Sat, 05 Apr 2003

Traditional music 'kothekan lesung' awaits recognation

Taufikur Rohman, Contributor, Surakarta, Central Java

Old women, armed with pestles in their hands, stand in front of a traditional wooden mortar. They are busy, as if pounding rice grains. They are not: They are playing music.

The music, known locally as kothekan lesung, is named after the main appliances used to produce the music -- a wooden lesung (mortar) and the way the wooden alu (pestle) creates the distinct sound, kothekan, when pounded on the mortar.

The sounds coming out of the repeated and various movements create unique music, which is no less exotic than that of modern musical instruments. Sometimes, it is weak and slow, but at other times, strong, with a rapid beat.

"The music's roots originated from a past tradition among Javanese communities that used lesung and alu to pound rice. Later, the tradition developed into musical performance," said Hari Mulyanto, who hosted the performance at Bonoroto, Plesungan village in Karanganyar regency, Central Java, that night.

Even in the past, according to Hari, who is also a lecturer at the Surakarta-based Indonesian Arts Institute (STSI), kothekan lesung became an inseparable part of many Javanese traditional rituals, especially among agrarian communities, including wedding parties and circumcision ceremonies.

People, he said, also used to repeatedly strike mortars together in a particular way with pestles when there was an eclipse of the moon in the hope that Bathara Kala, the god that was believed to have swallowed the moon and caused the eclipse, would hurriedly release it.

However, along with the development of technology, mortars and pestles were eventually left behind. Farmers no longer used them to pound rice and preferred to use rice mills instead. Soon, the familiar sounds of kothekan lesung were eventually replaced with the noise of rice-milling machines.

"Harvest time is now the same as any other. The familiar sound of kothekan can no longer be heard these days," said Hari.

Soon, it is feared the traditional music might vanish without trace, said Hari, who, with the help of his wife, Sri "Ting-Tong" Setyaningsih, started to repopularize the music.

In their efforts, they reintroduced kothekan lesung, not only as musical performance that is pleasant to listen to but also enjoyable to watch. The couple also offers it as an artistic performance package to a number of major hotels in Surakarta, in a bid to gain a wider audience.

Thanks to their work, a kothekan lesung orchestra has now been asked to perform at a number of arts festival opening ceremonies. Their show, for instance, was held at the Srawung Seni Sedekah Bumi ritual with Padepokan Lemah Putih in Surakarta at the end of last year.

Apart from performing in rituals or festivals, Hari also took the group to perform at a number of campuses. "The level of the audience's appreciation was quite encouraging," Hari said.

Basically, Lesung is a wooden mortar made from a complete log with a carved hole to pound rice grains in the center. Different ways of pounding the mortar will produce different sounds.

"If you want to create a bass-like sound, you have to use big pestles to pound the lower edge of the mortar. But if you want to produce a clear sound that is not too loud, you pound the upper part of the mortar with smaller pestles," Hari explained.

In their effort to revitalize traditional music, the couple also trained previously musically illiterate women into skilled kothekan lesung musicians who could play various kinds of music, from Javanese pop songs to modern rock.

"Basically, you can play any music with this instrument," said Hari.

He said the group needed at least six players to perform. In the performance, one of the musicians would produce gedhog, or a sound resembling that of a gong, while two performed dhundhung (drum-like sounds). Each of the other three musicians produced ngarang (slow-tempo sounds), ngerep (rapid-tempo sounds) and thinthil (specific sound using a small pestle).

Kothekan lesung, according to Hari, basically had a strong rhythm, expressing the hard, day-to-day life of the marginalized community of Plesungan.

"Initially, the community was an isolated one. Although geographically it was close to Surakarta, most of its people did not know where the Surakarta Palace was," Hari said.

Certainly, Plesungan people were not the first to play such traditional music, although there has yet to be clear information about when exactly the music first appeared.

Historian from Surakarta-based Sebelas Maret State University (UNS) Sudharmono said that kothekan lesung had been in existence since Hindu times and was considered a symbol of fertility.

Unfortunately, a tradition that once became an inseparable part of an Indonesian community's daily life is no longer popular, and soon, it might vanish, leaving no trace.