Location: Sungai Tunu, Ranah Pesisir, West Sumatra
Sound: Gandang Sarunai (Pesisir Selatan Style)
As people move across the world, they often take their musics with them, intangible traditions stuffed under their arms alongside suitcases and cardboard boxes. With these diasporic flows, musics change along with people’s lives - sounds and practices shift as they take root in new environs, interact with new neighbors, and new traditions flourish. The stories of these changes are sometimes epic - think of the thousands of ways African music has evolved in its flows across the Atlantic, from Brazil to Cuba to the American South. But there are smaller stories too, subtle ones, of movement and change playing out across the world every day.
The Minangkabau of West Sumatra are famous movers. Minang society has been hugely shaped by the tradition of merantau, or ritual immigration: young Minang men are expected to move from home, whether across the province or across the archipelago, to search for fortune and new experiences. The tradition has spread aspects of Minang culture across the Indonesian archipelago - think nasi padang, or Minang cuisine, which has become a favorite of Indonesians across the country as West Sumatran immigrants opened up restaurants from Java to Papua.
Minang people rarely bring their music on these cross-country moves, as the sounds are too deeply tied to rituals and traditions which are left behind. But for the less epic journeys, musical traditions can and sometimes do survive the move, if not entirely unchanged.
In our last post, we talked about gandang sarunai, a regional musical tradition found in Solok Selatan, a peripheral but deep-rooted corner of the Minangkabau heartland. Solok Selatan is a remote place, hemmed in by mountains on all sides. According to legend, more than five hundred years ago the people of the Sungai Pagu kingdom in Solok Selatan undertook a journey that seems tiny on a map: around forty kilometers (twenty five miles) as the crow flies, to the west, to an area of the Pesisir Selatan (South Coast) called Banda Sapuluah, or the Ten Harbors. In practice, it must have been an epic journey: the mighty Bukit Barisan range, that great spine that runs the length of Sumatra, lies right in the middle. To this day it is essentially impassible, a wild, jungley expanse of misty peaks still home to tigers. In my own journey between these places, I had to loop around far south, dip into another province (the highlands of Jambi) and back again on rough mountainous switchbacks, a slow motorbike ride of almost ten hours.
It must have been quite a journey, but they made it intact: the people of this part of Pesisir Selatan are able, to this day, to trace their lineage over the mountains to Sungai Pagu. The South Coast is a very different place than Sungai Pagu: their ancestors traded fertile, cool highlands for flat, steaming coastline. The South Coast is a land tied, naturally, to the sea, and the area’s important harbors made it a place of converging influences: for centuries, the Minangkabau mingled with Coastal Malays, Portuguese traders, and Dutch colonialists. This cultural contact is seen in the area’s other musical traditions, like rabab, where a modified European violin is played in a very Minang way, a bed for epic poetry.
Pesisir Selatan is the only other area of West Sumatra that has a tradition of gandang sarunai, making it likely that this musical format was carried over by immigrants from its ancestral homeland in Sungai Pagu (how the style, complete with Indian-style double reed, made it way to Sungai Pagu is another, more mysterious story.) This story is one of movement and change, and gandang sarunai seems to have evolved on the other side of those great mountains into a different beast: a subtle difference, it should be said, one which is revealed through a close attention to detail.
The extended coastline of Pesisir Selatan is itself a diverse area, which should be kept in mind as I write about a very specific tradition in one specific stretch, the coastal villages in the area called Banda Sapuluah. In her book Musical Journeys in Sumatra, the legendary ethnomusicologist Margaret Kartomi devotes a whole chapter to the various traditions of the wider area of the South Coast. Her descriptions of gandang sarunai often differ quite a bit from what I encountered, and even those traditions that she did meet were not homogeneous. As Kartomi stresses, “The inhabitants of most south-coastal villages lived in relative isolation for centuries, until roads were built between them” forty or fifty years ago. This isolation made for a great variety in styles: some gandang sarunai groups featured sarunai double reed instruments that were collapsible like an umbrella, while others added six or more talempong gong chimes. Some played the music to accompany local dance styles, like the tari-tari alang, or “sacred ancestral female eagle dances.” This is all according to Kartomi’s fieldwork from nearly forty years ago - it’s sad but likely that much of those other traditions may already be gone by now.
