Location: Cigalagah, Buah Dua Subdistrict, Sumedang Regency, West Java
Disundakeun. What a great word!
In the Sundanese language of West Java, disundakeun means “Sundafied,” as in, “to make something Sundanese.” I love this idea of turning ethnicity into an action, a transformative cultural force. At its most playful, Sundafying can be something as simple as putting fermented oncom on a burger or pronouncing “Pasupuati Flyover” as “Fasufati Plyoper” (a play on the Sundanese ambiguity between “f” and “p.”) But on a deeper level, Sundafying something can be a powerful political gesture, the act of taking something other and making it your own.
I’ve talked about tanjidor before, the Dutch East Indies-era brass band music with roots in colonial Batavia. In that post, I mentioned how this brass band music had been taken up by the native Betawi people of what was then Batavia (now Jakarta), then at some point shipped to the port city of Makassar in South Sulawesi. It was an interesting story of musical migration and inter-ethnic cooperation, but the music was not “Makassar-ized”: the idiom was still very much Western.
Meanwhile, tanjidor in the semi-rural fringe of Jakarta came to have a more syncretic sound. As can be heard in Philip Yampolsky’s brilliant Music of Indonesia 5: Betawi and Sundanese Music of the North Coast of Java, tanjidor in areas like Tangerang and Bekasi came to a musical expression of Betawi culture. The Betawi are not an indigenous group, but rather a mix of all those ethnic groups that were drawn to Batavia by colonial and economic forces: Javanese, Chinese, Portuguese, Dutch. Tanjidor has something of a mixed-up sound reflecting this, with Dutch marching rhythms sometimes mingling with a Chinese fiddle (tehyan); Yampolsky writes that the name tanjidor itself is even “thought to come from the Portuguese ‘tangedor’, ‘a player of a musical instrument.’”
Throw away the dor and you’ve got tanji. It’s tanjidor, Sundafied. Sundafied tanji has roots in the eastern periphery of what is now the sprawl of Greater Jakarta, aka Jabodetabek (an anagram of the conjoined cities of Jakarta, Bogor, Depok, Tangerang, and Bekasi.) This great urban beast is surrounded on all sides by Sundanese areas, so the cosmopolitan urban sphere and few remaining Betawi areas eventually slide into Sundanese territory. It is precisely in these borderlands, in areas on the northern coast like Bekasi and Tangerang, that tanjidor was Sundafied, flourishing as tanji.
This center-periphery movement continued even farther afield, with tanji eventually making it as far as Sumedang, an area deep in the Sundanese countryside, hundreds of miles away from the urban sprawl of Jabodetabek. How did it make it that far, and how did it change along the way? To find out, I had to meet Pak Odjo, one of the men responsible for this tanji boom deep in the heart of Sunda.
Pak Odjo lives in Tonjong, a village in the Buah Dua area of Sumedang which is ground zero for tanji in these parts. In the mid-1960’s, Pak Odjo explained, tanji was brought to Buah Dua by Pak Oyib, a tanjidor musician from Tambun (Pak Odjo insists Tambun is in Subang, a regency between Sumedang and the big city, but there seems to be no evidence of a village by that name in Subang; it’s more likely Pak Oyib was from Tambun in Bekasi, the heart of tanjidor territory.) While it’s not clear if tanji arrived in Buah Dua already Sundafied, a deeper Sundafication eventually began. When it arrived in Buah Dua, tanji had a pretty standard brass band line-up: trumpet (piston), sousaphone (tenor), trombone (tarombon), clarinet (suling or bum), plus a bass drum (bedug) and tom-tom (tambur) for percussion. Starting in the seventies, the Sundafication intensified: groups started to add large gongs (go’ong and kempul), two or three smaller gongs (ketuk), and the clanging metal percussion called kecrek (often made from motorcycle disc brakes!). In the eighties, female singers or sinden joined the gang, perhaps inspired by the boom of diva-led Sundanese pop and jaipong. The Sundafication was complete.
In terms of instrumentation, Sundafying was just not just a matter of throwing some gongs into the mix. Even the Western instruments were creatively misused, modified and rethought to fit the Sundanese musical idiom. As it plays the melodic lead, the clarinet (here called suling, the Indonesian word for flute) was modified the most. More than half of the tone holes are closed off with rubber, leaving open the eleven holes used to play the pentatonic and semi-pentatonic scales (pelog, salendro, and sorog) most often used in Sundanese music. Even when a standard Western-made clarinet is being used (some are locally made), the mouthpiece (grip) is made from local wood, with the reed (cocot) handmade from the wood of a calabash tree. Beneath the reed, suling players wedge strips of palm fiber (kawung) in order to facilitate the melodic bends necessary in Sundanese melodies.
The bedug bass drum and tambur tom-tom are standard Western instruments, although the common synthetic drum heads are subbed out for goatskin for a warmer, Sundafied sound. The drums are played using interlocking patterns to mimic the busy, fluid sound of the many-headed Sundanese kendang drum. Players even run their hands over one of the bedug drum heads in order to mimic the kendang’s famous tonal bends.
