[Tracks recorded by Palmer Keen, mixed and mastered by Joseph Lamont]
Location: Anajiaka Village, Anakalang District, Central Sumba
Add another tube zither to the list! Along with my beloved mouth harps, Indonesia’s vast spread of tube zithers is one of my prime instrumental obsessions. Each instrument is more or less the same - a bamboo cylinder with raised strings carved from its skin around the circumference (organologists call these idiochords). It’s the differences in the permutations, though, that fascinates me, and how they are used to fit different musical needs: The Sundanese celempung and Javanese gumbeng are two or three-string styles beaten like a drum at the end, often played by children; the Karo ketteng-ketteng has a similar form but plays a more serious role in a larger ritual ensemble; the Minangkabau talempong botuang’s five strings allows for melodic play, perfect for playing the interlocking melodic rhythms of talempong gong chime music.
And now we have the Sumbanese gogah. Just as the Kodi-style dungga lute is played in Southwest Sumba to replicate local gong rhythms, the gogah’s five bamboo skin strings do their best to take the melodic sounds of Central Sumbanese gong rhythms and pare them down to a handheld format. Unlike the other instruments mentioned above which are usually beaten with a stick, the gogah’s strings are plucked - one string with the thumb, the others with a bamboo pick or palu todu (to allow for this, the gogah’s strings are thinner than the other tube zithers I mentioned). These plucked bamboo zithers seem to be a specialty of the East Nusa Tenggara province - similar plucked instruments are also found in nearby Flores.
To play the gogah, the musician grips the instrument by a large hole carved in its middle (aba or “mouth”), pressing the cylinder’s end against his stomach. With his free hand he plucks the strings in the wonderfully off-kilter rhythms of local gong music. In order from top to bottom (but not high to low tonally, as the notes are deliberately out of order to make certain melodies easier to play), the strings replicate the gongs kaboka, pahelung, pahimang, gaha, and katutuk. To make these strings sound even gong-ier, the whole instrument is split down the middle, a feature which somehow makes the tones waver like a shimmering gong (the bamboo talempong from West Sumatra was also split, and now I realize why!)
With these features and some clever tuning, the gogah is capable of replicating any song from the vast reportoire of gong music, from processional songs (Tadingan), dance tunes for men (Tadu Katagang) and women (Kabukang), and even a whole slew of funeral pieces (Tau Todu, Tabung, Todu Negu.) The gogah is traditionally something of a children’s toy, an easily-made instrument played by young buffalo herders whiling away the time in the fields. It’s interesting to me that these powerful, sacred gong pieces are seen as appropriate material to be played in such casual circumstances. Either these songs only gain their power when played on gongs and for the right ritual occasions, or perhaps these sacred vibes are allowed to enter even the most quotidian moments in Sumbanese life, those lazy days in the fields with mudbathing buffalo.
Stumbling upon the gogah was one of those special YouTube surprises. I was trawling the site for Sumbanese music videos when I chanced upon a video called “Gogah Anakalang - Bamboo Music from Central Sumba.” The clip had been uploaded by Dave Bartels, an American music student who had ridden his bike across Sumba searching out music along the way (he’d even met and recorded the legendary Ata Ratu!) Even though his account had been dormant for years, I took a chance and reached out. Months later, I got a reply! Dave was no longer in America, but he was happy to help. Soon enough he'd sent me the numbers of his friends in Anakalang, miraculously saved in his old Indonesian cell phone.
Months later my friends Jo, Logan and I were in the bizarre little town of Waikabubak in Central Sumba. The whole place had a creepy vibe, with an old man who wandered between the town’s three hotels offering full body massages to the handful of tourists and a “downtown” consisting of nothing but dusty Chinese-owned general stores selling plastic flowers and animatronic sax-playing Santas (how or why these things end up in the remote corners of Indonesia remain a mystery to me.) The place was weird, and we wanted out.
Luckily the district of Anakalang was less than an hour out of town. A popular destination for the small trickle of culture-loving tourists who find themselves in this corner of Indonesia, Anakalang is a cluster of villages famous for its megalithic tombs. The drive out there was beautiful, a winding road twisting through freshly harvested rice fields and scatterings of umba mbatangu, Sumba's famous houses with roofs like a witch's hat.