In the Banda Sapuluah area of the coast, the gandang sarunai tradition lives on hundreds of years after being imported from Sungai Pagu. On an instrumental level, the gandang sarunai of the coast is subtly different from that of Solok’s highlands. The twin drums, or gandang, are essentially of the same construction but quite a bit narrower. While the gandang of Solok Selatan combined heads made with goatskin and the skin of a kijang, the coastal gandang are all goatskin - the gandang batino or female gandang uses the skin of a female goat, while the gandang jantan, or male gandang, uses the skin of a male goat. The double reed sarunai is also a bit different: in the highlands, it could either be a bamboo version (actually single reed), or a cool hybrid creature with a bamboo body, wooden bell, and a reed made from a fresh green rice stalk. On the coast, it’s all wood, with a reed (puput) made from two bits of thin coconut leaf tied together with duck feather (bulu iti.) It’s a tiny detail, but the reed gives the sarunai a noticeably different sound than the rice stalk style used in Solok Selatan.
Musically, the two gandang sarunai styles are also noticeably different. The coastal style is obviously based on the same fundamentals, with double gandang playing interlocking rhythms while the sarunai, played with circular breathing (selisi angok), provides a looping melody. The highland style, though, had a distinct emphasis on the drums, with a specific repertoire of twelve pieces differentiated by rhythm. The coastal style, meanwhile, seems to place more emphasis on the sarunai and its melody. The gandang rhythms, meanwhile, are only subtly different from piece to piece, with a more uniform timbre (maybe because the coastal musicians don’t use a tanduak buffalo horn beater to get that distinct bassy tone that the highland drummers like). With a more uniform rhythmic basis, though, the sarunai really does shine in the coastal style, with a firm melodic style that reminds me of the sarune playing in the Toba gondang sabangunan tradition of North Sumatra.
The gandang sarunai pieces of the coast are distinctly cheerier, what the musicians call gembira or “joyful.” Perhaps this is due to the context - highland style gandang sarunai is more closely tied to silek martial arts, a rather serious art form itself, while coastal gandang sarunai is linked more with wedding rituals, with the music giving events like baralek (a Minang-style wedding procession) and hantaran bako (a ritual wedding gift-giving from the bride’s male lineage) a joyful, ramai (busy, exciting) atmosphere.
Much of my first post on highland gandang sarunai focused on that style’s deep ties to silek martial arts. This is not lost in the coastal style: one of the three main coastal pieces is called “Lagu Mancak”, with mancak being the Minang word for aestheticized movements used in the more performative silek style. The piece is not played at stand-alone silek performances, but within the context of randai, a widespread style of Minang folk theater that combines music, dance, silek, and drama. The piece is tied to a particular randai story telling of the exploits of a great tribal leader named Datuak Sampono Batuah. Sampono Batuah was the head of the Kampai clan in Sungai Pagu, the kingdom from which gandang sarunai and the people of this part of the coast originate.
That immigration occurred, according to legend, more than five hundred years ago - it’s remarkable to think that music and stories from that ancestral homeland have survived the journey and live on even after half a millennium has passed. It’s a testament to the ties the Minang maintain to their ancestors and homelands, ties forged through legend, through ritual, and through music. In this way, gandang sarunai is not just a cheerful music played to enliven wedding parties. It is, like so much other amazing music in the world, a living artifact of movement and history, an artifact reaching across time and space, over the centuries and across those Barisan mountains.
The road south from Padang hugged the coast, rising and falling as I skipped from bay to bay. Coastal islands came into view and faded away, brief glimpses of narrow beaches through stands of coconut palms. Having spent most of my time in West Sumatra in the highlands Minang people call darek, I’d come to associate that geography with the province: misty mountains, cascading rice paddies, still mountain lakes. Here, though, was a whole other world unfolding in front of me, a hot and steamy coastline permeated with the smell of the sea.
The drive took about five hours, as sudden torrential rains forced me to seek shelter in roadside farmer’s huts. The towns were few and far between: overgrown market hubs like Painan and Kambang soon became a welcoming distraction between vast swaths of flattening farmland and spare forest. Soon enough, Google Maps told me I’d arrived in my destination: Sungai Tunu.
This was another YouTube lead: I’d gotten in touch with a guy named Evrianto, a Sungai Tunu local who’d uploaded some cell phone video of gandang sarunai at a wedding party. Epi, as he liked to be called, had responded enthusiastically to my comments on the video, inviting me to come to his village and meet the musicians in the video.
I sent Epi a message letting him know that I’d arrived in the village, and he sent me his GPS coordinates through Whatsapp (what a time to be alive!). Come meet me, he texted, I’m out in the fields. I followed the tag and found Epi waving me over, guiding my motorbike down a muddy path and over a tiny creek into his little slice of heaven: a wide, neatly planted crop of cucumbers.
