This post is dedicated to the lives of Fernando Situngkir and Guntur Sitohang, two great men who I would have loved to meet.
Location: Sabungan Ni Huta, Situngkir Village, Samosir, North Sumatra
Sound: Gondang Sabangunan
The Batak Toba people of North Sumatra are famous in Indonesia for their musicality. As ethnomusicologist Julia Byl explains in her awesome “Antiphonal Histories: Resonant Pasts in the Toba Batak Musical Present,” music-making for the modern Batak Toba (also called simply “Batak” or “Toba” - I’ll stick to “Toba” from here) takes many forms, from acoustic guitar jams at local lopo tuak (palm wine stands) to singing in the choir at church, and from rocking the bass in a Toba pop band to playing the hasapi lute in the peppy gondang hasapi ensemble. Each of these musical moments can act as a window into the shifting identities and beliefs of a people with music in their veins.
The Toba are often simply called “Batak,” which isn’t wrong but may make for some confusion. Batak is actually a blanket term for a handful of related ethnic groups around North Sumatra, from the Karo people (whose gendang kulcapi you may remember) to the Mandailing people in the southwest of the province. The Toba are the most numerous and consequently the most well-known of these Batak groups. Their homeland is the area around the massive Lake Toba, a lake filling the caldera of a huge super-volcano that erupted tens of thousands of years ago.
Unlike most of the rest of Sumatra, Islam by and large never found a strong foothold in these highlands; the Toba people practiced their own animist religion whose modern form is called Malim. However, by the mid-nineteenth century, German missionaries began to convert the Toba to Protestantism. They were wildly successful: today the Toba are predominantly, often fiercely, Christian. While Christianity has become a major aspect of Toba identity (to the point that some say that “To be Toba is to be Christian"), many traditional beliefs, especially when tied to adat or customs, never went away.
If we are to talk about Toba music-making, probably the music most tied to adat is gondang sabangunan. At the heart of a gondang sabangunan ensemble are five tuned drums called taganing. These single-headed drums (each with its own name - tingting, paidua ni tingting, painonga, paidua odap, and odap-odap) are hung in a row and played melodically, a pretty neat musical feature found only rarely in Indonesia (you might recall the rebana reong of Lombok!) These melodic taganing are joined by two bass drums called gordang and odap, four gongs (oloan, ihutan, panggora and doal) played to mark and divide rhythmic cycles, and one or two sarune, a double-reed aerophone whose melody closely mirrors that played on the taganing drums (Byl theorizes that the sarune, whose name is very similar to other double-reeds from India to Java, might have roots in the royal Malay ensemble called nobat.)
Gondang sabangunan (called simply gondang from here on because it’s a mouthful!) is exclusively played for pesta adat, or traditional ceremonies from funerals to Malim rituals. As ethnomusicologist Mauly Purba writes in his article on gondang and the church*, “its performance was/is an integral part of traditional Toba Batak religious and cultural practices, serving not only to accompany the ceremonial dancing of tortor at all adat feasts but, most importantly, as a communicative medium that strengthens relationships between individuals, groups of people, the gods […] and the ancestral spirits.” Even now when belief in ancestral spirits has largely been replaced by modern Christianity, the gondang continues to be played and respected as a highly spiritual music. While some church officials have in the past tried to ban the playing of gondang, the music’s roots in adat have meant that for a people as steeped in adat as they are in Christianity, gondang is not something that could be easily left behind.
Gondang is often played at ritual-filled pre-funeral events, with the pargonsi or musicians setting up in the songkor, a balcony-like space in the gable of the huge traditional Batak house, the rumah bolon. From up on high, the band plays as the gathered family performs the tortor dance down below. The music enlivens the tortor dance, and vice versa - it's almost unthinkable to have gondang without the requisite tortor. The dance's simplistic yet symbolic movements act together with the gondang as communicative media for the spirits.
Even as Batak music-making has grown and evolved to encompass everything from brass bands to gospel, the gondang sabangunan (and especially that wonderful set of tuned drums, the taganing) has remained a potent symbol of Batak Toba identity (you’ll even find Toba pop bands with taganing crowded by an array of cymbals and snare drums!) Unlike some forms of traditional music in Indonesia which seem to only get trotted out at government functions as an empty gesture towards “original [insert ethnic group here] culture,” I get the sense that gondang maintains its powerful, mystical presence in the world of Toba to this day.
Lake Toba was once firmly on the “Banana Pancake Trail,” the Southeast Asian equivalent of the hippie pilgrimage to India. If adventurous backpackers wanted to get to Java or Bali, they’d often head south (with a few ferries in between) by way of Sumatra, taking the long way down. I even remember my aunt and uncle regaling me with stories of their time in Toba on their mythical across-the-world trip back in the seventies.
