Location: Temenggungan, Banyuwangi Regency, East Java
Sound: Musik Patrol Banyuwangi
Sustaining a musical tradition can be such a balancing act. If you maintain a preservationist stance and try to keep everything as it once was, your music is likely to be seen as old and stale, left behind by changing times, irrelevant to the younger generation. To throw caution to the wind and transform a tradition completely is equally risky: the music becomes unrecognizable, its soul and meaning lost in the shuffle. Despite the collection of often ancient and “authentic” sounds on this site, I’m no purist. Music stays vibrant through change and evolution, and I love to hear about these evolutions through the years. What’s important for me is that the music and the community that makes it stays true to itself and to the unique musical language of the area.
There are few places in Java as musically vibrant as Banyuwangi in East Java, and few styles shine as brightly as musik patrol. Musik patrol has roots stretching back at least to the mid-20th century, but it is a tradition that seems to be in a constant state of evolution - the key, I think, to its continuing relevancy into the 21st century.
Musik patrol’s humble roots lie in gangs of kids patrolling their neighborhoods during the holy fasting month of Ramadan, banging on anything they could get their hands on to wake up the neighbors for sahur, the early morning pre-fasting meal. These sahur-centered musical traditions are everywhere in Muslim Indonesia, from the obrog-obrogan of West Java to tongkeq in Lombok and Ul Daul in Madura. Just as I wrote about obrogan, the pure, naughty joy of kids banging on shit in the dark of pre-dawn is one of the first keys to the continuing vibrancy of these traditions in a time when traditional musics are being consistently left behind.
At the heart of this musical ruckus is often the kentongan. Technically a slit drum, the kentongan is a slitted bamboo tube that often hangs outside a village’s pos kamling (neighborhood watch post), ready to be whacked at any time to signal anything from “THIEF!” to “time for the neighborhood watch meeting!” In many villages, these kentongan are carried not only during sahur patrols but during the nightly rounds (ronda) of the siskamling (short for sistem keamanan lingkungan, literally “community safety system.”) Such neighborhood watch organizations are a treasured part of small-town Indonesia, and the kentongan has become a symbol of neighborly cooperation.
At some point in Banyuwangi, the raw “tok tok tok” of the kentongan was refined into something more tonal, and soon kids began experimenting with playing the melodies of the local angklung music on multiple kentongan through clever interlocking parts. This in turn evolved into using the angklung itself, a keyed bamboo xylophone played with the shreddy intensity that is so characteristic of the Bali-flavored Banyuwangi sound. With the angklung taking over the melodic elements of the tapestry, the sharp percussive role of the old kentongan was replaced by katir, larger bamboo slit drums supposedly salvaged in the old days from the long outriggers of the canoe-like jukung boats that once lined Banyuwangi’s coast. The katir feature two slits down their length, allowing for a number of sounds to emerge when held under the arm and hit by the bamboo drumsticks. A variety of rhythmic effects are also made possible by the interlocking of the "male" (lanangan) and "female" (wadonan) katir.
To root all this sharp, trebley sound, groups also began to add gong bambu, two or three huge tuned bamboo cylinders balanced horizontally on some kind of rack, with the musician sandwiched in the middle. Likely inspired by the huge jegog bamboo orchestras of West Bali just across the strait, the gong bambu is hit with soft, fabric-covered beaters to mimic the resonant boom of the gong; however, rather than acting as a purely rhythmic punctuation as the gong often does in gamelan, the gong bambu plays simple, catchy bass lines which both follow and anchor the rhythmic and melodic shred of the other instruments.
The musik patrol group I met and recorded in Temenggungan takes these evolutions a few steps further in terms of rhythm, tuning, and instrumentation. Other groups, the musicians explained, have at best two rhythmic bases to all of their tunes: Balian (a rhythm mimicking the Balinese style) and Banyuwangian (an essentially Banyuwangi rhythm, less intense than the Bali style.) Temenggungan’s secret ingredient is a third rhythm they call Santana.
Santana, like the guitarist.
It turns out that Latin American music was huge in Banyuwangi in the 60s and 70s, especially that of the great Santana and his eponymous group. Santana fans in Temenggungan, always game to experiment, began taking the Latin rhythms they heard in Santana’s songs and translating it to the Banyuwangi musical idiom, that distinctive Latin groove played on gong bambu, katir, and the kluncing, the musical triangle ubiquitous in Banyuwangi (and very fitting for that swinging Latin rhythm!)
Another innovation was in tuning: Banyuwangi’s traditional music is almost entirely played in slendro, a kind of pentatonic scale with five notes spread evenly across one octave. This even spread makes salendro melodies particularly difficult to play on Western instruments designed to play the uneven intervals of the Western tonal system. In order to better accommodate the addition of other instruments like guitar or flute, the tonal instruments of the musik patrol ensemble were re-geared to play a diatonic approximation of the traditional slendro scale. This re-tooling may be one aspect of musik patrol’s perceived freshness: ears tuned in this globalized world are often more at ease with instruments tuned diatonically. Even for the local Osing who have been playing in slendro for centuries, the traditional scale can begin to sound “out of tune.”
