Location: Ds. Tahamodindi, Kec. Mantikulore, Palu, Central Sulawesi
Sound: Lalove (pronounced “la-LOW-vay”)
Lalove begins with a whisper. A lalove artisan visits a grove of bamboo with an offering of sirih or betelnut. It must be a full moon, they say: if bamboo is taken during a new moon, the lalove will rot. In the light of the full moon, the lalove maker kneels, proffering his sirih, and whispers a mantra. If done right, the proper bamboo will shudder in reaction, a vibratory sign. The chosen bamboo should be in the middle of the grove, old but not too old.
There are more signs to be read. The lalove maker takes one long stalk and cuts it into four. Sitting in the cool waters of a stream, he lets these four pieces go, watches them drift slowly away. The two which float ahead first are the chosen pair: husband and wife, they say.
The lalove maker takes the chosen pair and stores them in the beams above the kitchen stove: there they will be steamed and dried until finally ready. He cuts the chosen pair down to size: the length of the maker’s torso, 75 centimeters give or take. The flute is ready to be born: six fingerholes or bolo are bored down the bamboo’s length: three and three, the trios separated by a hand’s width. The top is closed off by the bamboo's natural node, so a small hole is notched in the side right near the top: a sliver that people compare to the philtrum, a runway for breath. The lalove is adorned: a rattan ring or siga (hat) is tied around the top, pushing the breath into the flute. At the bottom, where others on this island would place a buffalo horn, a cylindrical bell or podumpa is attached, a sound sweetener.
And so a lalove is born.
The birthplace is a corner of the central region of Sulawesi, that tangled family of vast peninsulas sprawling across the seas of East Indonesia. We are at the joint of that upper arm, an area centered around the city of Palu, a place where the Kaili people live in the green mountains that rise up from a dramatic bay. The lalove is the pride of the Kaili, a majority Muslim group of sub-tribes divided by dialect (each group, people like to explain, gets its name from that dialect’s word for “no”: Kaili Tara, Kaili Rai, Kaili Unde, Kaili Doi.) It is in the Kaili’s hands, though - in their breath and their imaginations - that the lalove is truly born into its multiple lives, both as a shamanic tool and as a symbol of ethnic identity.
My guide into the world of lalove is Saprin, a young maestro who most folks know as Ojo. Ojo is a rare breed: a 30-year-old, self-educated artist with a deep knowledge about lalove which I’d expect from a man twice his age. Ojo is a man who wears many hats: he works part time as a firefighter and as a metalworker, but he truly excels as an ambassador to a musical tradition with remarkable depth.
Until fairly recently, Ojo explains, the lalove and its music was inseparable from the world of ritual. It goes like this, he tells me: sometimes, in a Kaili village, a person will fall ill. The symptoms can vary, but it's not your usual sickness: trips to the doctor will be in vain, as this is not an ailment that can be cured by Western medicine.
The sick person, or tomadua, can only be cured by a healing possession ritual the Kaili call balia. Everyone in the village gathers, musicians are called from near and far. Under the command of a shaman or tolanggara, the sick person or tomadua is to be cured by a ritual possession by anitu or ancestral spirits.
Lalove music is at the heart of this ritual, the instrument becoming a tool through which the ritual is led and the anitu are guided. This musicians hold not only a massive responsibility but also a supernatural power, the ability to command the spirits through song. These musicians, called bule (a source of endless jokes, as this is also the Indonesian word for white people), are thus highly respected: Ojo described the odd experience of being a young bule and having village elders act in deference to him within the ritual, kneeling before him, calling him bapak or “father,” and even kissing his hand in respect. In Kaili culture, like most of Indonesia, the roles are usually reversed, with intense deference and respect shown towards elders; the fact that elders will act towards the lalove musicians in this way shows the prestige and power of this important role.
Throughout hours of ritual, the lalove literally never stops: not only is the instrument played with circular breathing (noga’a inosa) for a constant flow of sound, but the lalove is often played by multiple musicians at once, sometimes in unison, sometimes in a kind of relay. The primary goal is that the sound, that guiding aural energy, never stops flowing.
The lalove repertoire is a ritual map, five pieces or kobi which are each tied to a phase of the balia ritual. First, Ojo explains, is Kobi Noragi, or “Colored Rice Song.” Taking its name from the dish which forms one of the central offerings to the spirits, Kobi Noragi is played as the tolanggara and their helpers prepare the offerings and ready the tomadua for possession. The piece is one Ojo calls na’ondo, meaning that the lalove is played in its lower octave, the breathy notes flowing low and patient from the flute in free time, pentatonic melodies cycled without pause until the next phase is ready.
Next is Kobi Posironde, the “Spirit Calling Song.” With the offerings ready, the lalove begins to play in the upper register, what Ojo calls nalangga, now entering into a shifting scale which dwells eerily on small intervals one minute only to shift to another mode and back again. To call the ancestral spirits, the player makes a fluttering sound, norende, by quickly tapping the lowest fingerhole or bolo on his lalove.
