Rare and endangered Indonesian instruments take centre stage in Melbourne



December 11, 2018 15:09:36

You’ve no doubt heard of endangered animals and even endangered languages, but what about endangered musical instruments?

Three Indonesian instruments that are barely played outside their home regions have made their way to Melbourne.

And all three tell a remarkable tale of adaptation, innovation and strangely, food production.

From Indonesian villages to inner-city Collingwood

On a scorching December day in the inner-Melbourne suburb of Collingwood, the door opens on a converted Johnston Street shopfront to reveal a room filled with modern and traditional instruments.

It’s unlikely the three instruments we’re here to see would have been heard by more than a handful of Australians, but they’re also relatively unknown in their homeland.

All three began their lives as practical tools used in farming, food production and by street food vendors.

As musician and composer Bianca Gannon explained, over many generations these practical objects began to be used as instruments, probably to alleviate boredom.

“I guess it’s a case of passing the time, taking very labour-intensive, repetitive work more interesting,” she said.

“In the West we also have amazing instruments, but they’ve been very much standardised over time. In Indonesia, people are always innovating.

“I think the fact that these three instruments are related to food production and food distribution is just so fascinating.”

A duck herder’s private concert

The bundengan, from central Java, is first and foremost a shield that protects duck herders from the elements as they work in the fields.

But with the addition of a few strings, it transformed into a beautifully melodic zither.

Ms Gannon said she had been told that the farmers plucked away at the strings because they believed happy ducks made happy eggs.

“It’s a private solo concert just for the ducks who then produce delicious eggs to eat,” she said.

“So it’s not at all designed for the concert hall, it’s a very intimate experience.”

Making music to pass the time

In contrast to the gentle melody of the bundengan, the rantok is a large timber trough that is hit with long timber mallets to create a deep and resonating rhythmic sound.

It is traditionally used to hull rice and originates from the popular holiday island of Lombok.

“A whole village plays it together, mainly women,” Ms Gannon said.

“It’s really, really long work pounding rice and husking it in this way without machinery.

“It’s just more fun I guess that way, [making music] passes the time.”

The few remaining original rantoks are highly sought after by art collectors and decorators because they are made from rare timbers.

This, coupled with the fact that rice husking is now mostly done by modern technology, means new rantoks are not often crafted.

The musical fairy floss vendors

The gule gending is also from Lombok; the set of steel pans is used by street vendors selling fairy floss and has a timbre similar to West Indian steelpan drums.

Because they were constantly evolving, Ms Gannon said it was difficult to determine when the instruments originated.

She learnt about the gule gending from a man in his 70s who was a fourth-generation salesman.

“It originally started with one pitch and then every generation of his family added a new pitch to the now pentatonic scale, so it’s at least that old,” she said.

“I think they [the vendors] very much enjoy themselves, but … the children hear the sound and they come running to buy the fairy floss so it’s very functional.”

Preserving the endangered instruments

Luqmanul ‘Luk’ Chakim is a talented Indonesian musician and ethnomusicologist who is working to preserve the endangered instruments.

He is in Australia to perform alongside Ms Gannon and renowned Indonesian singer Peni Candra Rini in The Sound of Shadows, which will be held at the Melbourne Recital Centre on December 14.

Ms Gannon said the performance would contrast the working-class instruments with the refined, operatic, Sindhen style of singing that is traditionally performed in Javanese court palaces.

She said the people who played these instruments didn’t consider themselves as artists.

“They would never accept that they are musicians; even this word would be too excessive for them, they’re too humble for that.

“It’s really interesting combining this really refined artform with these instruments that usually you would never find in a concert hall.”

Fifty per cent of the proceeds from the concert will be donated to Lombok earthquake relief efforts.









First posted

December 11, 2018 12:16:48

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