Location: Halong, Kab. Balangan, South Kalimantan
Sound: Kelong, gentur
South Kalimantan is the last place I expected to find rich Dayak culture. Occupying the southeast corner of Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo), the province is famously dominated by the Banjar people, Malay Muslims who hold a firm majority in the area. The indigenous Dayaks, meanwhile, make up less than ten percent of the province’s population. Politically marginalized and outnumbered (a situation true in nearly every province in Kalimantan, but especially the south), the various Dayak tribes in this corner of the island have had little representation on the national and international stage.
To learn more, I went to Halong, a district centered around branches of the Balangan river, not far from the vast Meratus mountains and the border with East Kalimantan. A subgroup of the greater Dayak tribe called Ma’anyan, the people here call themselves Dayak Dusun Halong, or simply Dayak Halong (or Dayak Balangan after the nearby river.) Though virtually surrounded by majority Banjar communities and ruled over by various Banjar kingdoms for centuries, the Dayak Halong have maintained their adat (customs) and a system of beliefs centered around animism and ancestor worship.
This hasn’t been easy, especially in a modern Indonesia where the country’s founding precepts (Pancasila) mandate membership in one of five state-approved “world religions.” These policies and events like the 1965 nationwide purge of communists (and “atheists”) have led many Dayaks in the area to “convert” to recognized religions, a movement which has led some locals to describe the area as “a miniature of Indonesia,” with Dayak Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, and Muslims living together in relative harmony. In Kinarum, the village in which I recorded, the people “converted” officially to Buddhism en masse in 1986, though local lore says that people called themselves “Buda” (Buddhist) long before, a not-so-surprising fact considering Shivaite-Buddhist kingdoms Negara Dipa and Negara Daha ruled over this part of Kalimantan in centuries past.
While Christianized Dayak communities have often been forced to leave their “pagan” rituals and beliefs behind, the Buddhist Dayak Halong people I met have embraced Buddhism in part because it allows them to carry on their old beliefs and traditions (in other areas, especially Central Kalimantan, Dayak animists have repackaged their beliefs as a strain of Hinduism, Hindu Kaharingan, with much the same aim.) Daily life for the agrarian communities of Dayak Halong continue to be structured around ancient systems of taboos and the belief in the power of nature and ancestor spirits (ambaruwe or sumangat) to have power over their fortune, both good and bad.
The people’s relations with these spirits are mediated by shamans (wadian or balian) in rituals called aruh adat. These aruh adat rituals can fall throughout the year, with each ritual tied to moments in the life cycle and to the harvest. Ngudi lampau, for example, is a ritual cleansing (slametan in Indonesian) of harmful spirits from a new house. Nyangulahingan and maiwu are two shaman-led healing rituals wherein a baby or an adult, respectively, is cured of “a sickness not recognized by medicine,” often a kind of spirit possession. But the grandest and most important of the aruh adat in Kapul is the Aruh Baharin, a weeklong ritual where thanks are given to the spirits for the rice harvest and the spirits, in turn, grant the people permission to enjoy the spoils of their labor.
Music is an essential element of nearly all of these aruh adat, especially those associated with wadian shamans. Sound has an important, sacred role in these rituals, from the metallic shaking of bead-filled metal bracelets or gelang hyang to the wadian’s mantra-like intoning of prayers in an esoteric language (bahasa pawadianan.) Shamans like the young wadian Kinarang described music alternately as the “path” (jalannya) and as the “vehicle” (pengantar), both a bridge and a way of moving between this world and the spirit world. “Without the music,” Kinarang explained, “the wadian can’t move. It’s like riding in a car, or a plane…it’s his conveyor, his escort to the spirit world.”
This ritual music mainly takes three diverse forms in Halong: Gandrang, gamalan, and kelong. Gandrang, a non-melodic form, combines a small double-headed drum (also called gandrang) played with a stick in one hand and a small, single-headed drum made from the skin of the mouse-deer (kancil) and played with two sticks. Gamalan, which I’ll share in a future post, is an ensemble with likely roots in Banjar-style gamalan (itself with roots in the gamelan of Java.) Finally, there’s kelong, the subject of today’s post. The diversity of ritual music can be traced to the Halong area’s status as a meeting area of various ethnic groups: music similar to kelong is also played by the nearby Dayak Deyah, forms similar to gandrang are played by Dayaks of the nearby Meratus mountains, and gamalan is played by Banjar people across the province. According to musicians, what music was played for what ritual once depended on the ancestry of the wadian or of the musicians, but as Halong is now a melting-pot of intermarriages, the music played at local rituals is now largely interchangeable.
