-up as drums and gongs. The keteng-keteng has two strings carved out of the skin of the bamboo itself and pulled taut off of the cylinder with simple bridges. Beaten with two thin bamboo sticks, the dry sound of the first string mimics the small, insistent sound of the tiny gendang singindungi, the set of torpedo-shaped drums played in the larger gendang Karo (also called gendang lima) ensemble. Just as on the Sundanese celempung, the second string is outfitted with a small bamboo disk, under which lies a hole - when beaten, the disk sends strong vibrations into the instrument’s body, and with this musical alchemy a thin string of bamboo is given the bassy boom of a gong.
The third element in this musical trifecta is an unlikely instrument - a simple white porcelain bowl, here called mangkuk. Also beaten with a bamboo stick, the tonal clink of the bowl mimics a smaller gong, and its metronomic repetition roots the rhythm and melody just as a gong would. The mangkuk is not just a tool of convenience, like the Bintang beer bottle sometimes played in Toba gondang ensembles - its use as a vessel for offerings in the erpangir ritual means that this small bowl is full to the brim with resonant spiritual meaning as well.
While I can mingle with the bapak bapak (older guys) on my own just fine, I’m always happy when, on my various musical expeditions, a young member of a community can act not only as a cultural liaison but also as a fresh face for sometimes stuffily preserved art forms. I was happy, then, to hop off the bus in Berastagi and meet up with Ian Sintua, a young computer studies major-turned-Karo music lover who I’d linked up with through YouTube. His YouTube channel had attracted me with fresh takes on Karo music like “kulcapi feat beatbox” and Bryan Adams covers on kulcapi, but I’d asked him to help me see if the older generation were still performingthe more traditional gendang kulcapi music.
Just as soon as I was off the bus from Medan, I was clambering into the back of a friend’s pickup and zooming over dirt roads into the countryside of the Karo plateau. As we left the city, the very active (and deadly) volcano Sinabung loomed on the horizon, fresh flows of ash and soil streaking its sides, a ghostly grey cone rising out of the fertile farmland of the plateau.
Less than an hour outside of Berastagi, we stopped in Gong Pinto, a small village lying eerily close to the unstable foot of Mt. Sinabung. In a small living room behind a simple warung, we met with the musicians who called themselves Perkulcapi Gong Pinto.
The nearby warung was, like so many village warung, abuzz with life, from the sound of gorengan frying in a wok to the sounds of a small TV - it was a delightful soundscape in its own right, but it wouldn’t blend well with the potent sounds of the gendang kulcapi. Could we record somewhere else, I asked?
Swinging keteng-keteng over their shoulders, kulcapi and porcelain bowl in hand, the musicians led me on a quick tour of the village, location scouting. We ended up in the quiet solitude of a carrot field, the afternoon sun hovering over the slopes of Sinabung to the west. What a spot to record! An occasional whoosh of wind or buzzing fly was all that entered the beautiful fabric of sounds that they summoned from those humble instruments. It wasn’t the kind of place where such a group would usually play, but in that moment it was perfect, the proud sounds of Karo music ringing through the sublime landscape they call home.
Halfway through the session, Ian subbed in on kulcapi, demonstrating confidently that despite being self-taught and being more at home on YouTube than in the kampung, he was equally at home playing this music as the bapak bapak who joined him. As the songs reached a shreddy crescendo, I saw the previous kulcapi player look on with respect as Ian held his own. I, too, joined in this happy admiration, content to know that this music has a fresh young advocate to shepherd it into the 21st century.
Many thanks to the supremely helpful Ian Sintua and the bapak2, Perkulcapi Gong Pinto, for working so patiently and generously with me. For those interested in modern reconfigurations of Karo music, follow Ian on YouTube here.