Location: Halong, Kab. Balangan, South Kalimantan
Sape’ is the cool new thing amongst traditional music revivalists in Indonesia these days. Lagi tren, friends tell me - “It’s trending.” This big, beautiful boat lute is sometimes described in English as a “Borneo guitar,” a somewhat misguided and Eurocentric term (“boat lute” may not be much better in that regard) yet one which hints at the direction that instrument has been taken. Over the years, that sape’ (sometimes more specifically called sape’ Kenyah, as the most common version is claimed by the Kenyah subgroup of Dayaks) has evolved towards a guitar-like morphology. While older instruments once used two or three rattan strings and moveable frets tacked on with beeswax, modern sape’ use five or more nylon strings and standardized tuning that allows the emerging new sape’ generation to play Eric Clapton as easily as the old tunes.
I’m no critic of this movement. I did, after all, invite the great sape’ revivalist Thambunesia to play the Europalia gigs I organized in Belgium a few years back, and the guy proudly plays pop covers on a double-necked electric sape’. The flexibility of the instrument’s modern form has introduced Dayak music to a huge audience of music-lovers and musicians, especially here in historically inward-looking Java. Sape’, though, has become the Dayak instrument in Indonesian (and international) consciousness, perhaps obscuring the actual richness of musical traditions on the ground.
One thing I love about music research is taking a granular view of a field that may at first glance seem broadly homogeneous. Borneo, for example, can easily be written about as a giant, undifferentiated mass hosting a single monolithic culture called “Dayak.” It can be useful to take a holistic view of the island, sure, especially if we want to take a transnational approach that goes beyond the somewhat arbitrary borders that have been drawn across it. It’s even better, though, to take that bird’s-eye view, though, and zoom in to street view.
Just as the homonym “Dayak” is an externally imposed umbrella term for a great diversity of related ethnic groups, so too is this wonderfully exotic term, the “boat lute.” Just like “Dayak,” though, talking about “boat lutes” is a great way to look at big picture connections across the wide world of Insular Southeast Asia. Its a category that can take us across wide, diverse swaths of this corner of the world, farflung places whose musical links provide a window to deep roots and ancient migrations.
I’ve written about these instruments and their traditions quite a few times before, so I may be repeating myself, but a refresher: boat lutes are plucked string instruments with a vaguely boat-like shape and a few other characteristics that broadly define them (tall frets and two strings, one played as a drone, are amongst these.) Again, it’s a big picture that gets richer with a granular view, especially when considering the music that’s played, the people that play it, and why. A few examples from the Aural Archipelago archives: the kacaping Mandar, beautifully ornamented lutes played by the Mandar of West Sulawesi to accompany flowery, improvised oral poetry; the relatively tiny kulcapi played by the Batak Karo of North Sumatra in gendang kulcapi ensembles to guide thanksgiving rituals; the jungga of East Sumba, whose existence in the southeast corner of the country, far from its cousins, might be evidence of ancient slave trade-driven ties to the boat lute-filled Gowa Kingdom in Sulawesi.
Taking things back to Kalimantan, we find a whole spectrum of beautiful instruments and deep traditions. The great ethnomusicologist Philip Yampolsky, who readers should know by now from countless links and references across these archives, even devoted a whole album of his seminal Music of Indonesia series on Smithsonian Folkways to Kalimantan Strings. Amongst the Dayak boat lutes that Yampolsky surveyed on that great album are the famous sape’ Kenyah and the similar sampeq’ of East Kalimantan, but also other varieties: a lute called konyahpi’ played by the Ot Danum of West Kalimantan as well as the Ngaju kacapi, a boat lute still widely played in karungut ensembles across Central Kalimantan. Yampolsky’s recordings also feature the uniquely dry, minimalist sounds of the sape’ kayan, an instrument also featured on Aural Archipelago back in the day. Lastly, I have to mention the sundatang and gagayan played by the so-called Dusunic groups of Sabah in Malaysian Borneo, probably the closest relatives to the instrument whose music I’m sharing today.
And so we get to our latest highlight in the great boat lute family: the kasapi of South Kalimantan. As I mentioned in my last post, this beautiful instrument is but one element in the largely percussion-driven ensemble called kelong. As far as I can tell, it’s only played by the Dayak Deyah and Dayak Halong in the areas of South Kalimantan now called Tabalong and Balangan. Dayaks are largely marginalized in this area by the majority Banjars, but their traditions, deeply rooted in animism and ancestor worship, live on healthily in certain villages. As an element of the kelong ensemble, the kasapi plays an important role in Dayak Halong ritual life, accompanying the shaman-led rituals often called balian. In these music-filled rituals, the metallic ring of the kanong gong chimes may dominate, but the kasapi may be thought of as its equal, opening and cueing each new piece by closely following the chants of the balian shaman.
The kasapi playing I heard in the kelong ensemble intrigued me enough that I asked Pak Fajal, the kasapi maestro, if he would play solo so as to better catch the sound. I was told that the kasapi is never played solo except for when players are practicing, so I was surprised to find that Pak Fajal’s style seemed to change when he played alone, with an added subtlety and care that I hadn’t heard before. The playing technique is an interesting one, seemingly all downstrokes with four clawed fingers, the thumb resting on the kasapi’s body, sometimes rapping percussively against the wood. Meanwhile, fingers dance across the neck with flashy hammer-ons and pull-offs on and between the frets, a technique found in other Dayak lute playing but displayed with real virtuosity here. One mystery of this solo showcase was that Pak Fajal retuned halfway through, explaining that there are actually multiple tunings (this fact is at odds with the idea that the kasapi always plays in tune with the set tuning of the kanong gongs.) The few pieces he played with the new tuning were similar, but with an added tension as the melody string dipped below the drone and back again.
