Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Batak Dance and Music

Anthro 138S
Music of Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines
Spring 2000

Uli Kozok

from The Batak. Achin Sibeth. 1991

Almost sixty years ago an article appeared in the periodical De Indische Gids which discussed, among other things, the music of the Batak. It ended as follows:

"It is a great shame that such [musicological] researches have been neglected hitherto, since now that the Batak lands are accessible and western influence can penetrate to an increasing extent, Batak music will soon degenerate and perhaps even vanish in the long run." (Abas 1931: 916)

Since then Batakland has experienced the Japanese occupation, the disturbances of the revolutionary period and the building of a modern national state - but Batak music still survives, and indeed is even becoming increasingly popular. The University of Medan, with help and support from the Ford Foundation, is training young music ethnologists who are advancing research into the music of the Batak, and researchers from abroad have also studied Batak music closely in recent years. In Germany records of gondang music of the Toba, Angkola and Mandailing and of gendang music of the Karo have even appeared (see discography: Kartomi 1983a,b; Simon 1984, 1987).

The music of each of the individual Batak peoples is quite independent, so it is not possible to speak of a single Batak music. Nevertheless, there are some features in common both as regards the musical instruments and the way the music is used.

The range of instruments used includes percussion, wind and plucked instruments. Percussion and wind are the more important. The complete Toba gondang orchestra consists of a drum set (taganing) consisting of five coordinated drums of various sizes with drumheads of water buffalo, cow or goat skin, the bass drum (gordang), similar to the tataning but much bigger (about 100 cm long with a diameter of about 30 cm), an oboe (sarune), and four gongs (ogung). While the Mandailing gordang, the Simalungun gondang and the Pakpak genderang are very similar to the Toba orchestra, the Karo gendang differs considerably. Its line-up is simpler consisting of a much smaller sarune, one gendang drum and a pair of drums, made up of a drum which resembles the gendang drum, with a second, 10-cm-long drum attached, and lastly a large and a small gun".

The combination of instruments mentioned forms the off~cial gondang or gendang orchestra (for simplicity I shall use the term gondang for the orchestras of the Toba, Mandailing, Simalungun and Pakpak). There is also a large number of local variants and simpler line-ups. There are other musical instruments besides those mentioned which make up the gondang orchestra. The most important of these are the lute (Toba: hasapi; Karo and Pakpak: kulcapi), the bamboo flute (surdam) and the bamboo cane zither (Karo: keteng-keteng; Pakpak: ketuk)

The religious aspect of Batak music has been largely pushed into the background since the conversion of a large part of the Batak to Christianity or Islam, but for the Karo Batak and the Toba Batak who still adhere to the parmalim, the gondang still plays an important part in ritual. Inspired by the music the medium becomes possessed by the spirits of the ancestors who are pleased to have been called and not infrequently ask the medium for their favourite song to be played. Because of the close connection between the music and traditional religion the German missionaries at the beginning of the century forbade the Christian Toba Batak to hold or even attend gondang performances on pain of excommunication. Even today Christian Toba are forbidden to hold a gondang other than a gondang riang-riang (a "happy" gondang for entertainment). A pastor oversees the event and stops it if a participant seems to be about to fall into a trance (Schreiner 1970: 412). Among the Toba Batak in particular it frequently happens that the organizer of a "heathen" ceremony is excommunicated. The "sacred" music at rituals, funerals and marriages, which formerly played such a large role has therefore become rare. As has been mentioned, besides the "sacred" gondang there is also a profane gondang which is used for entertainment. Above all the gondang which accompanies public dances, nowadays held on wide variety of occasions. The harvest festival (kerja tahun) is very popular among the Karo Batak, and for it the young people of the village organize a dance (guro-guro aron) at which the dancers are accompanied by a gendang orchestra'. A guro-guro aron is also sometimes held on Independence Day (17 August). Nowadays youth organizations and the church often organize the dance festivals.

Most of the occasions for holding a gondang are public ones: marriages, funerals, festivities for the naming of a child, the honouring of older family members or the transfer of the bones of an ancestor (Toba: mangongkal hold, Karo: nurun-nurun).

Besides this "public" music there is also "private" music often connected with a ritual. The whole gondang never plays on these occasions, only the hasapi or the surdam are used. One example of such a ritual is the love magic, in which a ritual is used to magically win the heart of a woman.