Kelong is unique mostly for its instrumentation, with melodies carried by a set of five small gongs (kanong, possibly from Javanese kenong) together with a boat lute or kasapi. In general, both kinds of instrument are widespread across parts of Indonesia. Pentatonic rows of small gongs (often quaintly called “gong chimes” by ethnomusicologists) can be found in cultures across Southeast Asia, from kulintang in the Philippines to talempong and talo balak in Sumatra. In Borneo, they’re widespread but not everywhere: the Dayak Kanayatn in West Kalimantan play them (dau or kanong), as do the Dayak Ngaju of Central Kalimantan (kenganong); in Malaysian Borneo, gong chimes called kulintangan are still played in Sabah. Boat lutes, too, are a staple of Aural Archipelago: I’ve shared examples from West and Central Sulawesi (kacaping and kacapi, respectively), Sumba (jungga Humba), and West Kalimantan (sape’ Kayan.) The kasapi music found in Halong is pretty remarkable on its own, so I’ll go into greater depth about that instrument itself in a future post as well.
The combination of gong chime and boat lute is a unique one, though, found almost nowhere else. Both instruments are played together in the nearby area of Upau by the Dayak Deyah, who call the lute kesapi or sensapi and the gongs kengkanong or simply kanong as well. There the music is also played for a shaman-led ritual or baliatn bukit. This music was recorded by the legend Philip Yampolsky for his Music of Indonesia series, but the recordings had “technical problems” and were never released; in his liner notes to the related album, Yampolsky describes the unreleased music, seemingly unimpressed: “The lute plays a decorated drone, with almost no melodic content, and is largely drowned out by the gongs and drums.”
This is actually a pretty fair assessment for kelong, too, but I like the combo. The kasapi indeed can barely be heard over the gong (agung) and drum (bukah), though the kanong was played particularly delicately so as to somewhat meet the kasapi in the middle (through the magic of individual microphones I’ve evened them out for the recording.) Each piece in the kelong repertoire is linked to various stages of a wadian-led ritual: the first piece shared here, “Bananaikan,” serves to “open a path for the spirits.” The second piece, “Penyarung Jalan,” literally means “Push Along the Path,” as the spirits are escorted into the ritual space. A third piece, “Mairingiringan” (from the root iringan or “accompaniment”) accompanies both the spirits and the wadian as he dances through the ritual space.
For comparison, I’m also including one piece from a similar but related repertoire, a style called gentur after the dance it can accompany. Gentur, my friend Yansyah explained to me, is played to accompany the funeral ritual called buntang in which the recently deceased’s spirit is sent off to the afterlife. The ritual, Yansyah went on, actually originates with the Dayak Deyah in nearby Upau, but has entered Halong culture within the past fifty years through intermarriage between tribes. The music is lovely: like kelong but with more strident kanong playing and without the kasapi; the percussive backing is beefier too, with the hanging agung gongs joined by two large horizontal gongs or garantung. Assertive drumming is supplied by two double-headed drums, the small, local gandrang and the babun, a local variant on a Javanese kendhang.
I’d love to have seen all this music performed in context, as it must be quite an experience: villagers gather in a home or in a communal building (balai) and a tree-like altar is built from janur or young palm frond; a group of wadian shamans dance around the altar, rhythmically shaking bracelet-like gelang hyang in their hands; wooden floorboards creak and shake as the musicians follow and guide the wadian through his mystical journey between realms. For the massive yearly baharin ceremony, this goes on for seven days and seven nights, with musicians and wadian cycling through all the various musical styles that call the Halong area home.
Alas, I came to Halong months before their annual thanksgiving ceremony, though I still had a fascinating time. Before heading to Kalimantan, I’d told Banjar ethnomusicologist Novyandi Saputra (aka Nopi) that I was interested in hearing kasapi, a lute I’d found almost nothing about on the internet (about kelong there is also essentially nothing.) He helpfully suggested I head to Kapul, the center of baharin ceremonies and a locus of traditional arts in the Halong area. Nopi put me in touch with Yansyah, a Kapul local who had helped form a sanggar or arts community of local musicians.
Yansyah picked me up in the provincial town of Paringin after I’d made the trek overland from Balikpapan in nearby East Kalimantan. A short friendly guy in the beige uniform of a civil servant, Yansyah threw me on the back of his motorcycle and drove me into the countryside. As we navigated potholes in the crumbling road, I craned my head beside his and chatted: about Buddhism (Yansyah is a knowledgeable, if not fanatic, Buddhist), government work (he’s one of the few Dayaks in his office, the Department of Tourism), and food (it was the beginning of the Muslim fasting month, and I was happy to be in an area where I could eat without bothering anybody.) As we drove, we passed rubber plantations and Banjar villages, following the road over tiny bridges that cleared the dozens of streams that branched off of the nearby Balangan river.
