[Track recorded by Joseph Lamont and Palmer Keen, mixed and mastered by Joseph Lamont.]
Location: Tenro Hamlet, Bontolempangan Village, Buki District, Selayar
The island of Selayar is easy to miss on a map, dwarfed by the massive peninsulas of Sulawesi to the north. Zoom in, though, and you’ll see it clinging on to Sulawesi’s southern arm like a cleaner fish, a fifty-mile sliver on a perfect north-south axis. It’s an obscurity even to most Indonesians, but it’s known by folks in Sulawesi’s southern corners for its rich array of music found nowhere else.
Dide' may be Selayar's most distinctive style. At first glance, it seems like nothing special: rebana frame drums and vocals, a genre found in literally every corner of Muslim Indonesia. But this first glance is deceiving, as dide’ has a wonderfully idiosyncratic aesthetic - all it takes is one listen to know that you’re in a special new world.
Dide’ is found in only two villages in Selayar, each with its own sound. I didn’t get a chance to hear the version in Sariahan in the island’s south, so we’ll focus on the dide’ tradition of Tenro, a small village in the mountains rising out of Selayar’s west coast. Tenro is famous for closely adhering to adat, or local traditions and customs, which may explain why dide’ continues to be played there. The music is closely tied to the annual a’dingin-dingin ceremony in which villagers splash each other with water from a holy spring and bound together the results of the corn harvest. As villagers work together to tie up the corn (pemotokan), a group of men and women ritually play dide’.
In a typical dide’ performance, a group of women sit facing a group of men. Each musician is armed with a large rebana frame drum, resonant goat-skin heads stabled to a rounded body crafted from the trunk of the coconut palm (although, in a bit of island ingenuity, some of the rebana now being played are crafted from plastic buoys salvaged from the masses of detritus washed up on Selayar’s western shores!) Each group takes turns singing poetic verses called kelong in both the Selayar and Makassar languages, the uniquely strained pentatonic vocal lines spliced and supported by booming, unison hits on the rebana. As each verse comes to an end, rebana beats from both side merge in a strange kind of cross-rhythm until the next verse follows, often sung at a higher pitch than the one before.
This call and response can go on for hours as the musicians spontaneously choose a fitting sipappa’ or verse to respond to the message sung by the other group. Dide’ musicians have hundreds of these sipappa’ memorized, but the order in which they are sung is improvised in the moment: upon hearing a particular sipappa’, one side will quickly conspire and choose an appropriate verse in response, and so on.
These verses are known for their very specific form (four lines each, the first three with eight syllables, the last with five) and their poetic filling, full of pathos. One example goes: “I’ve wanted to leave this world behind/ but I found nobody to follow me/ no one to notice my departure.” Another: “If there’s no floating log to clutch in the middle of the sea/ I will rescue you/ As this world is sinking.”
Dide’ is considered one of the most asli or original of Selayar artforms, dating back at least to the Dutch colonial era, when Bugis sailing ships would pass by Selayar on the way from South Sulawesi to the Spice Islands of Maluku in the east. Starting in the 1970’s, though, it was nearly forgotten, outshined by the similar but flashier style called batti’-batti’. Today, batti’-batti’ still competes with dangdut and Western pop for the ears of Selayar people, but dide’ has been almost completely forgotten, dragged out only for the annual corn harvest and occasionally played for regional government festivals.
The future of this music, I’m afraid to say, is looking bleak. “Kids these days don’t want to learn dide’,” lamented one Tenro villager. “They think it’s weird. When they hear dide’, they laugh. They just want to listen to dangdut.” There’s clearly a generational gap here, a shift in culture: the younger generation often can’t even understand dide’s obtuse, literary kelong, especially when the words are stretched and strained as they are. Then there’s the issue of transmission: there are hundreds of sipappa’ to be memorized, something the older musicians managed by sheer exposure back in the days when dide’ was more commonly performed. Now, with performances rare, a new breed of musicians would have to sit down and deliberately memorize a book full of verses. Who’s got time for that?