It’s still a major entry in the Lonely Planet, but its heyday as must-visit destination for foreigners may be past. That didn’t stop me - I’d been fascinated by this part of North Sumatra since I moved to Indonesia years ago. I can talk about my time in Toba in terms of vacationing as that was my initial plan: to head to the hotel hotspot of Tuktuk on the huge island-within-an-island of Samosir and just play tourist for a while. As may be obvious, I travel a lot in Indonesia for Aural Archipelago, but rarely just to chill out.
Toba seemed a good place to do that. Don’t get me wrong, I was aching to hear this amazing gondang music for myself, but I’d read that it was only performed for special, ritualistic ocassions, and I was guessing I wouldn’t have the luck to run into it during my few days in the area. So I took the ferry over to Tuktuk, got a cheap room at the closest hotel to the harbor, and rented a bike to explore the gorgeous countryside.
I’d only been on Samosir for a few hours when that familiar bug hit me. I’d just finished Julia Byl’s book on Batak music just weeks before, and had been drawn in by her stories of her time with the famous Sitohang family of Harian. Harian and the Pak Guntur, the Sitohang patriarch, was just a few hours away from Tuktuk on the shores of Lake Toba. I came here to relax, but a little visit to meet the famous Pak Guntur Sitohang couldn’t hurt, could it?
Soon enough I was zooming down the one main road of Samosir, heading towards that mythical village. It was a gorgeous drive, the glistening water of Lake Toba occassionally revealing itself on my right, spit up by rows and rows of the majestic peak-roofed rumah bolon Toba houses. It was a beautiful, sunny day, perfect driving weather.
I’d only been on the road for about an hour when I passed a huge roadside event, a crowd gathered under a giant blue tarp in front of a large rumah bolon. My motorbike almost skidded out as I slammed on the brakes: was that gondang I’d heard? I couldn’t pass this up.
I walked over to the crowd, afraid of appearing to invite myself to the party. Then I saw the open casket, and my trepidation intensified. This was not an event for roving tourists: it was a funeral. I looked to the balcony of the house, and there was the gondang band, jamming away as the crowd put their hands together as if in prayer and bounced to the beat.
I’ve crashed plenty of weddings, but I wasn’t sure if it was time to crash my first funeral: surely it was in bad taste? As I was mulling it over, I noticed a man waving, trying to get my attention. He’d seen the camera bag at my side, and was motioning for me to take a picture. I walked over to him, thinking I was getting the wrong message, but he said it clearly for me this time in Indonesian: “Go ahead, take photos. This is a celebration.” I looked across the crowd, and saw a guy with a huge, professional video camera shooting the whole thing. What kind of funeral was this?
I later met Juwita Situngkir, the granddaughter of the man whose life they were celebrating. Fernando Situngkir had lived into his nineties, with all of his children and grandchildren going on to live healthy, successful lives. I knew from Byl’s book that not all deaths in Toba society are met with wake-like celebration: in a heartbreaking chapter in the book, Byl describes how the untimely death of her young friend was met only with quiet mourning. However, the death of a person who has lived to old age with all children alive and successful is cause for a saur matua, the most elaborate of Toba funeral ceremonies.
I come from a culture where death is hidden as if in shame, where funerals are almost always intensely dour affairs. This was the first time I’d joined one full of smiles, selfies, and peppy music, and it was intoxicating. I spent the next few hours getting offered plates of freshly slaughtered buffalo meat, taking endless photos with beautifully made-up women, and hanging out with the gondang band up in the songkor terrace, squeezed between gongs. It was a great vantage point, looking past the suspended taganing at the dancing crowd below as the sound filled my ears, the guys smoking kretek after kretek and keeping time by tapping on empty bottles of Bintang beer.
As I left the party later that afternoon, I swapped details with Juwita, the granddaughter I’d met before. Later that week, I saw on Facebook that she’d posted pictures of her grandpa in his later years, a family man with a sweet, wrinkly smile. The feeling was bittersweet: I felt this strange sadness at having never met this stranger, while at the same time remembering the warmth of his family’s love for him, the joy I’d seen and heard at his saur matua. What a way to be remembered, with all-you-can-eat buffalo meat, dancing, and infectious music, a fitting celebration of a life that had been lived, in its own way, to the very fullest.
Thank you to Juwita and the Situngkir family for sharing that beautiful day with me, and to Julia Byl and Mauly Purba for their inspiring contributions to Indonesian ethnomusicology!
*Mauly Purba's article is called "From Conflict to Reconciliation: The Case of the "Gondang Sabangunan" in the Order of Discipline of the Toba Batak Protestant Church." Worth a read on JSTOR!