Batak music has also been influenced by commercialization. Not only are performances of dance and music given specially for tourists, but even more important there is a trade in music cassettes; indeed almost the entire repertoire of Batak music is now available on cassettes. The many new compositions now appearing on the market are evidence that Batak music is not dying out. Most are based on the traditional music, and there are also "pop versions". The music of the Toba Batak has undergone an enormous revival and expansion of its repertoire through the existence of the Opera Batak travelling theatre (Carle 1990). The popular songs written by the composer Jaga Depari from the post-war period up to his death in the early sixties already form part of the traditional music of the Karol Today they are available on cassettes in very different variations, accompanied by the traditional gendang or by Japanese Hammond organs, and they are performed at public festivities such as the guro-guro aron to accompany dances by professional and amateur singers. Another sort of very popular song is the ballad-like song sometimes lasting over an hour with gendang orchestra accompaniment. These katoneng-katoneng, too, are available on cassettes. They are performed ceremonies for the inauguration of houses, the transfer of the bones of an ancestor, and sometimes at ceremonies for invoking spirits, and usually relate the history of the family holding the ceremony. The professional singer (male or female) first gets to know the family history and then has to improvise freely during the performance. Also on the market and very popular are katoneng-katoneng telling of the struggle for independence (Sembiring 1987: 394ff). Lastly, the popular folksongs of the Toba Batak should be mentioned, as well as their church choirs and the brass bands formed by the German missionaries as gondang substitutes.

It is rare for a gondang orchestra to play without dances being performed. Dancing is an almost inseparable constituent of every musical offering. Dances can be divided into three main groups. First there are the adat dances which are part of every ceremony and in which the selfimage of the dalihan na tofu is manifested, the respect which the party giving the feast owes to the guests and in particular to the wife-givers. These dances follow a strict order of precedence which is laid down the day before. As a rule the party giving the feast (suhut) dances as a group one after another with the wife-givers and wife-takers, who stand opposite the suhut while the two groups dancing move slowly towards each other and back again. The adat dances are characterized by slow and considered movements and accompanied by symbolic gestures and the laying of the woven cloths (ulos) on the shoulders of the wife-takers who thereby receive a blessing from the wife-givers.

The dances performed at a ceremony for invoking spirits are quite different in character, although here too the rules of the adat are followed. After these formal dances the actual dance of possession is performed by the medium and by others present who wish to be possessed by a spirit. These dances are improvised and have an extraordinary dynamism and expressive power. The gondang plays a tune which begins slowly but quickens to a breath-taking speed. The dancers, who wear a whit cloth over their shoulders and tied round their heads so that the spirits will see that they are ready to be possessed, gradually lose control over themselves, become ecstatic and stamp on the ground in rhythm with the music so that the house shakes. The female medium, the guru sibaso, takes a leading part in this and spurs her fellow dancers on. Some of the dancers reach the poinl where the spirit enters into their bodies, in a trance which resembles unconsciousness, they suddenly collapse and hit the back of their heads on the concrete floor. This does not bother those present, however. They immediately rush up, shake him and shout "Where are you from?" - they must avoid having an unwanted guest at the ceremony. Slowly the possessed man awakes from his trance. Despite his fall he has sustained no injury and is in no pain. If a malignant spirit has entered the ceremony the guru sibaso will drive it away or kill it with a knife in a dance. Those possessed behave in the manner of the spirit that has possessed them: women possessed by a male spirit spear in a deep voice, smoke and ask for palm wine; someone possessed by the spirit of a child crawls about like an infant. It also happens that people are possessed by the spirits of animals, especially snakes, but also tigers and apes, and so they crawl like a snake or clamber round the room asking for bananas. The mayan dance too sometimes leads to a state of trance (mayan is a form of the art of self defence). The dancers have a shadow fight with concentrated movements gradually increasing in speed, which, on the occasion observed by the author, degenerated into a general happy tumult.2

The third category of dance is the dance, generally accompanied by gondang, that is performed for general entertainment. This includes the dances at the guro-guro aron mentioned above as well as dance performances on a wide variet~ of occasions. As with the adat dances these dances are an expression of beauty and harmony, however the entertainment dances of the young people contain an erotic element, invisible t~ the uninitiated observer, which is expressed through certain gestures of the hand and body arousing loud laughter among the audience.