Photo by Clem Onojeghuo
Recordings and article courtesy of Palmer Keen
Something extraordinary is happening amongst the tea plantations of Ciater in West Java’s Subang regency. Hundreds of people are coming together in village courtyards and streets to get down and dance, grannies, kiddies, and hijabis converging one and all to the sounds of bangpret. “It’s like at a rock concert” one local told me, and when I finally went to a show, I found he wasn’t far off. Speaker stacks blasted into a crowd hundreds strong, but the sound washing over the audience wasn’t that of electric guitars: it was old Islamic songs, Arabic language mantras over a gong and drum-filled beat.
Bangpret is a relatively new term used only in the tea plantation-rich area of Ciater, right at the foot of the famous volcano, Tangkuban Perahu. It’s an acronym: Bang coming from terbang, a large frame drum, and pret from tarompet, the popular Sundanese double reed wind instrument. At it's core though, this music is simply a new take on gembyung, a kind of Sundanese Islamic devotional music which featured in one of the first Aural Archipelago posts years back. Gembyung is in the same general musical family as styles as widespread as slawatan Jawa in Central Java and kuntulan in East Java’s Banyuwangi regency. All of these styles are said to have roots in the use of frame drum for dakwah, the spread of Islam across Java through proselytizing, especially by the venerated Wali Sanga saints. What’s interesting is how this imagined common source eventually diverged into wildly different traditions, from the shreddy, Osing style of kuntulan to the wild beluk singing-tinged terbang gebes style of Tasikmalaya.
The gembyung style at the roots of bangpret is found all over West Java, from Subang to Sumedang and even as far east as Cirebon, an area on the border of West and Central Java full of royal palace rivalries and unique intersections of Sundanese and Javanese arts. These gembyung styles mix interlocking rhythms played on large frame drums with devotional texts sung in Arabic, Sundanese, or a mix of the two, usually in a Sundanese musical idiom. In Subang, where I've also recorded the old school gembyungstyle sometimes called gembyung buhun or “ancient gembyung”, the music is a syncretic fusion of Islamic, Arabic language syair or poetry, and elements of Sunda Wiwitan, the animist Sundanese belief system. Some songs are devoted to Nyi Pohaci, the rice goddess, and the music sets the scene for trance dance wherein dancers are possessed by the spirits of ancestors.
Bangpret still maintains this core repertoire (lagu pokok) of old school gembyung tunes or “lagu buhun”, “ancient songs” in Sundanese. Each group may have a slightly different repertoire, but for the group in Nagrak that I recorded, it was a setlist of seven songs, always played in the same order: “Hu Ya Allah/Hu Ya Mole”, “Pinang Kalu”, “Ula Ela”, “Benjang", “Engko”, “Gobyog”, and “Ayun Puntang.” While the titles are a mix of distorted Arabic and esoteric Sundanese, the songs all feature mantra-like refrains sung in Arabic, or at least what is meant to be Arabic. The truth is that, like most Indonesian Muslims, these musicians don’t actually speak Arabic, and so the texts end up having the obscure, unknowable feeling of a magic spell. Sometimes, however, the meaning can be surmised: the text of the song “Ula Ela,” for example, sounds eerily like the shahada, an Islamic creed beginning with “lā ʾilāha ʾillā llāh’” or “There is no god but god.”
Bangpret diverges wildly from classic gembyung, though, in its presentation. While the core repertoire, melodies, even the gembyung drums themselves are still there, the whole thing is sheathed in the music called bajidoran. Bajidoran is a style of jaipong popular on the north coast of Java, from Bekasi in Jakarta's urban sprawl all the way to Subang. Named after the solo male dancers or bajidor who flock to these shows, bajidoran takes the frenetic, dynamic rhythm of classic jaipong and smooths it out into a driving, funky beat. In bajidoran, even more so than jaipong, rhythm is king: there’s often two kendangplayers, one on each side of the stage, sometimes playing in unison, other times playing interlocking patterns; in addition to these two kendang maestros, there’s often a set-up of three upturned kendang of slightly different sizes playing 80’s rock-like drum fills on the side. To round it out, two or three musicians accentuate the beat with the clang and crash of kecrek, an instrument which in the old days was two cymbal-like metal plates. These days, though, it often consists of some motorcycle brake discs and flywheels thrown in a broken, upturned gong!
What that all amounts to is a sound which takes much of the complex rhythmic subtlety of jaipong and throws it away in favor of pure groove. Some musicians have said that bajidoran has roots in the electronic house music folks heard in the suburban discotheques of Bekasi and Karawang. In Henry Spiller’s fascinating book “Erotic Triangles: Sundanese Dance and Masculinity in West Java,” Spiller writes that some bajidoran musicians call this new, continuous groove “triping,” “a term derived from the English slang term ‘tripping.’” As Spiller succinctly puts it, “in effect tepak triping is gamelan with a house beat.”