Sun, 06 Aug 2000

Batak 'sacred' music comes out of the closet

By Tuti Gintini

JAKARTA (JP): To North Sumatra's Toba Batak community, their traditional orchestra does not perform at just any time. It is usually reserved for funeral rites or a rite marking the occasion where bones or graves are moved.

This orchestra, called gondang sabangunan, is a sacred one, unlike uning-uningan, which is mundanely entertaining.

However, the sacred nature of the orchestra seemed to have been forgotten during the Festival of Batak music held at the Beautiful Indonesia in Miniature Park (TMII) two weeks ago. Both gondang sabangunan and uning-uningan music were featured at the festival, which attracted considerable attention from the audience, among whom were domestic and foreign tourists visiting the park.

When performing gondang sabangunan, the musical group plays numerous instruments, namely flutes, hasapi (similar to a ukelele, but with two strings), taganing, a small drum covered with leather at each end, marimba-like garantung, sarunai bolon (a big wooden trumpet) and ogung (gong) of a variety of sizes. While uning-uningan group generally only use flute, tambourine and kulintang (wooden percussions)

"That was an extraordinary event to the Bataks because it was the first time that musical instruments like ogung and hasapi were played in public and even during a festival," said a noted Batak composer, Nortier Simanungkalit.

Simanungkalit expressed the hope that there would be regular festivals in the future to popularize gondang sabangunan in places outside Jakarta or even abroad where Bataks are found to dwell. He said that in New York, Los Angeles and Nevada in the United States and in Australia there are Batak communities.

Simanungkalit, also an observer of Batak culture, said it is relatively easy to enjoy uniquely Batak musical performances.

The performance is successful if the music can touch the deepest hearts of the audience.

"The music played must creep into the soul of the listeners... if they play it really well, they can bring them into a trance," he added.

Jeffar Lumban Gaol, a young man with a special interest in the development of Batak music, said that in terms of its rhythm, classical Batak music, namely gondang sabangunan, seems to have absorbed the Hindu cultural influence.

To Lumban Gaol, a graduate of the music school of the Jakarta Arts Institute, traditional Batak music is an appropriate vehicle for him to express his youthful feelings and emotions and his penchant for experiments.

After years of studying Batak music, he has finally set up Bona Ni Ogung Ensemble, a group that has frequently performed modern Batak music at the Ismail Marzuki Arts Center and other art centers in Jakarta and some other major cities in Indonesia. The group has also performed in a number of places in Germany.

"I have tried to enrich Batak music with other elements such as the sound of bells and also sounds from digital instruments like a keyboard," he said.

The group's music does indeed show a difference. Fresher, more dynamic and pounding to the soul, the music is the very expression of a soul in tumult. Or, as Simanungkalit has said, Batak music may bring the listeners into a state of trance. In this respect, the musicians sometimes are also in the same state of trance. They strike the gong with both eyes closed and with their heads and shoulders moving agilely to the right and to the left. Some simply strike the gong standing, embracing the instrument close to the chest with feet stamping rhythmically.

This change must be the reason why traditional Batak music has now won the hearts of young Bataks previously unwilling to care about their traditional music, labeling it old-fashioned. To them this version of traditional music is an entirely new thing with a great appeal to them.

"I have just realized that our traditional music is great. I am curious myself why I have never known that there is such beautiful music as our traditional Batak music," said Anton Situmorang, a law student, attending the gondang festival.

Darwin Ampi Simamora, 18, an economics student of the Indonesian Christian University, meanwhile, said that his father, Tarzan Simamora, a Batak musician, had taught him how to play traditional Batak music.

"At first I was unwilling to learn to play this music. I felt it was old-fashioned. But when I was in the first year of my junior high school, I tried to play the music. I chose the gong because it was simple to play. I simply had to beat it," he said.

He found playing the music quite interesting and has continued to play until today. He and his family have their own group called Batara Guru. They play musical instruments they have inherited from their ancestors. Now he considers playing traditional Batak music, especially gondang sabangunan, an invaluable treasure which must safeguarded forever.

"I will also pass on the ability to play this music to my children," he said, laughing.