Epi invited me up into a raised hut where they were processing the cucumbers. He handed me one with a broad, gaunt smile, launching into a description of the cucumber business with a clear pride. You would’ve thought I’d come to research cucumbers as he took me through the fields, showing me which ones were ready to pick, which ones were rotten. This, I’d learn, was Epi - unfailingly enthusiastic about everything he talked about. Later that day he’d spend half an hour talking in minute detail about the most popular video on his YouTube channel: an ad for his well-pumping side business.
It was a nice introduction to the slightly eccentric opennness and generosity I’d come to find on the South Coast. People in Padang had warned me before heading south - “Be careful down there, don’t eat or drink anything that people give you.” There was a legend that passers-through would sometimes be poisoned by locals, they’d explained. The story was clearly well known in the South Coast too, as Epi invited me to make my own coffee, an odd gesture in a country where a guest’s every desire must be fulfilled by the host. “They have you make your own coffee,” a friend later explained, “so you know they’re not poisoning you.”
Epi put me up in the house of his friend John, a successful city boy from the highlands of Payakumbuh who’d moved back to his wife’s village in search of a simpler life. John made a great host: he’d greeted me in the cucumber fields with confident English, a leftover from his days working as a guide. He now worked part time as an English teacher in Painan, spending the rest of his time playing farmer at home.
We arranged for a recording sesh at John’s house the next day. A stiflingly hot midday soon gave way to stormclouds in the afternoon. We met the musicians at Epi’s house and led them down the dirt road to John’s place, one of the motorbikes balancing two gandangs one either side of its taillight.
Rain was falling in fat drops as we pulled up to John’s, so we piled into his spotless living room to wait out the downpour. Sitting rather awkwardly on John’s fancy faux-leather sofas, the musicians prepared their instruments as we got to know each other a bit. The clear leader of the crew was Pak Kadir, the sarunai maestro. Pak Kadir introduced me to the others, who spoke little Indonesian: there was Pak Sakur, who played ganrang in addition to being a rabab pro (I’d be recording rabab in the same session, but more on that in a later post); Pak Buyung, the oldest of the group, a ganrang master who seemed happy to barely speak a word; and Uni Sier, a younger woman who would join the later rabab sesh as a vocalist.
After the rain abated, we set up on John’s back porch, a shady rectangle of tile looking out on his vegetable crops and a fish pond. It was hemmed in by a chicken coop full of young chicks and a mama hen scurrying around, a bit of aural seasoning which would have made it into the recording if not for the considerable loudness of the music.
John’s family came out to watch as the gandang sarunai trio arranged themselves in front of my mics and began to play, Pak Kadir’s wooden sarunai looping classic major-sounding Minang melodies as Pak Sakur played a constant tatap rhythm on his drum to be filled in with stoic intensity by Pak Buyung’s interlocking meningkah part. These were pieces designed to be repeated infinitely if need be, with little variation, a good trick as the repertoire is quite small and the music is often played on long wedding processions crossing from village to village. With this in mind, I’d signal the musicians after they’d cycled through a decent number of loops and we’d stop to drink some coffee and talk about the song they’d just played.
After the first piece (“Lagu Mancak”), a neighbor came up, clutching his wrist. As he sat to see what we were up to, he explained in Bahasa Minang that he’d just fallen in the fields, and his wrist was sprained or maybe broken. With a trained confidence, the sarunai maestro Pak Kadir took the man’s wrist between his hands and began to rub it, extending the man’s arm out towards him and whispering a prayer. That was the moment i realized that Pak Kadir was also a dukun, something between a shaman and a traditional healer. After the next song, Pak Kadir was interrupted again, this time by one of John’s relatives, who was seeking advice on some arcane problem of clan heirarchy and adat, or traditional custom. Pak Kadir listened seriously and gave a confident, almost chiding answer. It was telling that a man with such spiritual power and expertise would be heading the gandang sarunai ensemble, a sign pointing towards the music’s ritual significance and the importance of having a powerful figure at the helm.
The next day, I said my goodbyes and took my motorbike into the mountains, swinging up through the rainforested peaks of the Barisan and into Jambi before landing in Sungai Pagu, the ancestral homeland of gandang sarunai. Back in the cool highlands, hemmed in by mountains, my few days by the coast came to feel like a dream. I’d return to the coast weeks later to teach an English class with John and crash a rabab-filled wedding party, but meeting gandang sarunai in its highland iteration too felt like a returns. The people and places were different, but the reeds and drums resounded like a memory.
Saya mau mengucapkan tarimo kasih sebesar-besarnya kepada musisinya, Pak Kadir, Pak Sakur, dan Pak Buyung, dan kepada teman baru saya, Uda John dan Uda Evrianto alias Epi :)