[Track recorded by Palmer Keen and Joseph Lamont; mixed and mastered by Joseph Lamont]
Location: Jannaya Village, Tanah Toa, South Sulawesi
Sound: Kacapi Kajang (also called kacaping)
Sulawesi is a sprawling mass of jutting mega-peninsulas, each with its own peoples, languages, and musics. Zoom in one one of these starfish arms and the scene remains amazingly diverse: in South Sulawesi alone, you have cultures as different as the highland death-obsessed Toraja and the notorious, sea-faring Bugis. The lower reaches of this arm is mostly lowland populated by the Bugis and their cousins the Makassar, but in one mountainous corner called Bulukumba there lives a tribe removed, quite literally, from the rest: the Kajang.
The Kajang have been compared to the Amish of America due to their strict adherance to rules of adat, or traditional custom. Most live in one compound, a village called Benteng in the wider area called Tanah Toa. Stepping into Benteng is in many ways like stepping back into time: electricity is prohibited, as are shoes; there is a dress code of all black, and pre-Islamic beliefs and traditions have seemingly changed little for generations.
Unsurprisingly, the Kajang have a musical culture fairly distinct from the ethnic groups surrounding them: most famous is their basing-basing, a duet of long bamboo flutes with buffalo horn bells (very similar to the suling dendang-dendang I recorded in the highlands near Toraja many years back.) Also, just like their lowland neighbors, the Kajang also have their own take on the enigmatic boat lute.
While found in other areas of Indonesia (see the Sumbanese jungga) and elsewhere like the Philippines, boat lutes are most common in Sulawesi, where various cousins are found from the southern tip all the way to the central highlands. Boat lutes (so called because of their sensuous, boat-like curves) are usually called variations of the word kacapi here: kacaping in Mandar, katapi for the Torajans (although this may be extinct!), and simply kacapi for everyone from the central highland Kaili to the Kajang folks down south.
Maybe the most distinctive feature of these lutes is that rather than having frets, they have raised “fingerposts” on and between which the player can fret its two strings. The Kajang style can have five or six - Philip Yampolsky recorded one with six back in the nineties, but the one we met had five, each with a name: from highest up, you’ve got lompo (“large”), tangga (“middle”), diki (“small”), ari’ (“younger sibling”), and bungko (“youngest sibling.”)
Farther up, the strings lead to the head and the quite naturally named tuning pegs, tolinna (“the ear” in the local language, bahasa Konjo). The strings run from here to a very high bridge called possina, or “the navel.” The galang or strings are these days made from fishing line, but folks used wire and probably more organic materials in earlier times. As I think must be true for almost every boat lute, the upper string is picked but unfretted, laying down a constant drone.
The Kajang style of kacapi playing is what I believe academic ethnomusicologists call “shreddy.” A constant medley of cycling melodic ostinatos is played at a speed that I figure to be more than 250 BPM, one pentatonic permutation shading into the next and then back again for as long as the occasion requires it. Yampolsky was told that the kacapi Kajang is played “to ‘unburden one’s spirit’ as private entertainment”, and I can see that being true: our player, Baco’, seemed supremely meditative as he shredded away on his porch. He also told us, though, that even now he will be called every so often to play at housewarming rituals, an important rite in Kajang society.
Talking to Baco’, it became clear the Kajang, like other lutists around the country, make a distinction between “songs” (lagu in Indonesian or kelong in bahasa Konjo) and “pickings” (petikan in Indonesian or pakte’ in bahasa Konjo.) Baco’ plainly stated that he knows only one song (that is, one piece with lyrics attached): the tune called “Leko Leko.” In fact, that’s the only “song” that any Kajang folks know on kacapi, he told us. When playing "Leko Leko", a vocalist may join singing about how its better to deliver a message on foot rather than send a letter and risk it getting lost in the mail (a metaphor for direct communication instead of gossip, perhaps?) Baco' lamented, though, that nobody is left in the village with a decent voice - they've all passed on. He sang for us a bit though to give us an idea, his voice scratchy and wavering.
