Location: Telaga Waru Village , Pringgabaya County, East Lombok
In a village in East Lombok, a woman falls ill. Family and friends gather round, tend to her, but something is amiss. It's not your usual sickness, like the flu or masuk angin, that "sickness by wind" diagnosed by every Indonesian hypochondriac. The woman is not herself, she is possessed. Kebangru'an, they call it. In a trance.
The spirit inside makes a request: gather the musicians. Not just any music, like gamelan or dangdut. No, the spirit wants what it wants: kebangru'an, they've taken to calling the ensemble. Music for trance.
The musicians gather their instruments. It's a combination found nowhere else in Indonesia, a motley grouping of instruments foreign and local. In center stage is what locals call the manduli, a two-stringed zither played with typewriter keys that, when pressed, shorten the strings and raise the pitch. It's a bizarre instrument that Sasaks claim as their own, when in fact it is essentially a taishogoto, an instrument invented in Japan a century ago and spread as far as India, where it's called bulbul tarang, and Zanzibar, where its name morphed into tashkota. While unknown to most Indonesians, it mysteriously shows up in locations as disparate as Bali and West Sumatra, likely spread by Chinese traders.
Alongside a manduli or two can often be found a gambus, the descendant of an Arabic lute which is nearly as ubiquitous as gongs across the breadth of Indonesia. The middle eastern scales typically played on the gambus color the whole ensemble, pushing it away from the pentatonic melodies so common to other music in Lombok. A piul, a fiddle which is essentially a cheaply made Western violin, and suling, a bamboo flute, may round out the melody department. In the rhythm section, two drums - the double headed kendang and the single-headed jidul indigenous to Lombok - are joined by rincik, a bed of miniature cymbals rhythmically smashed by two castanet-like hand cymbals.
At the spirits request, the musicians begin to play and strange things begin to happen. The woman dances for hours, seemingly inexhaustible. She stacks up chairs and climbs into the trees, dancing in the canopy, hopping to the rooftops and dancing there. She performs mystical feats, stabbing herself without no effect, smelling skeptics in the crowd and chasing them off with a sword.
At times, she passes out. The musicians seize the opportunity and pause the jam, running off to pray, bathe, and eat before she is roused and they must play on. This continues, they say, for unimaginable lengths of time. "Until dawn" is a phrase that gets thrown around often when talking about Indonesian musical performances. Kebangru'an doesn't stop when the sun rises. It doesn't stop as the musicians begin to dose off with their instruments in their hands. The group is at the mercy of the possessed, so they play on, for days, they told me. For a week, they said. One time in decades past, they played for a month straight. The woman dances on all the while, powered only by a diet of coconut water and whatever strange energy is guiding her.
The music is medicine, they told me. The only cure for families too poor to do anything else. The sweet melodies are a musical prescription, a dose of good vibes to fight the spirit within (why the spirit calls for the very music that vanquishes it was not explained.) Sometimes the woman sings along, the lyrics full of hopeful messages, good advice, proclamations against evil and sin. At some point, after a day, a week, a month, the woman wakes up, exorcized.
In this way, while most "trance music" is the impetus for trance, bringing musicians or dancers into a possessed state, kebangru'an is the opposite: the trance comes first and is later flushed away by the power of music. I'm reminded of tarantism, the phenomenon first documented in southern Italy nearly a thousand years ago, wherein women, supposedly possessed as a result of a spider's bite, would require the healing power of a specific music and dance thus called tarantella.
For decades, the possessions stopped and so too did the music. Nobody could figure out why - perhaps the people, becoming more pious, had cleared the bad juju from the air. The instruments were put away, collecting dust, and the villagers didn't miss it: it reminded them of stressful times of sickness and fear.
Within the past decade, the instruments were taken out and the music was rekindled, but this time without the trance, without the marathon week-long sets. This time, it was for the sake of the music itself, for the positive vibe it was meant to spread in the first place. The group began playing for everyday events like weddings and government-hosted concerts. The music was divorced from its original context but played on.
That was the story when I came to Lombok and met with the musicians in March this past year. No one had been in trance for years, they told me. Then, after a week of wandering around the island recording elsewhere, my appointment to record the music came and I was told a bewildering fact: two days prior, a woman had fallen sick. Possessed, they said. The musicians had been called, and as if those decades of quietude had never passed, the group had played the sickness right out of her, just like the old days. No one could explain why it had started again, nor could they answer my desperate question: why hadn't they invited me??
"When I first heard this music, I cried", Akeu told me. "Before I ever knew this music existed, I'd dreamt of it, multiple times, when I was young. In my dream, I met the musicians, old men. I heard the music."
Akeu speaks in dramatic monologues in the over-the-top style of a dalang, or puppetmaster. His passion surprises me: he's not even from Lombok, I find out - he's Sundanese, an immigrant from West Java. A mobile optician, he criss-crosses the island on motorcycle, bestowing vision to villagers who live far from the optical shops of Mataram. It was on one of these trips that he encountered kebangru'an for the first time outside a dream. He was not a musician, knew nothing about the arts, but the music took hold of him. It became an obsession.
"This era, this world needs kebangru'an", Akeu told me in one of his many impassioned speeches about the music. Music this days, it's all bad intentions, bad feelings, the wrong message. Kebangru'an is positive energy, he told me. It is light. It is medicine for a sick society.
Akeu had become somewhat of a leader for the group, organizing shows, reaching out to media, getting the music on television and in the newspaper. I had met him through YouTube, where he'd uploaded a video of the kebangru'an group's TV appearances. He had enthusiastically invited me to meet him, record this music, learn the story of kebangru'an. He was a one man PR team, a believer in the power of music, and he wanted me to join the cause.
A week after meeting in Lombok's capital of Mataram, the opportunity came. We met in the town of Pringgabaya, not far from Lombok's eastern coastline, an area where the dramatic contours of Mt. Rinjani smooth out into the sea. From there, we went to Telaga Waru, the village where it all began.
While there was no one in trance at the time, Akeu tried his best to fill the recording session with a ritualistic energy. Sitting in the old violinist's house, he doused fragrant flower petals in water and sprinkled the instruments like a shaman. After a prayer, we gathered in a cramped porch full of broken TVs and curious kids, the musicians spreading in a tableau with their instruments in hand.
When the music started, my expectations were exceedingly high. After bearing witness to Akeu's sermonizing and countless tales of supernatural feats, I almost expected to be lifted off the floor in musical bliss. The music, however, seemed incongruous with these grand stories. It was simple, quaint, a peppy little melody shared by manduli and slightly shrill violin and looped over energetic drums. I can't say I was disappointed, as the music had a unique charm, a folksy presence that can't be found in the royal pomp of Balinese temples or Javanese palaces. But for someone who often takes delight in the pure joy of sound, cultural context be damned, I was forced to admit that this time, the story was bigger than the music. The tale had trumped the tunes.