Location: Rajawana, Purbalingga, Central Java
In the cool highlands of Purbalingga in Central Java, not far from the looming volcanic cone of Mt. Slamet, a spiritual and musical tradition has been quietly passed down from mother to daughter throughout the centuries. Locals call it braen, an enigmatic name which seems to draw links just as it obscures them.
My fascination with braen started with that strangely familiar name. On one of my typical YouTube trawls, I chanced upon some videos labeled “braen” and was surprised by its similarity to another Javanese art form called brai. I had just finished reading a fascinating article by Matthew Isaac Cohen called “Brai in Performance: Religious Ecstasy and Art in Java” which describes and examines brai, an “oral art […] as well as a devotional practice” which is “performed by groups of male and female mystics who sing in Arabic and Javanese, accompanying themselves with spirited clapping and percussion.” This art form, Cohen goes on to explain, is centered around the cultural nexus of Cirebon on Java’s northwestern coast. With a name that literally means “passion” or “ecstasy”, sometimes in the sexual sense, brai is a living link to a rich, somewhat obscure history of mystical Islam in Java.
Queue that YouTube discovery: a cell phone video labeled “braen” of women singing in Arabic and Javanese and accompanying themselves on percussion. A quick Googling revealed that these women were in Purbalingga, more than 150 kilometers from the surviving brai practitioners in Cirebon: in Java, this may as well be a whole other world! Google revealed little else: if I wanted to find the link between brai and braen, I'd have to go to Purbalingga myself.
In the village of Rajawana I met Mbah Salihah, the elderly custodian of the braen tradition. Despite being a tiny, jilbabed woman in her seventies, Salihah was an intimidating presence with, it seemed, a kind of intense seriously about her. She speaks only Javanese, but through family and members of her group, I could begin to grasp at the fascinating yet murky history of this hyperlocal devotional tradition.
Salihah, local wisdom says, is the thirteenth in a long line of descendants of Sheikh Machdum Kusen, a pangeran wali (literally “saint prince”) revered for spreading Islam in this corner of Java. To this day Javanese Islam looks towards such saints (especially the Wali Sanga, or nine saints) with veneration, and their tombs, sprinkled about the island, are still popular sites for religious pilgrimage. The area around Rajawana is sprinkled with such tombs (as is Cirebon, land of brai), and Mbah Salihah's groups often performs braen at these sites, especially that of Sheikh Machdum Kusen.
Salihah’s family line is traced matrilineally - that is, from mother to daughter. Salihah and the women who came before her are called Rubiyah, a name supposedly taken from Sheikh Husen’s wife. As Rubiyah, Salihah is the leader of the all-female group of singers that make up Rajawana’s braen group. This may be surprising at first glance: Islam (and Javanese culture in general) can be intensely patriarchal, but art forms like braen and the related brai have deep roots in Sufism, a mystical style of Islam with a greater history of embracing feminine power (the title Rubiyah may actually have roots in the Indonesian name for Rabi’a al-‘Adawiyya, a historical female Muslim saint and mystic still revered by modern Sufis.)
The Rubiyah is the only member of the braen group to play an instrument, a large terbang frame drum with a conical body made of heavy jackfruit wood and a head made of goatskin. While the skin has been changed a few times throughout the years, Salihah and her family consider the terbang to be a relic that stretches back even to the time of Sheikh Husen.
Through much of Muslim Indonesia, the terbang or rebana is considered to have religious significance for its role in the early spread of Islam, but local lore gives it and braen in general even greater powers. Local historian Trio Atmo tells a fantastic origin story: In 1527, he says, Rajawana was threatened with invasion as soldiers from the Pajajaran kingdom of West Java skirmished with the Sultanate of Demak in Central Java. As Rajawana’s leader, Sheikh Kusen called upon a group of women (led, according to some, by the original Rubiyah) from the local pesantren (a kind of Islamic boarding school) to sing and play terbang. As the music rang out, a huge swarm of wasps appeared, as if summoned, and attacked the Pajajaran soldiers, prompting a quick retreat. The elements of braen’s mythology are laid bare in this simple story, with a kind of mystical power divided between Sheikh Kusen (and the implied might of Central Javanese kingdoms!), the female musicians, and the music itself.
While all-female groups featuring Islamic devotional songs with frame drum accompaniment are common throughout Muslim Indonesia in the form of qasidah, braen is distinguished not only by its history but by its syncretic stylings. Just as with Cirebonese brai, braen is set apart by its Java-ness: the lyrics feature Arabic mixed with Javanese (and, the musicians claimed, Sundanese and Malay) while the melodies use the ubiquitous Javanese salendro and pelog tunings. Unlike brai, however, the braen music I heard was not exactly fevered and ecstatic. Rather, it has a kind of deliberate, unadorned slowness about it that reminds me of the mystical Sundanese gembyung music I’ve heard in West Java.
Every piece begins with the Rubiyah: as she starts to sing and beat the drum with a dum-tak-dum-rest rhythm, a group of a dozen or so women follow, singing in unison. Salihah has described the central theme as panyuwunan, a Javanese word roughly meaning supplication or invocation. In other words, braen is a musical expression of devotion, a calling out to god. Every piece ends, just like a prayer, with "Astaghfirullah", an Arabic expression meaning "I seek forgiveness from Allah."
