Location: Babotin, Belu Regency, Timor
Sound: Knobe oh (also simply called knobe)
Timor's great contribution to the wonderful world of Indonesian mouth harps is a beautifully understated bamboo mouth harp the Dawan call knobe oh (knobe meaning "mouth harp," oh means "bamboo.") It's in the same genus as other mouth harps I've shared here before, such as the bamboo gongga lawe from W. Sulawesi or the wooden genggong of Bali and Lombok: the instrument is a strip of bamboo out of which as been carved a "tongue" (Mamana in the Dawan language) which is set to vibration by a a string (tani) pulled firmly to the side.
A unique feature of the knobe oh is the pointed shape of the far end (a possible link, says mouth harp guru Steev Kindwald, to a Melanesian heritage, as mouth harps from Papua called pikon feature a similar tapered shape.) The tapered end culminates with a stylistic flourish, a fish-tail with a split down the middle. The split has no function but is said to be necessary nonetheless. Musicians in Babotin reckoned that the fish-tail shape and split must have had meaning at some point, but that meaning is lost to time.
Just as with other mouth and jaw harps, variations in the knobe's tone and melody are provided by putting the instrument to your lips and manipulating the tone with changes in the mouth cavity. The Dawan style of playing is melodic rather than rhythmic, with clear, beautiful overtones singing from the buzz of bamboo.
Amongst Dawan people all throughout Central Timor, the knobe is associated with cowherds, young boys and men who would spend long hours in the fields tending to their herd of cattle. These cowherds would stay alert by playing around on the knobe. If you weren't alert, a local told me, your cow could find its way into some nearby crops, and that's never a good thing! In this way, the knobe has that wonderful twin spirit of utility and creation, keeping the cowherds awake by letting their hearts sing through bamboo.
The knobe also exists in a metal version called knobe besi ("iron knobe") which seems to draw inspiration from the standard shape of the common Western jew's harp. Knobe besi are tiny little things, and despite coming upon two on my trip through Timor, I never got to hear their sound - one was broken, and the other's sound was so small as to almost be inaudible. Nonetheless, there are said to still be makers on the island, and ocasionally, I was told, they can be bought at the village market (knobe oh, on the other hand, are always homemade.) An interesting difference between the knobes was mentioned by Bai Lukas in Miomafo, who explained that in those parts, the knobe oh can only be played by men, whereas the knobe besi is open to anyone. Pak Goris in Babotin, on the other hand, said that in his parts anybody could played knobe oh, but it was the young male cowherds who played it most often.
I find myself chasing down mouth harps wherever I go in Indonesia: they're almost everywhere in the archipelago, but nobody seems to pay them much attention. Nonetheless, they often hold a special place in the hearts of rural Indonesians, a nostalgic reminder of times past when folks spent more time in the fields then in front of the TV.
To find a surviving knobe tradition, I asked my friend Cornelius, a radio personality in the regional capital of Kupang with a great passion and knowledge for the local arts. He put me in contact with his family in Babotin, a remote village on the southern outskirts of Dawan territory in Central Timor.
I had no idea how remote Babotin was until I decided to hire a motorbike to get there and was warned off: no motorbike would make it along those roads, they said: better to hire a truck. So hire a truck I did, a beatup pickup with a painfully bouncy suspension which faired admirably on the area's rocky, unpaved roads. It was a few hours through hills covered with a light, dry forest, thatched huts and simple concrete homes sprinkled widely.
As is usual in these parts, the driver and I found our destination by asking folks walking along the road, carrying their daily harvest home. I was dropped off at the home of Mama Dora, Cornelius' Babotin relative.
I was led past a small garden with corn and pumpkins growing in the dry soil and into Mama Dora's humble home. Mama, it turns out, is a real delight, an old woman with eyes full of life and arms scribbled with traditional homemade tattoos (one tattoo, she explained, was just her initials - back in those days, if you didn't tattoo your name nobody would know who you are!) Mama wasn't the knobe maestro, though - she did very sweetly feed me and give me a bed for the night. The knobe bro was a man named Yoseph Seran, a relative of Mama Dora's with a shy smile, stained betel-nut red in the Timor way.
We sat about chatting about knobe and conditions in Babotin, one of the most remote areas in Timor. "We're left behind," Mama Dora's daughter explained. "No electricity, no paved road, no help from the government." Mama Dora's family seemed to have done okay - a diesel-fueled generator was keeping the lights running, but it was loud and prone to failure. I reflected on this common scenario, how traditional music often survives in these "left behind" places on the margins. Even here on the margins, the knobe tradition seemed to be just barely holding on. While older guys like Pak Yoseph and Pak Goris could still play and make knobe oh, it seems that the days of young cowherds playing in the fields are long gone.
We escaped the drone of the generator by heading to the porch of a neighbor, where only the sound of crickets would find their way into the recording. Pak Yoseph started off with a tune he called "Oras Loron Malirin" or "When It's Afternoon," an idyllic reminiscene on that time of day when the spotted doves (kurau unau in Dawan, tekukur in Indonesian) start singing. Just as the birds call to their friends and family to gather before sundown, so too do the farmers and cowherds call to their friends to head home.
The second song (and final, it turned out, as those were the only two songs that Pak Yoseph knew!) was "Ina Lou," ("Crying to Mother"). Ina Lou, it was explained to me, is both a love song and a lullaby, a well-known tune throughout Dawan land (Pak Barnabas would later play it for me on his biola in Insana.)
Throughout both songs, Pak Yoseph played with an admirable steadiness and clarity of tone, his eyes wide and staring as so often happens with mouth harps players focused on the slightest movements of tongue and throat. As a mouth harper myself, I recognize the look well - it sometimes looks a bit creepy to the viewer, but its a sign of what makes the mouth harp special, with fact that all of this music is literally coming from within your body, overtones singing from inside like a second voice. That night this voice was loud and clear, the cowherd's song singing once more through Babotin.