The first time Rabih Beaini heard tarawangsa was in my backyard. The Lebanese electronic experimentalist was in Bandung to play a few sets and hear as much music as possible, so I’d invited him to a gig in my neighborhood of Cikalapa, a grid of steep footpaths hemmed in by rice paddies and the surging Cikapundung river. I’d been lucky to move to a music-filled neighborhood, and serendipity placed an annual village arts festival right at our feet.
It had been raining all day, so the grass in front of the newly built stage was wet beneath our feet as we danced to the amplified music, multi-colored scarves swaying from around our necks. While the event was outside the typical ritual context of harvest ceremonies, the vibe was still there: incense smoke floated through the air in front of the musicians, a tarawangsa bowed lute and jentreng zither playing looping variations that seemed to hang in the cool night air. Rabih joined with digital recorder in hand, swaying to the sound as young men from the neighborhood fell into trance, some crawling on the ground, others drifting with closed eyes. As the night wore on, I could see the music pulling Rabih in.
Months later, Rabih phoned me from Berlin with an idea: he wanted to collaborate with tarawangsa musicians, forming an experimental group which could then tour Europe. It was perfect timing: Rabih had been tapped for an artists’ residency as part of the Europalia International Arts Festival, and the tarawangsa music had been calling him since his return to Europe.
I was initially unsure of the idea. Tarawangsa is traditionally a sacred music, played only in certain ritual contexts tied to the cycle of the rice harvest. In its heartland of Rancakalong, a village in the area of Sumedang east of Bandung, this ritual context is still very much a deep, living tradition. However, I was beginning to see Sundanese musicians open the musical tradition up to new forms and experimentation. The grandest was a “world record”: fifty tarawangsa duos played together simultaneously in a mass concert in the city of Sumedang, a move which showed that the music (or rather, the musicians and their communities) was open to change in the spirit of revival.
By the time Rabih arrived in Bandung again in April, a new experimental trio had been imagined: Rabih on electronics (an array of samplers and effects pedals, essentially) and the young Bandung duo Tarawangsawelas featuring Teguh Permana on tarawangsa and Wisnu Ridwana on jentreng. Teguh and Wisnu were a rare thing: young, English-speaking, university-trained musicians who had steeped themselves in the tarawangsa tradition, studying with the old masters of Rancakalong. They had run the idea of the experimental trio past the Rancakalong locals and been met with approval: anything to get the music out there.
Lesser artists, I think, would be happy to let the “traditional musicians” play while noodling with electronics on top, but Rabih’s vision from the beginning was to create a musical dialogue, with both sides having to accommodate one another. Luckily, Teguh and Wisnu were no staunch traditionalists: in addition to playing traditional Sundanese music, both had also featured in local experimental acts, such as a choir of black metal growlers called Ensemble Tikoro. Rabih, likewise, was ready to respond to the traditional forms of the music without bulldozing his way over them.
Luckily, the bedrock of tarawangsa music made for a surprisingly sweet match with Rabih’s digital manipulation. Both Rabih’s sound world (most often playing as Morphosis) and tarawangsa’s are built on looping repetition and minimalism, and Rabih’s music seemed to aim towards trance-like transcendence even before it came into conversation with tarawangsa’s world of trance and spirit possession. That didn’t mean, however, that the trio would find their sound immediately. Before sitting down for their first rehearsal, the music was only an idea: to put it into practice would take, well, practice.
By the time I met with the new trio for the first time at a friend’s house in the hills above Bandung, they’d already had a few meetings to work out their sound. As a project based largely on improvisation, techniques and movements came together as the musicians played together; frustration often yielded to “aha” moments as the trio maneuvered their way onto the same wavelength. Rabih’s challenge was to manipulate the organic textures without losing that ever-elusive “spirit” or straying so far as to make the music unrecognizable. Teguh and Wisnu, meanwhile, were pushed to find ways out of their habit of simply playing the music as their masters had: motifs were deconstructed, sounds rearranged, instrument plucked in unorthodox ways.
The week of rehearsals culminated in a handful of shows at Spasial, a hip warehouse venue full of local distro designer shops, hipster cafes, and start-up offices. Teguh and Wisnu sat on a Persian carpet, facing not outwards as is traditiono but towards each other. In their eyesight was Rabih, his huge form crouched over a tiny table full of gear. The set had a handful of technical complications (no surprise considering the amount of cables), but the music flowed on, enrapturing a small crowd of Bandungites curious to see local Sundanese sounds collectively reconfigured by a motley trio. The music was tarawangsa, but also not. What they created was a new ritual for a new time and place, the digital ghosts of distorted loops filling in for those of the ancestors.
Tarawangsawelas and Rabih Beaini play at the Berghain tonight (w/ Bandung bamboo heavy metallers Karinding Attack opening and Jakarta sample-masters Uwulmassa playing a late set), 15/11/17, as part of the Raung Raya extention of the Europalia lineup. More info at the Facebook event page here.