Location: Ds. Antirogo, Kab. Jember, East Java
Sound: Glundhangan (also called galundang, ghalundhang, and ghelundang in Madura)
Jember is a land of pigeon fanciers. Drive through the cool highlands in this part of East Java and you’ll see adorable little bird houses called pajhudun looking like a scale model of a chicken coop thrust into the air on top of a ten meter pole. Its a bizarre sight, like a treehouse for pigeons or some feathery stylite’s sanctuary.
Keeping, racing, and breeding pigeons is a surprisingly widespread hobby (my brother, who lives in Kazakhstan, has even documented the pigeon scene in his hood), but in Indonesia I’ve never seen such a full-fledged subculture as in Jember. Pigeon racing (merpati balap) is a popular hobby in Java - I routinely pass kids on motorbikes with huge wooden cages packed with pigeons on the back. But in Jember, it's almost a lifestyle. Pigeons are raised not just for racing but for the beauty of the birds themselves, with different varieties like the irridescent jawa sungut and pure white melati filling the pajhudun which line the country roads. Fanciers outfit their birds with whistles called sawangan which fill the air with sound as flocks fly through the air.
The most fervent pigeon fanciers of Jember are the Madurese, immigrants from the island of Madura off Java’s northeast coast. Madurese outnumber the Javanese in many villages of Jember, and their culture of pigeon fancying thrives in these Little Maduras scattered about the countryside. In communities like this, folks often only speak Madurese, and Madurese men get together in informal pigeon fan clubs called arisan to hang out, let their birds out to fly, and, of course, to play glundhangan.
At their weekly arisan meeting, the Madurese pigeon fanciers of Jember gather together and play glundhangan to call their other pigeon loving friends. The music is humble and homespun, like a village gamelan played on all wooden instruments. A set of xylophones, glundhang, sit squatly in box resonators on the ground. Featuring seven notes each in the slendro scale, the glundhang usually make up a set (pangkon) of four instruments, with two larger versions called babuk and two smaller ones called peking. These are typically joined by the large log drum (the ancestor of those used in musik patrol) called dungdung (made from the trunk of a kind of hibiscus tree), plus a large single-headed barrel drum called jidur.
Together this unique assortment of instruments makes up a kind of wooden gamelan, the gong and metallophone-filled percussion ensemble so ubiquitous in Java. With no gong present, the bassy tone of the cow skin jidur takes over that punctuating role, with the dynamic, polyrhythmic leadership of the kendang drum taken over by the two resonant tones of the dungdung. The peking, named after the high-pitched melodic metallophones often found in gamelan, play the dominant melody, usually playing each note twice to make up for the dry sound of the xylophone. The babuk, meanwhile, play looser, more rhythmically varied takes on these melodies, fulfilling a role something like the gambang xylophone in a typical Javanese or Madurese gamelan. Sometimes a singer (ngecung in Madurese) will join, but not always. The songs, with titles in Madurese like “Giru" ("Opener") and “Naong Dajah,” are ostensibly taken from the gamelan repertoire, but I don’t know enough about Madurese gamelan to say how they transfer over.
How did this distinctive music get tied to the hobby of pigeon fancying? The late, great composer and ethnomusicologist Jack Body found and recorded a similar ensemble, galundang, in Madura proper (the recordings were released on the now out-of-print album, Music of Madura). In an essay in the gamelan periodical Balungan, Body reminisced on his discovery of this peculiar music, speculating that maybe the soft sound of the wood spooked the precious birds less than the rather harsh clang of a metal gamelan. It may just be that wood was more plentiful than bamboo, another common instrument material, and surely cheaper than bronze. Regardless, it's really unique, with the only other similar kind of wooden ensemble I can think of being the gamelan gambang of Bali.
Unlike other rare, hyperlocal musics found in Java, glundhangan seems to still get played quite a bit, even if its only by an older generation of pigeon lovers. The men I recorded meet and play every week for their arisan meeting, also sometimes performing for events like hajatan and Independence Day celebrations. In the past, the musicians said, the music was also played to accompany ludruk, a kind of village theater once popular in East Java.
The music is still very much tied to the pigeon world, and thus fills an interesting role in this niche ecology, this unique and tender relationship between man and pigeon. The men I met explained that their most joyful moments are when, after releasing their flock to freely roam the skies, the pigeon gang returns to roost more plentiful than before, having picked up a wild bird, or maybe even someone else’s pigeon. This is a moment of great pride, they said with a smile, like taking in a new member of the family. To celebrate, the men play glundhangan to herald the new arrivals.
Logan and I had headed to Jember just to hear musik patrol, and as far as I knew, that was about as special as it got in Jember. However, on arrival, our new friend Iral had asked me if I’d heard of glundhangan. It was a wooden gamelan played by pigeon hobbyists, he’d explained. I thought he was messing with me until I looked it up and found Jack Body’s recordings from Madura and a few mentions by French ethnomusicologist Helene Bouvier (nothing in Jaap Kunst’s Music in Java, which is surprising considering how comprehensive his 1930’s surveys were.) Driven by my love of obscurity and a long fascination with odd hobbies, I knew I had to hear the music for myself.
On our last night in Jember, we drove through the dark, storm-wet countryside eventually weaving our way on motorbike to the village of Antirogo. It was pitch black, and we later learned that the power had been out for an hour already, not an unusual occurrence in these parts. Standing in the dark of his doorway was Pak Samsul, the leader of the glundhangan gang. Samsul, tall and dark and with a heavy brow, was in his evening wear, a plaid sarong and a knit cap covering his bald head. He spoke no Indonesian, my friends explained, as everyone in the village speaks Madurese.
We sat in the dark of his living room, an oil-lamp on the table bathing us all in a faint, flickering light. My friends, local Jemberites, talked to Pak Samsul in Madurese as he sat, smoking, in a chair made from rubber tires. There was some bad news: he was afraid we wouldn’t be able to record tonight, as when it's mati lampu (power outage), folks are lazy or even afraid to leave their homes, even once the power comes back.
We were lucky, though. After a few minutes of waiting in the dark, the lights flashed back on and Pak Samsul went to hail his pigeon pals. They came back carrying xylophones, the glundhang painted partly in whimsical blue, each note numbered with a painted digit to guide the musicians. The men worked together to move a small bed (was this actually the bedroom?), and the huge dungdung slit drum was moved in its place. There still wasn’t enough space, though, so in a funny kind of arrangement, Pak Marsudi ended up squeezing in one doorway with the babuk while Pak Ida squatted in the front door with his jidur.
When the men began to play, I was frankly underwhelmed. The dry sound of the wood and the rigid, metronomic flow of the peking’s melody had none of the intensity or dynamism of the musik patrol we’d heard the night before. However, I had to remind myself, this isn’t music for pumping up festival crowds or waking up neighbors in the wee hours - it's simple music played by non-professionals, bird lovers who dabble in music. What’s important, I guess, is that the birds seem to like it. Maybe they’re the real audience, in the end, boogying to the wooden rhythms way up there in their pigeon fortresses, kings for the day.
The glundhangan gang are: Jidur - Pak Ida, Babuk 1 - Pak Marsudi, Babuk 2 - Pak Khoiriyah, Peking 1 - Pak Supriyadi, Peking 2 - Pak Samsul, Dungdung - Pak Tikno. Huge thanks to these amazing pigeon guys and their fascinating music, as well as to Ari, Mas Bro, and friends for hooking it all up for us!