The key, folks insist, is in government support. In these times of decentralized government, even remote regencies have generous budgets with which to support the arts. Funding always ends up going to more cosmopolitan sanggars (“arts groups”) in Selayar’s biggest town, Benteng. Dide’s torchbearers are just ordinary folk, not professional musicians or even hobbyists, and they admit being out of their element when it comes to dealing with the government and all the bureaucracy that entails. Still, they complain, the Selayar government is busy promoting the region’s gorgeous white sand beaches and tropical reefs while ignoring the cultural riches of Selayar’s interior. Something’s got to change, they say, or within a generation this incredible music will be gone.
The world of Selayar is turned upside down. Almost the entire island lives off of a single road spanning the north-south stretch of its western coast; when locals are following the coast south, they say they’re “going up,” and heading north is “going down.” Take the ferry north to “mainland” Sulawesi and you’re “descending” or “getting off.”
It was in this topsy-turvy world that we drove “down” from Benteng, Selayar’s only proper town, following the coast to Tenro in the north. After a serendipitous connection with local government employees in town, my friends Jo, Logan, and I had been offered a ride in a comfy government SUV, gliding our way in air-conditioned bliss along the coastal road. As we descended, so to speak, we took in the view: wooden stilted houses and forest on the right, trash-strewn beach on the left. Selayar’s trying to become a new beach destination, but in one way it’s got its peculiar geography working against it: the island slices right through the strong ocean currents of the Flores Sea, picking up flotsam and jetsam like a sieve. Six months out of the year, each coastline gets bombarded with micro-plastics, Indomie packages, and the detritus of a thousand passing ships.
To get to Tenro, we had to turn inland from this coastal dump and climb briefly up Selayar’s mountainous spine. The village was like many others in this part of Indonesia: lines of delapidated but regal stilted houses, goats, palm trees, and corn. Families gathered in the cool shade beneath their houses, watching this motley crew roll up in what may have been the first car of the day.
We quickly found ourselves in a living room strewn with rebana frame drums; family portraits and a kitschy framed poster of galloping horses hung over rarely used sofas. The dide’ gang was already waiting for us: the men, Sahibo’ and Sattu, were decked out in their most formal sarongs and peci caps; the women, Marwani, Mariati, Sitti Ati, and Sulaira, were looking equally smart in their lacey kebaya blouses, flowery sarongs, and multicolored jilbab headscarves.
Maybe they’d been waiting for hours, or maybe it was the presence of authoritative government personnel, but for whatever reason we made record time between initial smiley handshakes and music filling the room (not that I’m in any hurry!). Despite the abundance of sofas, we set up on the floor, the four women and their rebana on one side of the room, the male duo not far away on the other. With a few strong hits to the goatskin to clear the air, we were ready to go.
The men began with a whisper. I later learned they were choosing the first verse to sing, with Pak Sahibo’ whispering a potential first line and Pak Sattu nodding in recognition. The verse’s meaning was lost on me until later translation, but the sound of their voices hit hard, the sound rich and smokey. “Excuse me, ladies and gentlemen,” they sang, “Excuse me, lords and noblemen/ If there’s any wrong in our song/ Please forgive us.”
They’d clearly chosen a verse suited for greeting distinguished guests, far more distinguished than the three beardy foreigners sitting in this living room. The tone had been set, though, and the women responded with their own verse after some quick whispering of their own: “Because we’re exchanging verses/A feeling of mutual respect/ Will bring good for you/ And for us.”
That’s my own poor translation, based on my friend Ibu Andi’s own translation from the Selayar language into Indonesian - the original, Bu Andi assured me, was rich in nuance and metaphor. The mutualism of the lyrics was a reflection on the community spirit of the harvest ceremony in which dide’ is usually performed: dide’ benefits us all, it says, and brings us together, just as we work together to gather this year’s corn.
While most of the Selayar language words had washed over me as pure sound, one word had stood out in each verse: dide’. These two syllables were acting as a filler, stretching the syllable count to accommodate the rigid kelong verse form. In another way, though, the musicians were subtly repping the style like a name-dropping rapper. It’s as if they were saying: This is dide’, and don’t you forget it!
Huge thanks to Mawank and Pak Ben for hooking us up that day, and to Ibu Andi for the Indonesian translation and invaluable cultural insight. Also to Jo for his usual mixing mastery, and Logan for his awkward Indonesian jokes that I got to laugh at again as I played back the interviews for this session.