Unsurprisingly, the performance of braen is thick with ritual. Before the music is played, an assortment of offerings must be laid out before the musicians, from rice and bananas to household items like soap and mirrors. Without these, folks swear, the drum will not sound. There is also an order to the sung pieces, with the tune “Awang Uwung” always leading the set. The song tells of the time before there was life on earth, with an essential message of “ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” With such somber material, it's not surprising that braen is often performed for rituals such as nyewu, the memorializing of a family member a thousand days after their death. It is also tied to important dates in the Islamic calendar, with rituals performed in the months of Muharam, Rajab, and Dzulhijah.
I came to Rajawana hoping to find a clear link between the brai tradition of Cirebon and the braen of Purbalingga, but I left with this relationship even more unclear. Brai has unabashedly Sufi roots, and its practitioners, male and female, are said to have mystical powers. However, when I asked the braen singers about Sufism, they claimed ignorance. When asked if they knew about the brai tradition of Cirebon, I got another negative. Finally, when I asked if Mbah Salihah has any kind of mystical powers, I was met with hearty laughter. She’s no mystic, they said. She’s just a Rubiyah.
What to make of this? Braen surely has the same Sufi roots as brai, and it is undoubtedly marked by these roots. But the musicians themselves seemed to feel completely divorced from this original context. This, I realized, is understandable: in his essay on brai, Cohen mentions how brai practitioners in 19th century Java were often seen more or less as cultish sinners, with much of the disdain stemming from accounts of brai rituals ending in massive orgies. Were the women (or their foremothers) ashamed of these ecstatic, mystical roots? One local musician friend expressed skepticism that braen ever had deep mystical roots to begin with. The name braen, he offered, could come from braian, with “-an” acting as a kind of modifier that softens the action. “Playing at brai”, you could say, or “in the style of brai.” In other words, not brai in its most authentic form. Whatever the case, braen is a fascinating little genre with a deep history that I’ve only just begun to explore.
Despite the best efforts of my poncho, I was soaking wet by the time I got to Rajawana. We had ridden through the rain for nearly an hour led by Mas Bowo, a filmmaker from Purbalingga who’d already made a short film about braen and had agreed to help me with my own research.
It was a lucky connection, as I’d visited the town the previous night to seek out Mbah Solihah and found a rather stern woman who spoke no Indonesian - a friendly connection would hopefully smooth things over.
I had humbly asked for a simple demonstration for documentary purposes, but it was clear when we arrived that the music and its ritual was a complete package. What had been a sitting room the night before had been transformed into a ritual space, the fraying sofas replaced by offerings of fruit and incense. Ten women were kneeling on a woven mat in the center of the room. Wearing matching white headscarves, batik shirts, and olive green skirts, the women were arranged in two rows with Mbah Solihah in the middle. As I set up my gear, Solihah and another woman meticulously passed the terbang over a burning bowl of coconut fiber, warming the goatskin and imbuing it with an unseen power.
The ritual began in earnest with a lengthy prayer, the women holding their hands in front of their faces and praying in Arabic as the sounds of rain and a nearby mosque loudspeaker leaked in through the windows. With the performance formally commenced, Solihah began her slow and steady dum-tak-dum-rest, leading the group in a chant-like rendition of “Awang Uwung.” The women’s voices were purposefully plain, it seemed, with sing-song melodies resembling lagu dolanan or Javanese children’s songs. Clearly, though, it meant something to them, as some closed their eyes in reverie as they sang.
After a handful of pieces had passed, I felt I’d heard a decent sampling, and shyly told the group that if they were tired, that was enough. I’d been surprised by the ritual formality of it all: I often explicitly commission performances, but this time I found myself thinking: you’re doing all this for me? Maybe it was the sacred vibe of the music, but suddenly I felt that in coming and asking for them to play, I’d been a bit flippant, not realizing the gravity of the artform and its presentation. I was surprised, though, to hear the women answer that they couldn’t stop just yet: the performance had a kind of minimum length. We’ll have to play for another hour and a half, they said.
And so they did, song after song of dum-tak-dum-rest and those minimalist Javanese melodies, some of them repeated throughout the set. As the women sang, my eyes wandered towards the offerings: a LUX brand bar of soap was nestled in with a green banana, a pack of cigarettes mingling with a comb and a mirror. There was such a depth of meaning here, from the offerings to the lyrics to the ritual, but in that moment it was almost all lost on me, the foreigner with the camera in the corner. It seemed to be lost on the younger generation too, as a handful of kids played right outside, occasionally peeking through the windows in curiosity, tapping the glass as their grandmas shooed them away. The youngest singer, I later learned, was nearly forty, with the oldest reaching ninety. Whatever meaning was there, whatever deep history and knowledge is locked in this music, it is shared by this small group of women and few others. Whether their daughters or nieces will continue this five hundred year old tradition remains to be seen. The next Rubiyah, it seems, has yet to be chosen.