Sunday, February 06, 2011

The Musical Accompaniment to Rangsa ni Tonun

On the last day before leaving Medan, I made the long trek from my hotel to the home of Irwansyah and Rithaony Hutajulu. This is where MJA Nashir stays when he is in Medan. He is a great admirer of this musical couple, their tremendous artistic potential and their accomplishments. He assists them where and when he can with his computer skills. In this way, he has been able to come in close touch with them and has gotten to know the members of their musical group, called Suarasama.

Reciprocally, this couple has become familiar with Mas Nashir’s skills and have been privy to all the steps in the editing of the film. Nashir loves to show the results of a day’s edit or a recent shoot. Suarasama knows better than anyone else how he has been burning the midnight oil to make this film. They also appreciate the goals of the film. They covet knowledge about ancient Batak society and know how to value a text like Rangsa ni Tonun.

Living in their house, Mas Nashir has had ample opportunity to discuss the audio accompaniment and challenges to the film. By the time I arrived there, they had everything sorted out. When Irwansyah told me about the choices, I felt his pleasure at the selections and what he and Suarasama had made of the opportunity. He loves his work. The same smile of enjoyment is on his face when he plays music. I loved the fact that Rangsa ni Tonun is giving these people an opportunity to apply and even expand their repertory. For me Rangsa ni Tonun is not just about the recovery of the past, but a chance to build culture here and now and for the future. Art must always build on what has gone before. Like Nashir, Irwansyah and Rithaony are artists. (It would be so much fun to have a film about the text in the time when it used to be recited and then juxtapose that with our adventures with the text in the contemporary world.)

The music that they selected adds a new symbolic layer to Rangsa ni Tonun and enlivens the film. Each of the melodies is traditional and has been inserted with care according to its meaning. On the day when I was there, the members of Suarasama came out in full force, including:Marsius and his brother Sarikawan Sitohang, Ophir Yanto Sihombing and Syainul Irwan. It was the climax of the musical accompaniment for the film.

Sarikawan Sitohang put his heart in his music.
The film opens with Gondang Sitoluntuho / elekelek. This music accompanies the cotton drifting own from the Upper World. Usually it is played to accompany the arrival of guests at a Batak ritual event.

When the narration by Ompu Okta doli begins in the film, a gondang melody called Sibuka Pikiran is played. This encourages the listener to be open, to be receptive to the knowledge that will become available.

The Gondang Silage Buang follows. The name of the music refers to a woven straw mat and it alludes to a foundation, that on which other things can rest or be placed. It sets the mood and legitimizes what the narrator of the film, Ompu Okta doli, is saying.

In 1980, I made a very brief recording of Ompu Sihol playing the mouth harp (sagasaga). She explained that when a weaver was tired, she might retire briefly and play this little instrument to relax herself with a change of pace. She also explained that you really needed two people to play the melody, but she was the only one left who still knew how to play. We have decided to include this ancient recording in the film when the cotton is being fluffed using a bow. Incomplete as it is, it is still a rare recording of a musical tradition that has disappeared. It was tempting to insert a melody played using a musical bow, but in the end I think that we did the right thing by opting for Ompu Sihol’s mouth harp.

On our last day together in 1980, when we had our communal meal, Ompu Sihol sang a song for me and I recorded that as well. She said that weavers were courted while at their loom and they often sang teasing songs about their suitors. The young man courting them had to really want them badly enough if they were going to accept his attentions! This kind of song was sung while winding spun yarn (mangiran). Weavers used songs to help them keep count when winding yarn, a melodious way to measure. In the film, we use the scratchy, old recording of Ompu Sihol’s wavering voice as an introduction to the fully accompanied version that Irwansyah has composed based on that recording. It leads into Rithaony’s silver and crystal voice and all of Suarasama put their hearts into the piece. Without question this Weaving Song has to be the theme song of the film (see blog Iraniran: Symbolism and Song).

The next musical component of the film is a hasapi solo. The hasapi is a wooden guitar-like instrument with only two strings. There are various kinds of hasapi and Irwansyah has had some exquisite ones made for his use. The solo that he plays is improvised.

Towards the end of the Rangsa ni Tonun text we have a representative of the first Batak weaver, Boru Hasagian, standing in prayer at the edge of Lake Toba. This beautiful image is graced with a so-called andung melody. Andung is sad and haunting, and fits the meditative mood of this special moment. It is played by the brilliant Marsius Sitohang, probably the best Batak sulim (a kind of flute) player alive today.

As the film cycles around to end where it began, the Gondang Hasahatan Sitotio emerges. This melody is played at the end of every Batak ritual and ceremony. Every Batak recognizes it. It will be especially satisfying, therefore, for the Batak viewers of the film.

When the day was done, the sound had been professionally recorded by Avena Natondang (another member of Suarasama) and Mas Nashir had filmed the players, I went over to thank Irwansyah for the great privilege of having his participation in the film. I also expressed my admiration for the quality of the music and for how fitting it was to our needs. He and Ritha explained that it was rare that they received requests to do absolutely traditional music, although this is what all of the members of Suarasama love to do most. They had enjoyed the opportunity – and recovered an old melody as a result of the recording of Ompu Sihol. When they perform it in the future, they wish to announce it as a tribute to this excellent weaver who would have died in anonymity like hundreds and thousands of others, had it not been for our historically accidental meeting – part of the legacy of Sitor Situmorang who advised me, some 31 years ago, to look for a “traditional” weaver in Harian Boho….
Thirty-one years ago! At the time, she was the only one left in Harian Boho….The decline in the Batak weaving arts has accelerated in the intervening years. Nashir, Irwansyah, Rithaony, Suarasama…by re-constructing they are building anew a culture that will win respect, that will be loved, appreciated, admired.

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