As for picking patterns, it became clear, there’s a wider selection, from “Kadopi” (a reference to drumming patterns, also the only tune also recorded by Yampolsky) to “Itto-Itto”, “Cakumba-kumba”, “Rikong-Rikong”, and “Joong” (the name in bahasa Konjo for a large gong.) The picking called “Rikong-Rikong” seemed especially distinctive with its funky three-beat pattern typical of percussion music popular in the Bulukumba area.
I love all the boat lutes of Sulawesi - each seems to be a local expression of this widespread and ancient form, not only in the particularities of its construction but in the idiosyncrasies of its music. In the hands of a master like Baco’, that ever-steady picking is as unwavering as the Kajang’s proud traditions, a feeling of cosmic infinity in its potentially endless medley.
We drove up to the highlands of Bulukumba looking for the gong and drumming music called ganrang Konjo, a surprisingly funky percussion style played at local weddings. Figuring that Tanah Toa, with its very intentional commitment to traditions, might be an ideal place to find it, we headed straight there (or, straight enough - we got lost and had to ask directions about a dozen times on the way up from the coast.)
A friend of a friend of a friend hooked us up with Alam, a Kajang guide who often led tourists into Benteng, the heart of Tanah Toa. We got barefoot, wrapped our heads in traditional headbands and followed Alam into the village, cursing all the way as the path of tiny river stones tortured our virgin soles. The interior was charming and immaculately clean, with neat wooden stilted houses interspersed with small gardens. In one of these raised houses we met with the kepala desa or village chief, also a kind of spiritual adviser for his clan. After asking about drums, two were brought out from a nearby room, and the kepala desa and a neighbor quickly demonstrated a typical rhythm. From the first beat, I realized there’d been a mix-up - the tight, funky rhythms I’d heard on YouTube were quite different from those coming from the drums before us. Turns out the funky interlocking rhythms were played by other Konjo speakers outside of Kajang but not in the Tanah Toa proper - here, a looser, far less showy style prevailed.
We caught the Kajang style of drumming later that evening at a wedding full of men drinking palm wine and playing dominoes, but I was also curious about something else: do you still have kacapi music around here? Alam smiled - he’d known nothing about the drumming music, but he perked up at the mention of kacapi. A musician lived not far from his house on the outskirts,and he’d be happy to take us there that afternoon!
And so we found ourselves that afternoon, shoed once more and on motorbike to Baco’s house. He lived in the kind of gorgeously modest stilted home found all around Sulawesi, the front door a kind of portal you have to step into, the interior a womb of dark, creaking wood. Alam introduced us to Baco’, a man in his seventies with a wispy grey beard and mustache and almost no Indonesian vocabulary. After Alam explained our purpose in Konjo, Baco’ grabbed his kacapi from where it was hanging on the bare wall, stuck a peci cap on his head, and stepped out onto the still-sunny terrace.
Baco’ sat and rested the end of his kacapi in the shiny folds of his woven black sarong, pulled the “ears” of his lute until the strings were properly tuned, and without much fanfare launched into his fiercely persistent picking. With almost metronomic precision, Baco’ played on for more than fifteen minutes straight, an epic medley of Kajang’s top hit pakte’ pickings, I guess. As he played, his unblinking eyes wandered absently about his surroundings as his inner focus seemed to zero in with meditative calm on the feverous picking of his fingers. A horse whinnied, a motorbike blasted by, chickens clucked as they do, and Baco’ picked on, unwavering.
Just when I thought the medley was literally infinite, Baco’ brought it to an end with a precise final strum. We sat on the porch for the next hour, Alam acting as Konjo-Indonesian interpreter as we tried to figure out what to call that epic string of figures we’d just heard (it was suggested, initially, that it was all one song, but that was before the “song” and “picking” distinction was helpfully made clear!)
There wasn’t a younger generation in the Kajang area to continue this craft, Alam said, but I got the sense that Baco’, with his confident fingering, would be able to hold the tradition down for maybe even a few decades more. I was happy to see that playing hadn’t been a chore: when I slipped him some cash as we left, Baco’ confusedly rejected it with a Konjo exclamation, only to accept it after another try. After we’d said farewell and were pulling away on motorbike, I looked back to see him up on the porch, diving back into the endless picking once more.
Huge thanks to Alam for guiding us around tanah Kajang, Baco' for his brilliant picking, and Jo for his audio magic!