The third and one of the most surprising innovations in Temenggungan is the evolution of the suling, or flute. In other parts of Banyuwangi, musik patrol groups often include the bamboo suling to embellish the melodies of its percussive partners. In Temenggungan, the bamboo flute has been replaced by the suling paralon, a transverse flute made of PVC pipe! The explanation is funny enough: the Temenggungan group’s suling player, Mbah Yon, works in construction as a day job, so he's not only crafty but also as comfortable with the PVC of modern construction as he is with bamboo. Indeed, PVC might be the bamboo of our time: plentiful, cheap, and easily modified, it fits in remarkably well with the organic tapestry of angklung, katir, and the rest.
These days, musik patrol is played most often at events like lomba, a kind of Battle of the Bands. These events, often put on during Ramadan or for government-arranged festivals, are another key to the fresh vibrancy of the musik patrol scene. Much of the aforementioned evolutions are surely a result of competition, groups one-upping each other to do something new and creative with the art while still keeping the Banyuwangi spirit. The tunes played are also tailored to the event: A lomba during Ramadan might feature songs with lyrics espousing piety and good morals, while a lomba organized by the local police department might feature tunes like “Siskamling”, a touching ode to the magic of the neighborhood watch.
Even as musik patrol grows and changes, it maintains a sound that is rooted in the Banyuwangi aesthetic and idiom. Perhaps because of this, even when a band is playing rhythms inspired by Santana and blowing away on a PVC pipe, the music could be mistaken as something centuries old. It maintains this elusive authenticity by walking that tightrope brilliantly, evolving with the times but always preserving that unmistakable character of the Banyuwangi sound.
In 2015, my friend Arrington de Dionyso traveled to Banyuwangi and collaborated with the Temenggungan musik patrol group. When I finally heard the recordings, I was blown away: the wild yet familiar sounds of Arrington’s free jazz bass clarinet and bromiophone were riding the waves of an ensemble totally unfamiliar to me. What was this group that sounded like Steve Reich in a bamboo grove? The rippling repetition of the bamboo percussion was as fresh and seductive as Arrington’s far out sound. Who were these guys??
Through Arrington I was put in touch with a great group of artists and community organizers in Banyuwangi proper who, I was happy to find out, could easily get me in touch with the Temenggungan musik patrol group. After driving over land from Bandung to Banyuwangi and recording some amazing kuntulan and janger, my next step was to meet these gods of musik patrol. My new friend and guide Ulfah offered to take me to the urban village of Temenggungan to meet with the group on my second night in town.
Temenggungan, Ulfah told me, has a rough history and an even rougher reputation in Banyuwangi. Known as a stronghold of liberal artists, the village fared poorly during the communist purges of 1965 (musik patrol, I later learned, laid dormant for quite some time afterwards.) Well into the 21st century it suffered from a reputation as a village with drug, alcohol, and gambling problems, much of it rooted in chronic unemployment. The village’s famous musik patrol group was its one point of pride: the music’s associations with community, tradition, and religion makes it the perfect centerpiece for a community trying to clean up its image.
We met the leader, Mas Epeng, in front of his house in a dimly lit alley. Neighbors sat in a nearby hut stealthily drinking tuak rice wine as musicians filed in bringing bamboo instruments by the handful: katir, angklung, and gong bambu. The huge bamboo cylinders of the gong bambu were balanced precariously on a handful of plastic deck chairs with a young guy sitting in the middle, resting his feet up high on the instrument’s frame. The rest of the group, by and large, were the seniors, the older generation still in the process of handing the music down to the young kids who will replace them. Just like obrog-obrogan, musik patrol is almost always played by teenagers and younger, but I was reassured knowing that the older guys had decades of practice under their belts.
With the group and their instruments arranged in a messy circle around me, we set about recording and shooting, with breaks in between tunes for explanations and shots of tuak. Eventually with enough tuak and familiarity, things loosened up and the band began to play long medleys, ten-minute long epics full of pop-song like bridges and choruses. I could see how this structure was as as integral an evolution as the instruments and rhythms: many percussion ensembles in Indonesia play songs that pick a rhythm or melody and then repeat it until its felt to have run its course. Perhaps inspired by the competitive, populist spirit of the local musical competitions, musik patrol in Temenggungan has evolved to have a variety within songs that feels fresh but natural. The guys proclaimed proudly throughout the night that they were consistently number one at these competitions. What’s more, they were trendsetters! They had been the first to start using diatonic tuning, with other groups in the area following suit soon after. It was a beautiful thing to see, the pride in this local music helping to mend the decades of social ills and struggles.
Banyuwangi Putra is: Eko, Muriono, and Kusbandi on angklung; Epeng, Fredy, and Feri on katir; Hendra on gong bambu; Mbah Yon on suling paralon, and Kuswari on kluncing. Terima kasih semuanya, dan terima kasih banyak juga Mbak Ulfah yang telah memperkenalkan saya dengan grup ini yang luar biasa :)