Soon enough, the tomadua is possessed by the spirit, a trance-like state called nipesuana. With the anitu spirit now fully embodied within the tomadua, the next kobi is crucial: called Kobi Pontatausi, this piece is the “Spirit Pleasing Song.” This is the crux of the ritual: the belief underlying this whole series of events is that the tomadua has fallen ill because the ancestral spirits are, for whatever reason, displeased. Kobi Pontatausi is the sweet cure, a gorgeous looping refrain which the anitu can not get enough of.
As the tomadua is possessed, they take on the character of the embodied anitu: Ojo explained that sometimes, if that anitu is from another area, the tomadua will suddenly be able to speak in the anitu’s language, even until they are suddenly fluent in foreign tongues. No matter how shy the possessed person may be in regular life, when embodying the spirit, they may request a song to which the tomadua/anitu can dance. This is Kobi Salonde, the only piece in the lalove repertoire with a steady meter. With a lilting beat, the lalove calls the possessed person to perform the dance called Tari Salonde.
The fifth and final piece in the lalove repertoire is Kobi Pompaura, the “Spirit Homecoming Song.” With this piece, the lalove guides the anitu out of the tomadua’s body and back to their home in the spirit world. With the spirit pleased, the tomadua is cured, and the balia ritual is complete.
Balia rituals are still fairly common throughout these parts, but their importance and frequency have waned as Kaili society has changed, not only through a modernizing and globalizing populace but through the increased prevalence of a more orthodox form of Islam. Some more orthodox Kaili muslims see their religion as imcompatible with rituals like balia which have roots in the Kailis’ pre-Islamic past. As the lalove’s ritual importance waned, some musicians began to take this sacred instrument out of context, not only playing the lalove in non-ritual setting, but creating new pieces or kreasi which have no connection to the world of balia. Starting in the 90’s with Ojo’s father’s generation, lalove soon was just as likely to be played on stage at a government festival as it was to accompany spirit possession. Soon, musicians like Ojo were bringing lalove into local classrooms, with the government supporting lalove lessons as a way of connecting Kaili youth with what was quickly becoming not just a ritual tool but a symbol of Kaili identity, an instrument to be hauled out at any event where “Kailiness” is to be performed.
In many ways, the recordings I’m sharing here are a product of this change, as Ojo was able to play casually and out-of-context for me in a way that may have not been thinkable in previous generations. What makes Ojo special is that he is able to straddle both worlds, playing as a respected bule in ritual contexts while also bringing the lalove to new audiences in wider contexts.
I met Ojo at his new house, a place he humbly explained was unfinished - just a stack of cinderblocks with a metal roof overhead. The surroundings, though, were spectacular: perched in the hills that rise slowly out of Palu to the east, Ojo’s house was surrounded by gorgeous Sulawesi countryside: irridescent green rice paddies flanked by palm trees, blue jungled mountains rising to misty peaks in the distance.
In my eternal quest to avoid the disturbing buzz of motorbikes, I asked Ojo if we could record in the fields near his house: I’d spotted some idyllic bamboo farmer’s huts in the paddies which would make for a perfect recording spot. Ojo happily agreed, and soon I was trying to keep up as he led me and my friend Jun straight through the paddies. Clutching my tripod and camera bag, I tried to keep my balance as we navigated the narrow rim between two wet paddies, but I soon found myself slipping on the muddy barrier and sliding feet first into an ankle-deep paddy.
Ojo laughed and pulled me out as I surveyed the damage: my gear was spotless - I’d even managed to save my phone, with which I’d been taking video at exactly the moment I fell into the paddy (Ojo later shared this video with his friends on Facebook, causing a minor sensation.) The only casualty was my damn city-boy shoes, now fully engulfed in mud. Luckily there was a concrete irrigation canal nearby where I could give it a thorough washing: Ojo, in his endless hospitality, took one shoe and cleaned it off as I scrubbed the other.
It was a small price to pay for the gorgeous setting. The open air terrace of the bamboo hut was just big enough for Ojo to sit comfortably with his lalove and my recording gear in front of him. For the next hour, Ojo cycled through the five kobis for me, explaining each one in turn with a practiced patience. As the sun fell lower in the sky and eventually set, the lalove’s sound filled a slowly changing sonic space: beginning with just the sound of distant tinkling cowbells and impatient crickets (and, yes, the occasional motorbike passing on the nearby dirt road!), the fading colors of the day brought the sound of the maghrib call to prayer over countless mosque loudspeakers, followed in turn by the shrill song of invisible cicadas buzzing in the night.
Huge thanks to Ojo Pedati for his generosity, openness, and spirit, to Jun for shuttling me around without question, and to Yudi for introducing me to Ojo before my arrival in Palu.