Kapul looked like any other town in the area, wooden stilted houses lining a quiet street. It was marked as different by a busy warung (happily non-fasting Buddhist folks chowing openly in the middle of the day) and by skinny stray dogs wandering the road. We pulled up to a stage-like community space where musicians were practicing, obviously expecting my arrival. I soon became acquainted with the two maestros of the group: Pak Angga, a humble multi-instrumentalist who led the gamalan with bubbly gambang playing, and Pak Fajal, a shy, stoic kanong player and the local kasapi maestro. While the musicians and instruments were at the ready, it soon became clear that recording right then and there wouldn’t be ideal: the space, hemmed in my ceremic tiled floors and walls on all sides, was like an echo chamber, soundwaves colliding into a hazy cloud amongst the peels of passing motorcycles. No rush, the others agreed. You can stick around for a while and we’ll record tomorrow!
This gave me a chance to soak up the unique vibes of life in a Buddhist Dayak village. Later that night I joined Yansyah to an in-law’s house where a weekly meeting of male Buddhists was in session. Men sat on floor pillows in a spare room of dark wood, a be-robed bhikkku monk leading a chant: “Sadhu, sadhu, sadhu…” We were sprinkled with holy water before sharing in a meal of soup with squash and palm fiber.
The next day I was lucky to join in more ritual before the recording sesh, this time a traditional Dayak ritual or aruh adat. A family was commemorating 100 days since the death of a loved one, so folks gathered to steam sticky rice in bamboo (ite’) over open fire. It was a treat for us mortals, but also for the ancestors: leftovers from the feast were brought to an unadorned grave amongst a grove of bamboo, offerings presented with prayers to the ancestor spirits.
Yansyah chose a perfect spot for recording: a quiet vihara or Buddhist temple on the outskirts of the village. It was a lovely oasis of landscaped lawns and flower gardens surrounded by teak plantations and bright yellow rice paddies stretching to the mountains. In a fusion that seemed to perfectly encapsulate Halong, the temple was side by side with a large wooden balai, the traditional meeting hall where shamanistic rituals are held. Flanking the manicured grounds were shrines to nature spirits and wooden statues honoring tiger gods and ancestral goddesses.
Soon Pak Angga arrived in a pickup loaded with instruments: we were recording a handful of ritual music in one go. We laid the instruments all out on the lawn and set up each ensemble one by one: first the gamalan, with Pak Angga tinkling the gambang xylophone as his young pupil, Budi, followed along on sarun. Through alll the ensembles, Ibu Ipi held down the agung (gongs, I was told, are almost always played by women, though Bu Ipi’s son subbed in a few times) while another senior musician, Pak Maslani, played the babun and bukah with a confident energy.
With afternoon light filtering through trees onto that manicured lawn, it was almost as if we were crashing the grounds of a botanical garden. The pretty, quiet, well-lit space was a constant reminder of the artificiality of the moment, sacred ritual music divorced from ritual (but, it could be said, played in a place that was sacred in its own way.) The next week, I’d get a taste of Dayak ritual in the nearby Meratus mountains, seeing and hearing firsthand as balian shamans circled a tree-like altar, bare feet shuffling on floorboards under dim bulbs, metallic gelang bracelets jingling to the rhythm of their chanting.
In the moment on those temple grounds, though, the music still held onto its authentic charm despite being re-situated in unfamiliar environs. We cycled through rituals musics as the evening grew cooler, gamalan leading to the the kasapi/kanong combo of kelong, followed by the robust dance music of gentur and the minimalist, hypnotic rhythms of gandrang drumming. When the session was over, a young wadian shaman named Kinarang joined us on the lawn and generously answered my questions: about ritual, taboo, music, and spirits. Soon enough, the light was fading, and we packed the instruments into the back of the pickup once more.
Special thanks to Nopi for being my number one fixer in all of South Kalimantan. Terima kasih banyak Bang Yansyah untuk semua, dan untuk musisinya yang bagi ilmu dan musik sama kami:
Pak Angga - Kanong, gandrang
Pak Fajal - Kasapi, kanong
Ibu Ipi - Agung
Pak Maslani - Babun, bukah
Yansyah - Garantung