Location: Mamsena, North Central Timor, East Nusa Tenggara
Sound: Leku Sene
There's kind of an unspoken notion in cultures across Indonesia that instruments, and sometimes music in general, are only for men: for a woman to play tarawangsa or gendang beleq, for example, would likely strike people from those respective communities as very strange indeed. If pressed on the whys of the matter, most defer to tradition: this is just how it's always been, the men play the music, the women may sing or dance. There seems to be an implicit masculine energy coursing around instrumental music in these cultures, especially percussive music that has ties to physical strength and bravado.
Maybe because of this, I always find it so refreshing to meet with and explore female-centered musical traditions in Indonesia. Take leku sene, a gong and drum ensemble popular around the Dawan (also called Atoni or Meto) areas of North Central Timor. This is a musical genre exclusively played by women or girls - five or six differently tuned gongs are hung from a crossbar and played by a handful of musicians, with some playing two gongs, others playing just one. Next to the gongs, four or five musicians sit around an upright drum, pounding out syncopated rhythms with both hands in a relay: as soon as one musician gets tired, another subs in for her, and so on. This kind of ensemble is what ethnomusicologist Philip Yampolsky (who's put out some great leku sene recordings himself) calls a "non-melodic ensemble," a form quite popular in this eastern corner of Indonesia. In contrast to the equally female-centric talempong Unggan gong tradition of West Sumatra where gongs are arranged and played to create distinct melodies, the music of non-melodic ensembles like leku sene is built around repetitive gong figures that are more rhythmic then melodic (although that's not to suggest that there's a fine line between the two forms.) In leku sene, the gongs (Yampolsky records them as pairs called sene ainaf, sene tolok, and sene otet) are beat in fast, syncopated rhythmic loops built from the intertwining of multiple gongs, with special damping techniques used to make the interlocking rhythms crystal clear.
From a Western feminist perspective, it's easy to see a group of young girls pounding away confidently on drums and gongs and think "Girl power!", but I didn't get the sense that the Dawan people themselves necessarily see this music as some potent symbol of female strength. When pressed on why only women play this music, the best answer I got was that women play the music because the men are busy dancing. The music is mostly an accompaniment for a kind of performative dance that folks in Mamsena called tarian gong, or simply "gong dance": on both occasions that I recorded this music, boys and men wore bell-like rattles tied around their ankles as they twirled about, some with swords. The sound of the instruments were sometimes joined by the calls and spontaneous hollers of the dancers as they followed the syncopated patterns of the gongs and drums. Such music and dance performances often accompany ceremonies to celebrate the building of a new rumah adat, a kind of storehouse for local relics and magical objects.
Regardless of who's playing, this is infectious music: the intense, two-handed playing of the goat skin drum (Yampolsky calls it ke'e) has a beautiful fluidity, seeming to dip forward and behind the rigid but swinging beat of the ever-looping gongs. All the while, the leg-rattles ting-a-ling beside them, the syncopated rhythms embodied through dance. Some may find it monotonous, but I find it hypnotic, rhythms and little hints of melody teased out and fixed more and more in your mind with each passing loop.
Mamsena is a small, one-street kind of village about an hour from the regional hub of Kefamenanu (itself a small town with around 40,000 inhabitants, which I suppose is big by Timorese standards.) From my limited wanderings around the area, it seemed to be a pretty typical Dawan village, with small houses and even larger lopos (open-air huts with sloping, thatched roofs) separated by quaint fields of corn. On the village's edge is a small river -if you cross it, as I did, you'll find a beautiful, rolling green pasture on the other side, a place for the local cattle and horses to graze to their hearts' content. We were there simply because my friend and guide Denny's grandfather lived there and had offered to host us, but it felt hand-picked as a warm, idyllic snapshot of the beauty of this corner of the island.
Denny's grandpa lived right by the village's SDK, or Catholic elementary school. As a kind of welcome to the village, the headmaster had arranged a special performance for us (actually, two performances - my travel companions and video team Greg and Marianne showed up a day before me and were treated to a show even before I arrived.) Students as young as six are trained in traditional music and dance, and it was an honor for them to share what they'd learned with the only bule to come through the village in recent memory.
Now, I've probably said before, I'm usually cynically uninterested in recording music played by children. Of course, musical traditions are kept healthy and alive by passing on the music to younger generations, but as a snapshot of a music, I usually have two issues with kiddy jams: one, their playing or singing is usually either sloppy or too stiff, and two, there's sometimes a kind of schmaltzy sweetness to the whole thing that just rubs me the wrong way (maybe this is why I feel like I'll never have kids?)
That said, the kids of Mamsena took my cynical misgivings and totally destroyed them. The girls, dressed up in their finest ikat and make-up, totally shredded on their gongs and drums, pounding out the deceptively tricky rhythms with a kind of confidence and endurance which I was totally not expecting. The boys, meanwhile, totally owned their Lost Boys-esque performance, pounding the ground in perfect sync with the syncopated drums, elaborate coin-filled headdresses tinkling as they held miniature swords to the air. In one moment that Greg called "very Lord of the Flies", the boys climbed up on some assembled classroom desks and chairs, hollering out war cries as if they were taking over the school.
Ever since that fierce performance in the elementary school courtyard in Mamsena, my cynical misgivings about children's music in Indonesia has melted away: since then I've recorded great young musicians in West and East Java who showed that as long as you've got the talent, age is just a number. The next day, we were treated to another performance of Leku Sene in Boni (the same music-filled day that gave us the bidu and ratapan tracks) - I'm sharing a track from that performance as well. In Boni, the music was performed by seasoned pros, older women who attacked their instruments with just as much fierce energy as their children. Try to give a blind listen to the recordings and see if you can tell which is which. Regardless of their age, the girls and women of Timor are totally killing it, and I can only hope that the young girls of Mamsena will themselves hand down their percussive shreddery to their own children as well when the time comes.
This is the last of my series on music in Timor, at least for now! So one final thanks to my friend and fixer extraordinaire Denny, who so selflessly arranged everything for us, so perfectly, and to Greg, who singlehandedly produced and edited the video that we shot together, adding a lovely professional shine to my usual amateurish ethnographizing. And of course to the kids of Mamsena: terima kasih and skidaddle!