Location: Watu Hadang, East Sumba
Sound: Jungga (also known as jungga Humba) as played by Hina Ranjataka
[This is part two in the Sumba Strings series. To get the full scoop on Sumbanese jungga, read part one first.]
East Sumba was like a whole other world.
For most folks, myself included, the word “Indonesia” conjures up images of lush green jungle, white sand beaches, and perfect volcanoes thrusting through clouds. But here we were, driving our motorbikes down the coastal road of East Sumba, and the land that stretched out on either side of the road was nothing but dry, barren savannah. The dryness, the desolation, it all looked more like Australia than the lush Java that I call home. There was a harsh beauty in that desolation, though, and in the occasional oases of green which grew around the rare rivers we crossed.
Watu Hadang was in something of an oasis: its single street was lined with trees providing a delicious shade, respite from the heat of the sun. Umbu Tamu met us on the side of this road as soon as we pulled up, leading us into the small cluster of houses where we would stay for the next few nights.
The hamlet had a desolate beauty of its own. A traditional uma mbatangu peak-roofed house caught my eye right away, its thatched roof replaced by corrugated iron. A small fire was burning in the front yard and a gang of kids were taking turns rolling bicycle tires through it with sticks. A sad-looking horse was tied up near a kind of megalithic tomb, and an old granny stood nearby, sweeping the dusty ground.
We’d been sent here by Umbu Yudi, a Cultural Department employee who promised we could surely find music nearby. Yudi’s brother, Umbu Tamu, would host us. Umbu Tamu was a delightful host, it turned out. He had no room for the three of us (me, Jo, and Logan) in his family’s tiny home, so he set us up in a nearby pavilion-like building nearby, dragging mattresses into its creaky wooden heart for us to sleep.
We spent the next few days in this place, eating home-cooked meals of chicken and veggies behind their house (a gang of skin-and-bone dogs watching, waiting for scraps) and having long conversations with Umbu Tamu about our respective cultures, music, art, and geography. At night, the sky was full of stars, and you could hear nothing but insects and the wind whipping across the savannah.
On our last day, Umbu Tamu surprised us. He’d told me there was an old man in his village who could sing and play the two-stringed jungga, but he wasn’t sure if there was still an instrument around to play. Just before noon, the man arrived, jungga in hand. Hina Ranjataka had a wild smile full of teeth stained black from betel nut, and his right eye was half closed in a wink, blind and rheumy.
His jungga was missing strings, so he sent a kid to fetch a motorcycle brake cable, unwound two metallic threads from its length, and stretched the kinked metallic string across the jungga’s dark wooden body. As he stretched the strings into position, I spotted a creature carved into the instrument’s body, whiskered and maned like a dragon. He called it mahang, a kind of powerful spirit in the world of Marapu, the traditional religion of Sumba.
We set up on the shady veranda of our open-air sleeping room, our recorders balancing tenuously on the creaky floorboards beneath us. Old man Hina sat cross-legged in front of us, his knee popping out of his thick black ikat sarong. As he dug his fingers into the fresh wire of his jungga, he licked his lips and began to sing, his betel nut-red tongue peeking out through the black of his teeth as he sang.
His voice was thick and strained over the twang of the jungga. “Ha aya ana mini,” he sang in the local dialect of Kambera, “ana winnunggu nda wammu ma angga pa. Neda-ndea wanggu ma kea nggau ka duku.” “Hello, my older brother. Can’t you see I’m your sister? That’s why I say no.”
Hina translated the title, “Ma Nda Pa Pekungu,” to Indonesian: “Cinta Terlarang,” or “Forbidden Love.” The lyrics, sung in the poetic form called lawiti, detailed an incestuous relationship between siblings, a play on that universal taboo. What an opener!
We had just heard Purra Tanya play jungga the day before, but here was a very different sound, thicker and rawer than Pak PT’s sweeter strummings. It was a healthy reminder to me how individual this jungga tradition is; often Indonesian folk music puts little emphasis on the individual, and variation between musicians can sometimes be imperceptible. But with jungga, each musician was a style unto himself, not only a different voice but sometimes a whole different approach.
As Hina Ranjataka played, villagers came by to watch this rare performance, sprawling out on the veranda and taking in these old, raspy stories. We lazed about long after the music was over, that seductive front porch easiness taking hold. Hina stuffed his lip with betel nut and sat back, watching skinny dogs chase each other through the heat of the midday sun.