Stumble Into Indonesia's Unseen Places
Submitted by mumunmumun on 16 June 2016 • Destination
A few weeks ago, I attended the Eco Music Camp at the foot of Halimun Mountain Nasional Park. It was an event where people would camp and listen to performers from around the world. The music was generally world music, which boundaries are pretty confusing for me. Basically, there’s much ethnic sound incorporated in the music; or something like that. Amongst those that performed was a band from Senegal that played the Kora, their traditional instrument. What triggered me about this instrument was that it looked and sounded like a Sasandu, a traditional instrument from Rote. The sound, shape, and principle way of playing it was very similar. It was kinda like its lost sister. With that, I’m reminded by my visit to the house of a sasandu maestro and advocate, Jeremiah Pah, in Kupang city.
Art work shows world Sasandu dominating the world.
In the past, I had been passing Kupang frequently, but only in 2015 did I make the effort to see him. Jeremias Pah lives in Oebelo, the outskirts of Kupang. It’s relatively easy to ask someone to take me to his place. Being a legend, most people in Kupang know where he lives. His house had been transformed into a workshop to produce and develop the instrument. Upon arrival, I came into a quiet house and was greeted by a young man, Jeremias’ son. I was broken-hearted, thinking that Mr. Pah was probably no longer with us, and I had missed my chance to meet him.
I didn’t dare to ask, while Jag waited for nothing and started explaining about the sasandu.
“Sasandu is actually the right name for it, but sasando is acceptable,” Jag, short for Jeagril, corrected me not too far into the conversation. Many Indonesians are more aware of sasando than sasandu. This is a musical instrument originally from Rote Island, south of Timor. However, the Pah family had moved to Kupang, located on Timor Island, and have been developing the instrument there.
His family has been playing sasandu for generations. Jag is the eldest son of ten siblings and the third or fourth generation of players. I can’t recall exactly. Naturally, he is the heir of the heritage. Ironically, early in his life, he wasn’t interested in the instrument.
“My father would give me 1000 rupiahs a day just so I would practice,” Jag said with a big smile. Seems like he still gets a kick from his past. He was bribed to learn the instrument and it worked. Every parent has their own ways. Growing up, Jag fell for the instrument and has been developing the sound to have a wider octave range. He wants it to reach a full piano octave. He’s humble in presence, yet ambitious.
Attempting a full piano range.
He also told me that the brothers are on the quest to conserve and popularize the instrument throughout the world. They’ve signed up with local talent TV shows just for the recognitions and attended invitations from foreign countries just so more people know about the instrument that was founded about the 7th century.
“A lot of people claim to inherit the instrument, but they know that we’re the real deal,” said Jag with a tone of proudness and honesty. I don’t have a reason not to believe him.
Berto, his younger brother, is usually the one playing outside of Kupang, while he stays and keeps improving the instrument. Although there’s a tone of surrender in his voice on staying behind, there was a spark of proudness when he showed me his latest prototype. At that point, I wasn’t all sad not being able to see Jeremias Pah. I was in the presence of the next legend.
He then started playing a familiar song. The Lonely Planet guide of 2010 stated that Jeremias Pah will happily play the Yellow Submarine tune on the Sasandu upon one’s arrival. That might be the case should he be around, but in the presence of the next generation, it was a totally different tune. Can you guess what song Jag played me?
Aww, right? The sasandu sounded like an exotic harp. It had this tone which I can describe as tropical (God, I have to learn how to describe things better). I’m reminded of the twist in the Hawaiian melody.
After playing and showing me his newest development, Jag took me to the workshop area where there were half-made sasandus. It wasn’t a fancy place. In fact, it was a humble bamboo shack with an open wall, letting in dust and light. An old man left his seat upon my presence and disappeared to the back.
“That’s him, isn’t it? That’s your father,” I tried to contain my excitement. Jag nodded. I was delighted to know he was still alive and I had a glimpse to see him. At the same time, I was heartbroken not being able to talk to him. But, I didn’t want to impose by stopping the man of his way. So, I continued the tour.
I gasped at the sight of traditional cloth hanging on the walls, as always. I touched all the tools and material to get a sense of what’s being made. The sasandu is made of palmyra leaves, shaped into a bucket like device, which helps the resonance of the center stem where the strings were tied up. Principally, it’s similar to a guitar. Interestingly, this containment is based on actual traditional buckets. On Rote and the surrounding islands, buckets are made of Palmyra leaves. They’re very effective and environmentally friendly, too.
Played out Sasandu.
Not long after, his father came back out wearing a white crisp shirt, the traditional cloth around his neck, and wearing the Ti’langga, the traditional hat.
“He’s always like that. He always wants to look his best for his visitors, unlike me,” Jag said, a bit embarrassed by his tank top shirt. Apparently, Jeremias Pah went inside to prepare a performance. I cried inside of happiness.
“This is a reminder that humans must stay connected to God,” he touched the pointy un-functional part of his hat. He told me, it’s an essential part of a man’s life, while waving his finger in the air. He also told me the history of his instrument in front of him, that looked weary, and deconstructed it verbally for me to understand. He then sang me a traditional Rote song that tells the story of how men should always remember their maker. I felt very special since Mr. Pah played solely for me, but then again I was the only visitor at the time.
It was no Yellow Submarine. The traditional song was a bit off tune for me. It didn’t sound like something you could dance to, but understandably a tune for a folklore. However, I sat there listening in happiness and admiration. This was a man that fought his way to making the instrument known internationally, to a point where he would bribe his children so that they would learn, whether he had any money at the time, or not. Though the struggle lives on till this day, it’s probably safe to say that the sasandu is making its way around the world, as Berto is hardly home. He had big dreams and he made it happen. The best thing about it, he showed me that he’s still doing it in a white crisp shirt. For that, I tip my hat to him.
I do have to recommend visiting Jeremiah Pah and his family as one of the things to do in Kupang. I might just even justify them as a reason to visit Kupang. Not only because they’re a local treasure, but they’re also a unique voice of east Indonesia. Whether they are the real deal and that the instrument is their family’s legacy, I can’t say for sure. I have yet to find proof supporting or contradicting. For the time being, I have to give it to Jeremias Pah in making the instrument worldly recognise. I know it’s not an easy job.
With two generations of Sasandu musicians.
With this, let me just add my two cents. Indonesians are sometimes a little blind-sighted when it comes to being proud nationalists. They can be proud of the people that succeeded abroad on their own and without support from the country. If anything, they should admire of what’s in front of their eyes, like for Jeremias Pah, and support him and his family’s effort. It’s a little more realistic that just being proud of Obama that lived in Indonesia in just a few years, don’t you think?
I hope I do him justice and support him with this post.
Address: Jalan Timor Raya Km. 22. It’s relatively easy to find because his house is located on the side of the main road and there’s a board that shows where he lives. Naturally you would have to take a flight to Kupang, before hand.
Ti’langga, an odd hat.