The Indonesian Suling
May 7, 2010
It’s been over a year since I wrote my introductory blog to you all. Wow, time goes by so quickly…so it’s time for a new entry – this time on the Indonesian suling! There are numerous informative articles online about the suling, so instead of presenting a technical description of the instrument and it’s scales, I will give you my insight into the suling based on my own experiences with this flute. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the suling, I think, as players of the Native American flute, you will enjoy reading about this wonderful instrument. It is also a fipple flute and quite simple to play with no thumb hole or pinky hole, is most often played with a pentatonic scale and has a lovely sweet sound in the smaller higher flutes, and a dark haunting sound in the larger flutes.
I was fortunate to be given an amazing opportunity to spend three weeks in Bali, Indonesia this past February as a resident fellow of APPEX (Asian Pacific Performers Exchange), an amazing program that brings together eight performing artists from Asia with eight from the U.S. We had six musicians, seven dancers and three theater/puppetry artists from Cambodia, India, Thailand, Java, and the U.S. During these three weeks our focus was to share our artistic processes and in workshop settings, create numerous new works that were cross-cultural and cross disciplinary. What a fascinating and inspiring experience this was.
And being in Bali, well, I can’t say enough about this magical island. The spirit of the people is so strong and so apparent in daily life, it is life-changing to experience their devotion, their rituals and their many ceremonies. And how the arts are a part of every day life for just about everyone is a true inspiration and how I feel life should be.
Our local hosts were Cudamani, one of the foremost gamelan ensembles on the island (http://www.cudamani.org). This dynamic ensemble brought us to a village called Tunjuk, a 45-minute drive from Ubud, the cultural capital of the island, but years apart in development. The villagers were unaccustomed to Westerners and treated the APPEX artists as honored guests. This special evening was the purification ceremony that the village holds every six months and we were treated to four hours of food, music, ceremony and dance. At midnight, they brought out the sacred masks of Barong, the mythical beast that represents good, and Rangda, the evil witch. During this ritual dance we witnessed one of the villagers and one of the female dancers going into a deep trance. We watched the priest sprinkle holy water on them while pulling their hair to bring them out of trance. One of the elders of the village, an internationally known Indonesian composer and musician, told us afterwards that we had witnessed a very special trance, and that trance is considered good, and an honor to experience and witness.
After studying music and trance while I was a student of Ethnomusicology at UCLA, this was a huge gift for me to witness this powerful transition of spirit through music and dance. The sulings played a huge part of this experience. The lead suling player played the small, high suling and the other two players played the larger, lower and more unusual sulings. Their repetitive overlapping lines create a hypnotic effect that is distinct from the style of other gamelan pieces. The flutists played constantly and were very tuned in with the energy of the dancers.
I shot a few short videos on my iphone.
The priests (in white) are administering the holy water to bring the man out of trance.
In gamelan music there is often just one suling player, sometimes several, and sometimes none. The flute is an accompaniment instrument rather than a solo instrument. The flutes embellish the melody lines and float in and out above the gamelan, and all, yes repeat, ALL of the suling players are men. Cudamani is now teaching suling classes and are teaching young girls. They also have a girls gamelan orchestra. The girls usually dance and sing but only very recently, as in the past few years, have they been taught the suling. I asked an expert on Indonesian society and culture why this is and he said it was because it was considered phallic and inappropriate for females to play the flute. I’m glad that their views are changing and that the culture is opening up to new ideas. While I was in Bali I performed many times for the communities and they were indeed fascinated with a female flute player. I also gave an impromptu workshop for the young suling class and their teacher. What a captive audience!
The suling is the bamboo flute of Indonesia. It is a fipple flute with a very distinct and unique design and timbre with either four or six finger holes. The body of the flute is made from thin walled bamboo. A slice of rattan (palm, as in rattan furniture) is wrapped around the blow hole creating the embouchure hole on the side of the top of the flute. The wrapped rattan is then either cut (Balinese style) or tied in a decorative knot (Sundanese/West Java).
The flute from the west part of the island of Java (Sundanese) has four holes allowing for the five-note Pelog scale. The Sundanese suling music is called Kacapi suling and is my favorite style. The kacapi is a Sundanese stringed instrument similar to a zither or a harp and this is the suling music probably most known around the world. During my first visit to Bali over 20 years ago, I would hear Kacapi suling played in all of the cafes. Turns out it was one particular recording being played throughout the island. I bought the cassette tape. The second time I visited, about six years ago, I heard the same music still being played in the public places such as hotels and cafes. I then bought the CD (a collection with many of the same recordings). This recent trip I STILL heard the same music being played and saw the same CD being sold in the markets. It is a classic, called “Landangan,” Kacapi Suling Instrumental. The melodies are simple and haunting, with short repeating phrases and numerous ornaments. I ever tire of listening to this music. Another beautiful suling style from Sunda is Degung with suling and gong style instruments…also gorgeous.
The Balinese gamelan plays in a very different style from the Javanese gamelan orchestras whose style is very slow and stately. The Balinese suling playing reflects the dynamic and energetic Balinese gamelan . The flutes have six holes and are able to play several types of scales and are tuned to match the tuning of the gamelan orchestra that it plays with. Every village has it’s own gamelan with it’s own distinct tuning.
The premier suling player from Cudamani is also it’s flute maker and I had the honor of spending an afternoon with him while he showed me his flutes and his flute-making skills. I watched him make a suling from the beginning stages and then he gave me the flute! What a treat.
If you are interested in purchasing a suling, please let me know. I brought a batch home and they sold very quickly. If enough people are interested, I will place another order. This time I think I will order custom made Sundanese style flutes from him.
Here is a photo I took of Cudamani in performance with their dancers and the suling players are playing their huge sulings! (The gold decoration is a the unique trademark of Cover’s flutes). What a thrill it was to experience this performance close up with fewer than 30 people in the “audience” at their compound. Their mastery is inspiring. They play together almost every day and live and work together in the village and often in or near the Cudamini compound. The bond they have can be heard in their music.
Here is a video of the performance.
I am so in love with Bali, it’s culture and it’s people, that I am planning to bring a group of people over there to experience the island in a retreat setting, experiencing the spirit and culture of the island as well as enjoying the Bali Spirit Festival 2011 (http://www.balispiritfestival.com) in which I will be performing. If you would like to receive more information as plans develop, please send me an email! firstname.lastname@example.org. The dates will be around the last week of March, 2011!
Well my friends, thank you for reading this blog. I hope you have enjoyed this introduction to the suling as seen through my recent journey. I leave you now with a piece we wrote that is on our CD Miles Beyond. The melody was inspired by those days in the cafes listening to the magical sounds of the suling wafting dreamily through my body, mind and soul…and it’s title is, what else…”Suling!” Enjoy!
Peace to you,