Sun, 06 Aug 2000

'Lesung' music pounding its way into listeners' hearts

By Bambang Tiong

YOGYAKARTA (JP): Traditional arts are not only a way to win over foreign tourists to the country's cultural riches, but also yield much needed foreign exchange for the country.

Prambanan, the small city which is the capital of Prambanan subdistrict in Klaten regency, Central Java, is a place of cultural interest. It is home to such ancient archeological sites as Rorojonggrang, Plaosan and Boko temples.

Tlogo village chief H. Thoyibi is trying to popularize lesung (mortar) music through the legend of Rorojonggrang.

According to legend, Rorojonggrang was a princess in the kingdom of Boko. A prince named Bandung Bondowoso asked for her hand in marriage, but Rorojonggrang said he would first have to build a thousand temples in one night.

Bandung Bondowoso possessed supernatural powers and, deeply in love with the princess, accepted her condition. He ordered thousands of genies to help him build the temples during the night.

Rorojonggrang was anxious because she did not know beforehand of the prince's powers. She did not love the prince and set out to thwart his efforts. She woke up the villagers and told them to set about their daily activities. Boko was an agricultural area, with most of the locals working as farmers, and they began to pound rice.

Rorojonggrang went to Bandung Bondowoso and told him to stop construction of the temples because it was day break. They counted the temples; at 999, the total was short of her requirement.

Smarting at being made a fool of by the princess, Bandung Bondowoso angrily declared: "As we are short of one temple, you will now become the replacement." Rorojonggrang was immediately turned to stone, becoming what legend says is today's Prambanan Temple.

Before the advent of machinery people used the traditional device of the lesung (mortar) to pound the rice with a instrument called alu. The process produces a nontonal sound known as rhythmical music. Lesung music groups consist of six people, with three performing the nutu, or the movements of rice pounding, one pounding the mortar's inner sides, one jabbing it from within and the other acting as the vocalist in singing lyrical songs like Caping Gunung, Lesung Jumenggung. All participants must wear traditional Javanese attire.

An expert in the art, H. Thoyibi said the survival of lesung music was important to ensure the continuance of a culture now forgotten by most of the younger generation.

"Culture is a nation's asset. If well managed, it can bring foreign exchange to the state. It's a pity if it's forgotten," he said.

It's not easy to find the right elements for a successful group.

Ratno Raharjo, the 56-year-old instructor of Thoyibi's lesung group, said many factors were important. First, the participants' costumes and makeup should suitably reflect the rural origins of the art. Group members should have simple faces like actual villagers and all elements of the performance must be adjusted in keeping with the desired rural setting.

The cost of establishing a group is about Rp 5 million, broken down to about Rp 3.5 million for the purchase of the lesung and alu and the remainder for costumes and other equipment.

Ratno said the best mortars were made of wood from jackfruit trees between 40 years and 50 years old. Ideal dimensions are a length of 3.5 meters and 80 centimeters in width, with a cavity about 2.5 meters in length and 60 centimeters wide. He said the mortars were good for pounding rice, producing a crystal clear sound which echoed well.

He said the best pounding instruments were made from old coconut trees of about 40 years because the wood was heavy and hard; it elicits a loud sound when pounded against the mortar. Best dimensions for the alu are a length of 1.5 meters, a diameter of 8 centimeters and 30 centimeters for its top.

Ratno handles seven groups in the area of Prambanan. With regular practice, the groups, established in March 2000, plan to hold their first show in August on the stage of Rorojonggrang Temple in Prambanan.

"I don't have any target in the first show, but I am sure a lot of overseas tourists will be interested in it, and it also has good prospects for the development of tourism in Indonesia," said Ratno.