After many wrong turns and queries with confused but helpful locals, we found ourselves at the house of Yopi and Fin. Fin was a pendeta (priestess) in the local Protestant church, and it was Yopi who had made Dave's gogah. Just as we arrived, a gang of perfectly made-up women were streaming in and out the front door, all lace blouses and flowing dresses. Tonight, they told us, there was going to be a Christmas-themed choir competition at the church. The whole village was going, we'd have to come! As they were busy telling us this, Yopi reached up and grabbed a gogah from the low-hanging roof of his house, where it had been drying in the sun. "I made it just yesterday", he told us, "when you said you were coming. It's still not quite 'cured.'"
Just as he was handing it to me, another neighbor came by and told us there was going to be a tarik batu ceremony in the village next door, complete with gongs! Tarik batu, literally "pull stone", is an ancient practice where dozens or even hundreds of villagers get together and pull a huge megalithic stone across miles until resting it on a new tomb. While the choir competition sounded fun, I was excited at the opportunity to finally hear some ritual gong music. A neighbor offered to show us the way to the other village and soon we were off again, promising to our new friends that we'd be back later for Christmas songs and gogah.
The neighboring village of Galubua Pasunga was a beautiful complex of those witch's hat houses, the roofs covered in zinc rather than grass. A curious group of women welcomed us in, pushing the customary betel nut offering towards us with juicy red-toothed smiles. Looking frustrated, they told us that there'd been a hitch in the stone-pulling. Rather than pull the stone by hand for miles, the neighbors had elected to stick the giant megalith in a truck bed and drive it most of the way. As soon as they'd gotten going the truck had promptly sunk into some mud and had now been stuck for hours.
We hung out for a while anyway as the ladies spoiled us with freshly grilled pork and betelnut and kids ran about banging on the waiting gongs and drums. I chatted with some saronged old men with mouths full of betelnut, trying to get a sense of what the gong music would be like. Pointing at each gong on the porch, they listed each one's name: mamaulu, pahimang, pahelong, kaboka (I'd later learn that even just one village over these names were different!) Oh, and the drum? "That's laba" they told me. With a black-toothed smile, one of the men pointed above our heads. "In the attic, we've got a drum made from human skin!"
After waiting more than an hour, it became clear that the stone wasn't going to be coming any time soon, and no stone meant no music. We'd promised not to miss the choir competition, so we thanked everybody for the pork and betelnut and headed back to Anajiaka. The event was already in full swing, the crowd spilling out the door. A choir of men in ill-fitting suit jackets stood at the front of the steaming hall singing Indonesian language Christmas carols as family's in their Sunday best sat in the pews fanning themselves with the printed programs.
We'd only been in Anakalang for a few hours and already we'd stumbled upon two seemingly disparate worlds, one of megaliths and human skin drums, the other of lace blouses and Christmas songs. It'd be a mistake to see these as separate realms though, as if one village was traditional, the other modern, one Marapu or animist, the other Christian. In Sumba, these all came together in overlapping layers. Tonight everyone was singing about baby Jesus in the church, but when it came time to pull a megalith across the town and play some ancient gong rhythms, they'd be ready for that too.
By that time I almost forgot we'd come to hear gogah. After taking a thousand selfies outside the church with seemingly every member of the congregation, we trekked back to Yopi's house to record. I thought Yopi would play, but it was actually Umbu Rupa, a family member, who was the real pro. Dressed casually in a baseball cap and t-shirt, Umbu Rupa helped us set up with some plastic deck chairs in front of a neighbor's house. The conditions weren't great - the space was lit by the faintest of bare bulbs, and motorbikes and trucks zoomed by every minute on the nearby road. Lacking an alternative, we went ahead anyway, with Umbu Rupa stopping between short pieces to explain the context - that one was for a war dance, this one is for funerals. He knew dozens of gong rhythms, he told me - everybody his age does. If you can play the gongs, you can play the gogah, simple as that. He went on reminiscing about playing gogah in the fields as a child, figuring out those seven-beat rhythms with bamboo in hand.
We went back to the strange streets of Waikabubak soon after, but Anakalang stuck in my thoughts even once we were comfortably back in our cheap hotel room. I wondered if, soon after we left, the stone had finally arrived in Galubua Pasunga and the gongs music had finally begun. Would the sound float across the valley and compete with the Christmas carols? Would they play the same songs that Umbu Rupa played in bamboo form? Maybe he'd sit on the porch and play along, sacred rhythms meeting in the air.
Huge thanks to Dave Bartels for hooking me up with his sweet friends Fin, Yopi, and Umbu Rupa - check his YouTube channel out for more really great Sumba videos! And of course terima kasih to Fin, Yopi, Umbu Rupa, and the sweet folks in Galubua Pasunga who fed us pork and regaled us with stories of human skin drums.