Because of its role in sacred ritual, the kasapi is itself considered a sacred object. The instrument is ritually bathed (“you can’t do that with a guitar!” a local musician joked) and is marked with a cross or dot of fine white chalk as a kind of consecration to please the spirits before an upcoming ritual. It’s a beautiful object: the hollow, boat-like body tapers to a long neck with four tall frets (dipen) attached by glue or beeswax. These four frets are scalloped where the player’s fingers press down on the lower nylon string (once made with jungle vine), the upper string almost always kept open and droning. These strings are threaded through a “string divider” (sepasi) before stretching to the head (kepala) with its two large tuning pegs (panyatil). In my travels, I met only two kasapi: one ( a Dayak Deyah version found in Tabalong) had a head carved into a hornbill, while the other, played in Balangan, was described as the head of a crocodile.
Asking about the details of the kasapi with Pak Fajal and kanong player Pak Angga, I found that the instrument is wreathed in myths and legends. The kasapi’s various parts were first described in anatomical terms corresponding to the crocodile, with the head on one end and a body (parut, literally “stomach”) tapering towards a tail (ekor) on the other. But digging deeper, Pak Angga explained that the Dayak Halong believe that the kasapi actually is a crocodile, a shapeshifter they call buaya kuning (“yellow crocodile.”) This figure of the shapeshifting buaya kuning links the kasapi to a founding myth of the kelong ritual, the story of Nini Yuri and Dayuhan.
Nini Yuri (also called Balian Nini Yuri) is revered as the original balian, a powerful female shaman with the ability to raise the dead (membangun bangkai.) As the story goes, Nini Yuri was walking through the forest one day when she came upon a “traveller” (pengembara) named Dayuhan who, too, had mystical powers. Dayuhan was busy grilling up the spoils of a day’s hunt in the middle of the forest path: fish, deer, and even squirrels were skewered and already getting a nice char over a fire. “You better get out of my way,” Nini Yuri warned Dayuhan, “or your meal might come alive and run off!”
Dayuhan shook his head in disbelief at the idea. But sure enough, as Nini Yuri passed, Dayuhan’s freshly killed catch all suddenly came alive at once, the squirrels scurrying off, the fish flopping back to the river. Dayuhan, surprised and outraged at the loss of a meal, challenged Nini Yuri to a duel. As the two sparred on the forest path, Nini Yuri’s satchel fell to the ground. In it was the key to her powers: minyak pembangun bangkai, oil to raise the dead. Stripped of her powerful oil, Nini Yuri instantly lost the duel and, in shame, transformed into a yellow crocodile. To this day, Pak Angga explained, the Dayak Halong believe that Nini Yuri lives on in that spot in a river called Labuhan Manti.
As the mother and guru of all subsequent balian, Nini Yuri is revered as the original creator of all instruments used in balian-led ritual, from the kanong to the gamalan and, perhaps most importantly, the equally reptilian kasapi. There’s an intriguing familiarity to the kasapi’s ties to shapeshifting crocodiles, one which brings us back to the wider world of boat lutes. Basically all of what I know about boat lutes outside of Indonesia is thanks to the German ethnomusicologist Hans Brandeis, an expert on the boat lutes of the Philippines. Brandeis, who’s been researching and collecting dozens of boat lute varieties since the 1970’s, has written often of these lutes’ relation in the cultural imaginary to various animals, sometimes mythical dragons or roosters, but most of crocodiles.
What’s more, as Brandeis writes in this great overview of boat lutes, these boat lutes have even deeper reptilian roots. Both the wider family and their name likely trace back to India, where the Sanskrit word for turtle, kacchapa or kacchapi, was first used for the ancestor of all boat lutes. Variations on this name are still found often in the world of boat lutes, from those already mentioned here - kasapi, sape’, kacaping, kulcapi - to varieties found in the Philippines like kudyapi, katiyapi, and kusyapi. From India, Brandeis traces the evolution of this instrumental family to mainland Southeast Asia, where zithers in the shape of a crocodile, like the Burmese mi gyaung and the Thai and Khmer chakhe or krapeu or still played today. From there, so-called boat lutes (crocodile lutes might be a better name, considering this lineage!) spread through the archipelagos now mostly claimed by Indonesia and the Philippines. What a journey! It’s a wonder to think that in 2019, likely thousands of years on, stories of crocodiles still cling resolutely to these ancient instruments.
For a full rundown of the recording context, see my earlier post on the complete kelong ensemble here.
Notes on the Pieces:
“Putang Gondreng Sorom Bolom”: As Pak Fajal explained it to me, this piece is played during a balian-led ritual “so that the balian will become possessed.” Spirit possession is a complex thing in Dayak culture: some possession is unwanted and considered harmful, as when vengeful spirits possess a person for breaking a taboo such as cutting down a sacred tree. The balian, however, welcome possession during rituals, as they have the spiritual power as mediums to become a vessel for the spirit without being overwhelmed.
“Bendera Walub”: Pak Fajal explained that this piece is “to call the sea spirit.” The Dayak Halong are animists whose beliefs revolve largely around nature spirits. Despite being far from the sea, the people in this area respect sea spirits just as they do forest spirits, mountains spirits, river spirits, and so on. Spirits are called during balian-led rituals, especially thanksgiving rituals, in order to present them offerings and ask for their blessings. This piece is in the secondary tuning associated with another piece called “Sanghir” which is also used to call the spirits but specifically for healing ceremonies.
Huge thanks to Pak Fajal for sharing his music with us - his calm virtuosity really made an impression on me. Thanks also to Yansyah for helping to organize the recording session, to Bang Nopi for helping make it all happen, and to Hans Brandeis for his generosity and passion for all boat lutes!