Bamboo Music

During a visit to our motherland last month, my wife Dee, father in-law Anzar, and Yours Truly spent a couple of days traveling Bandung, West Java. Population, 2.6M. Distance from the nation’s capital Jakarta, 150 km. Bandung is known to Indonesians for its fair women of Sundanese ethnicity, its unique snacks and cuisine, as well as the Tangkuban Perahu, a dormant volcano located north of the city, so called for its profile which resembles an overturned ark. 

I was born in Bandung, some 20.. 30.. well, okay some 40+ years ago. I lived my first four years there and it had been at least 20 years since my last return. So much has changed. Not everything for the better. Sadly, the song "My Little Town” of Simon & Garfunkel fame rang through my mind as we drove through the disorderly streets. Despair not.. “Things are looking bright,” said a close friend of Anzar, who we called Om Boen, a seasoned traveler and tour-guide extraordinaire, “our current mayor has vision and is an honest citizen.” Om’s claims would be proven over the course of our stay.

Beyond the attraction of Bandung that is food and the many edible delicacies the Sundanese cook up, there is art. One of our stops in the city was the Sculpture Park. This lush emerald oasis in a tropical city is home to many works of art made of iron, created by the artist of Balinese descent, Nyoman Nuarta, hence the name of his impressive gallery, NuArt. The hilly contours of the park are scattered with statues of animals, mythical creatures and human beings in various forms. 

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A well guarded workshop at the far end of his property is under commission for Nyoman’s long-term project in Bali, the Garuda Wisma Kencana, a structure depicting the hindu deity Wisnu riding on the mythical bird Garuda, originally slated to rise 150 meters in height. 

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This monument is considered by many to be so bombastic, it could ruin the island’s already tested spiritual and environmental balance. But that is an issue for Bali to ponder. This is Bandung.. and back at the NuArt Sculpture Park the ambience is tranquil and picturesque.

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Another stop we took along the tour was the Selasar Sunaryo Art Space in the district of Dago, founded and managed by Sunaryo. As with many Javanese of his generation, he goes by the one name. And similar to Nyoman, he adopted “Paris von Java” as his choice city to live, work and create. The gallery exhibiting contemporary works of art is quite modest by today’s standards, however, the delight of the visit was to personally meet Sunaryo himself, the artist and philosopher. The man, soft-spoken, small in stature, but every inch the entrepreneur, invited us to his latest project.. still under construction.. hidden from the public.. yet within a short walking distance from his existing art house.

Sunaryo’s newest baby is the Stone Garden. Scheduled for opening in mid-2015, the park constructed of giant-sized stones collected from across the archipelago, overlooks a deep ravine, where his “eternal water-fall” is designed to cascade into. The garden will represent the evolution of life, from cradle to grave, from creation to destruction. Our ears and senses were heightened as Sunaryo spoke of the mystic energies rendered from the stones. The Stone Garden was still under wraps at the time of this writing, and therefore, until its date of launch, I can only reveal to you the image of the man himself... 


The highlight of our trip was seeing a performance at Saung Angklung Udjo, or, literally, Udjo’s House of Angklung.  Udjo Ngalagena, born 16 years before Indonesia’s independence, founded the House of Angklung in 1966, and passed on his talents and wisdom to his children until his death in 2001.

A medium to invite the rice goddess Dewi Sri, designated World Heritage status by UNESCO, and featured in a 2013 episode of reality TV's The Amazing Race, the Angklung is a musical instrument, or a series of instruments made primarily of bamboo. Originating from Indonesia and played by the Sundanese for centuries, an angklung is held with two hands, one holding firmly a top corner of the contraption, and the other hand on the opposite bottom end, shaking the instrument to create a hollow rattling sound. One piece of angklung creates one particular pitch; a series of angklungs create full scales and octaves.

On the outskirts of Bandung, through two-lane roads fit for one, passing dodgy buses and kamikaze motorcycles, sideswiping food hawkers and cigarette vendors, we finally arrived at our destination. Awaiting our entrance was a semi open-air theatre. The stage props presented two sets of wayang goleks (traditional wooden puppets), gamelan drums and gongs, and numerous sets of the angklung. The opening ‘wayang’ act, the ‘tari topeng’ dance, and introductions by the MC were a little underwhelming, but from then on the show started to pick up.

Performances by children in their many colourful costumes were most adorable. The kids would play angklung, sing and dance - at times a little out of step - to the tune of traditional Indonesian songs. The youngsters would ham up their mischief and the audience gleefully acknowledged. An interactive session for audience participation and learning upped the cheesy-meter.. all in good fun.

Most impressive were the more mature performers, consisting of teenagers and adults obviously skilled in their art. They showcased the level of talent and coordination required for playing more complex pieces. Some soloist were receiving some admiring glances from fellow musicians as captured on video here…

It may be many years before I find myself back in Bandung to hear the reverberating melodies of the angklung. Rest assured the familiar pitch and sounds will faithfully await my return, despite changes to the city, the mayor, and to those who accompanied me back to where it all began. Back to where I was born. 

June 2014

© Prakoso Sastrowardoyo 2012