The resulting music is a world away from the tanjidor brass band music from which it originated. With the trumpet and sousaphone thrown away decades ago, it’s hard to tell whether we can call tanji a brass band at all. With the addition of the sinden’s vocals, tanji songs end up sounding not much different from other poppy Sundanese folk forms like reak. As the sinden sings in Sundanese poetic verse or pantun, the clarinet/suling elaborates on this melody, its ornaments and reedy tone making it sound like a smoother, lower tarompet, the common Sundanese double reed. The trombone is even optional - it enters with a blast every few bars, emphasizing the tonal center of the melody. Meanwhile, the percussion matches the mood: syncopated and repetitive for the pop Sunda (Sundanese pop) and dangdut songs, and busily frenetic for the wilder jaipongan-esque “buhun” (“ancient”) pieces.
I was surprised to find that tanji is still wildly popular in Buah Dua and a handful of other areas in Sumedang. Dozens of groups might compete within a small village, mostly made up of young men as is common for reak. Just like reak, it’s most often played for circumcision ceremonies, with the band marching through the streets with a dancing horse (kuda renggong), a Sumedang specialty. In fact, the kuda renggong-tanji connection is so strong that the music is rarely played without a horse trotting along rhythmically - the horseless performance I recorded was a rare exception.
Unlike some other Sundanese musical traditions, tanji is going strong in Sumedang even while it’s fallen out of favor in the Jakartan outskirts from which it came. Bands play almost every day in the area, and the form continues to evolve: some groups have started to add electric guitar, which privileges the poppier songs over the more traditional stuff. If that’s what it takes for the music to stay popular, guitarists play on! Just don’t forget the power of Sundafication and the subversive magic of localizing the global while transforming foreign music into something you can call your own.
In early 2017, a Sundanese music friend messaged me on Instagram with good news: he knew somebody in Sumedang who could hook me up with tanji groups. I’d been curious about the music for years, but had never had that vital contact. Finally it was time to find my way into the world of Sundanese marching bands.
This friend of a friend was Dilla, a hijab-wearing seventeen year old with a deep love of music and dance. After getting in touch, Dilla invited me to a tanji event in her hometown of Cigalagah. A couple of middle aged teachers were holding a class reunion, and they wanted some “old fashioned” music to set the nostalgic vibe. The event starts at eight in the morning, Dilla told me. Don’t be late!
I woke up with the sunrise in Bandung and set out on motorbike, the notorious Bandung traffic not yet at full gridlock mode. The drive took me east out of the city and up into the hills of Sumedang, down country roads lined with rice paddies and vegetable crops. Cigalagah sat not far from the foot of Mt. Tampomas, a sleeping stratovolcano whose gradual slopes spread for miles around Sumedang. As I drove into town, the mountain volcano sat off in the distance, covered in mist.
I must have arrived a bit early, as the band was still eating breakfast when I waltzed up to a small tarp-covered courtyard with Dilla as my guide. After ten polite handshakes, I was beckoned to join them, sitting on the floor of a cramped room and eating rice and a potato curry with my fingers between sips of hot tea. The floor was covered with instruments: a gong here, a clarinet there, a pile of percussive metal disc brakes in the corner for good measure.
As the band set up, I sat down with Entis, the young suling player. He showed me his Sundafied clarinet with pride, explaining how he stopped up the unused holes with rubber and demonstrating how he’s able to play Sundanese scales whose notes often lie between those of standard Western tuning.
Eventually enough of the audience had showed up, middle aged and mostly women. As they sat in some assembled chairs and ate their breakfast, the band began with some buhun classics. The sinden Nyayi Dewok had barely begun singing when a gang of excited women rushed the “stage,” letting the familiar rhythms take hold as they laughed and danced, occasionally slipping small bills into the singer’s hand.
It was a small audience, maybe only twenty folks at most, but the band put their heart into it. The electrified sound of the clarinet and vocals blasted through a toa mosque loudspeaker, distorted and full of the psychedelic echo that the Sundanese seem to love. Entis followed the vocal melody with his Sundafied clarine while the trombonist Asep stood to the side, spitting into the bushes between the occasional brassy blast.
After the show, Dilla and I drove a few villages over to Tonjong, where we met with Pak Odjo, the tanji elder. Decked out in a knit Muslim skullcap and a silky batik shirt, Pak Odjo welcomed us at the door of his home with a smile. With Dilla translating (Pak Odjo, like many Sundanese villagers, can barely speak Indonesian), we spent the next hour talking about the roots of tanji. Pak Odjo had been one of the key players in the first generation of tanji in Buah Dua, along with other local legends like Pak Jibong, Satir, and Arkilin. It was another example of the way that these hyper-local traditions can be shaped and led by only a handful of influential characters. Pak Odjo still plays to this day with his famous group, Biru Manis (Sweet Blue), although as his lungs aren’t what they used to be, he’s handed over suling duties to the next generation. For now, he’s happy to play the ketuk gongs and take care of the horses, whose regal outfits he designs himself in a home studio. Having set the stage, Pak Odjo can only watch as tanji continues to evolve, the new generation of Sundifying youth taking over and leading this fascinating art form into the future.
Thank you to Neng Dilla for the awesome guidance and translation help, to Pak Odjo for his kindness in welcoming us strangers into his home, and to the whole Tali Asih group for letting me meddle in their event with microphones and stupid questions. Hatur nuhun! The band is:
Tarombon: Asep, Suling: Entis, Bedug: Agus, Iman, Tambur: Agus, Ketuk: De Antik, Go'ong: Ade, Kempul: Acay, Kecrek: Yadi, and Sinden: Nyayi Dewok