Location: Purwojati, Banyumas, Central Java
You’ve got to love the industriousness of Indonesian buskers: roving musicians in cities around Indonesia play drums made with PVC pipe, ukuleles strung with fishing line, and percussion made from motorbike parts. Another great staple of street music is the soapbox zither played mostly by transgender buskers (waria) across Java. A wooden box is strung with strings made from a motorbike tire’s inner tube (ban dalam), with the thickness of the rubber and the box resonator allowing for a fat, bassy sound perfect for emulating the rhythm section of a dangdut band.
Such instruments are rarely recognized for their clever utility, let alone taken off the streets and presented in a formalized context. Street music is for the street, and the music played there is rarely taken seriously as art in Java (even more so when played by itinerant transgender buskers.) That’s one reason why kaster, a musical genre found in Banyumas, is so interesting. Kaster takes the lowly kas (one name for that soapbox zither) and pairs it with the siter, a kind of Javanese zither. The siter, which features around 11-13 pairs of strings in the two popular tunings pelog and salendro (one on each side of the small box resonator), seems to have two parallel lives. It is a popular addition to the refined court gamelan of Jogja and Solo, with its bright sound a key element of the siteran genre, but this bright tone and the instrument’s small shape has also made it a common busking instrument, at least in decades past. I feel like kaster takes the siter’s courtly origins as a point to boost its accompaniment’s lowly origins, allowing this instrumental duo to be seen as a respectable form of performative music.
Kaster is largely the invention of one man, Sumarto Jakim. Pak Sumarto saw the so-called waria playing kas on the streets of 1970’s Purwokerto and was inspired: here was a brilliant, portable replacement for the kendang, or Javanese drum, one which was being underutilized, he thought, to play uber-simple dangdut basslines. After making a kas of his own, Pak Sumarto came up with a technique that was all his own. Despite technically being a zither, the kas is played to mimic the distinctively dynamic and complex rhythms of the Banyumas style kendang drum. All parts of the kas are used musically, from the wooden box itself, beat for a cajon-like thwack, to the small strings which stretch beyond the bridge, perfect for emulating the high, bright sound of the small ketipung drum. Pak Sumarto can even sit on the kas while playing, using his feet to rub against the strings in imitation of the rubbery tone of the jaipong-style drumming so popular in nearby West Java.
With a friend in tow playing siter, Pak Sumarto spent the 70s touring the streets of Banyumas in a practice called mbarang, something like ritual busking. Mbarang was both a way to promote their music in towns across Banyumas while solidifying their style and cementing kaster’s reputation as a new, creative expression of Banyumas identity: the group would sprinkle Jogja and Solo style siter tunes (themselves based off gamelan melodies) with local Banyumasan songs, the kas beating out the unique rhythms of the area. Soon enough, they were playing at formal events like birthday parties or hajatan, ceremonies meant to celebrate the fulfilling of a promise.
Nowadays, Pak Sumarto says, kaster is barely hanging on. His regular siter player passed away recently, and people don’t order kaster all that much anymore for neighborhood events. Occasionally he’ll be brought out to play at festivals celebrating Banyumas pride, but other than that his kas sits unplayed, siters collecting dust. Considering nobody else can play quite like him, the future of kaster is uncertain. Perhaps he’s got to get out on the streets once again, mbarang style, getting the word out, sharing the sounds of kaster once more with the people on the streets of Banyumas.
“Come on in! Sorry, my house is nothing more than a shack.”
Pak Sumarto waved us in to his home with a humble smile, gesturing at the dirt floor and the dim bulb lighting it all. My friend Yusmanto, a local musician and brilliant fixer, had driven us all across Banyumas to Purwojati, a beautiful, rural area near the border of West Java spotted with teak plantations of rice paddies. I had heard about kaster from Yusmanto’s blog, and had been curious to hear it for myself.
Yusmanto brought out his siter and celempung, the latter a large, Solo-style version of the former. We, in turn had brought Yusmanto’s friend Pak Pakel to play siter, as Pak Sumarto now had a siter but nobody to play it. Before playing, this new duo sat and drank tea together while chatting in Javanese about all their mutual friends in the Banyumas music scene.
We set up outside Pak Sumarto’s house in a clearing hemmed in by chicken coops and a giant pile of freshly cut bamboo. Pak Pakel tuned the dusty siter as best he could and they set into the first tune, with Pak Sumarto singing Banyumas classics as his hands worked overtime busting out polyrhythms on the kas. As the session wore on, Pak Yusmanto and his friend Pak Tarmono would join in from the sidelines, singing along with the kind of improvised, wordless vocal additions called senggak as if they just couldn’t help themselves. The added vocals made the whole thing sound so rame, or busy and alive, so I asked him to join for the rest. The chickens, in turn, clucked in approval. Later on, I passed my headphones around to share the recordings we'd just made. Pak Sumarto listened intently - he'd never heard a recording of his own playing before. As he took off the headphones, he smiled and proudly proclaimed, "Sounds just like kendang!"
Terima kasih banyak untuk semuanya Pak Sumarto, Pak Yusmanto, Pak Pakel, dan Pak Tarmono, saya berharap musik ini bisa didengar banyak orang dan kesenian kaster bisa dilestarikan lagi.