(A message to the reader.)
Part One – The significance of conservation
Skimming through Instagram stories on my phone, I paused at a picture of an unusual variation on a “bundengan” bamboo musical instrument, posted by @mulyani_moelya, Ibu Mulyani, a music and dance teacher in Wonosobo, Indonesia. I sent a “heart eyes” reaction, and she responded immediately, telling me about its provenance, and encouraging me to follow the new hashtag she had made for her upcoming event, featuring a hundred “mini bundengan” and an instrument-building workshop.
Bu Mul, as she is affectionately and respectfully known throughout the Wonosobo regency, is a key activist in the revival of bundengan, a large instrument whose strings and plucks are reminiscent of gamelan music. It evolved from the woven bamboo rain-capes worn by ambulatory duck herders through the Dieng Plateau of Central Java, and has become a rare and endangered instrument, with only one musician, Pak Munir, currently playing at an expert master level.
Until recently, English or Indonesian information was also rare. Its first European description appears under the entry “kowangan” in Kunst’s 1932 Music in Java encyclopaedic publication. Superficial mentions sporadically appear online, primarily Indonesian TV shows in need of a segment about the unusual culture of Dieng. That is to say until 2016, when the #bundengan hashtag began to take off on Instagram, as audiences and musicians contributed to a virtual archive of the instrument’s living heritage.
Video of Pak Munir playing courtesy Palmer Keen (auralarchipelago.com)
I check in on #bundengan regularly, viewing the number of tagged posts as a tangible marker of continuity. This is precisely the type of cultural material conservation that I dreamed of, when I first encountered a dusty instrument, labelled “kowangan” as per Kunst’s text, looking somewhat the worse for wear after 40 years in storage. Its collector, Professor Margaret Kartomi, was well aware of its rarity, and hoped that it could be conserved and restored so that its sound might be heard.
It may seem strange to measure the success of this conservation project by the popularity of a hashtag three years later. In this first section, I will provide some background to what conservation looks like in twenty-first century Asia-Pacific, and how my role in conserving the bundengan evolved. Before describing my interactions with the self-determined, grassroots movements currently ensuring the continuity of bundengan music culture.
A European transplant, I have lived in the Asia-Pacific region since 2002. During a brief visit to Spain, I glimpsed the Prado museum conservation studios, and immediately knew I needed to become a conservator, to handle and preserve art and artefacts. Had I still been based in Europe, my training and career path might have been very different. However, I headed to Australia for my studies. Before I left, I encountered Europeans who scoffed at the idea of Australian conservation, based on backwards and racist misconceptions of there being little worth conserving in a nation supposedly built by convicts barely two hundred years ago.
This extremely Eurocentric approach to culture categorises anything “non-Western” as “primitive” or “ethnographic”—a process that ignores different concepts of cultural heritage. The term ethnographic implies a problematic colonial legacy of “us”—Europe—studying fetishised “others” as geographically-distant (and implied inferior) cultures (Bloomfield, 2008). In fact, Australia’s indigenous heritage, and its geographical location within the Asia-Pacific region, provide a rich context for broadening concepts of what cultural material is and how it should be conserved, as well as a harsh lesson about the devastating effects of European colonisation. At the University of Melbourne Centre for Cultural Materials Conservation I learned about conservation ethics; from its museological history and origins in the period of the Enlightenment and colonial practices to its role and relevance in the twenty-first century. This involves understanding the importance of decolonising conservation, and of how objects should be conserved for their significance within their community of origin, rather than as self-contained artefacts within a collection.
Instead of a single-minded focus on acquiring practical conservation techniques, this approach forced me to step away from the dominant scientific discourse and confront the complicity of conservation in perpetuating concepts of Western superiority. In one of our classroom debates, I was challenged by a Maori student to consider that just because I was “very interested” in the art of other cultures, did not systematically mean I could conserve it. Collectors, curators or conservators often feel backed by scientific research, intellectual curiosity, and years of study and expertise in their field, giving them the connoisseurship and authority to handle objects. But are they respecting intangible values fundamental to the creation of the object within its source community? Historically this has not been the case; reverence in handling “ethnographic” objects is often related to material fragility or rarity, linked to economic value, rather than respect for any spiritual significance. Their conservation is reduced to a technical action, an investment into their material value for future resale or research.
In recent decades, through ethical debates and agreements such as the 1994 Nara Document on Authenticity, conservation has begun to acknowledge cultural diversity. Cultural heritage should be assessed and preserved according to the values of the culture to which they belong; ergo the community of origin should be consulted, so that both the material and intangible properties of the object are respected and preserved. Ideally, this includes continuity of access for the source community to museum collections, for example permitting cleansing rituals for objects within store-rooms, or loans for ceremonial events; potential material damages are mitigated by the considerable benefit of preserving cultural continuity within the community (Clavir, 2002) . However, whilst some communities are reassured, knowing treasured heirlooms are safely preserved in institutions, this hybrid approach to the ownership and location of collections perpetuates an imbalance between colonial legacies of power and historically over-exploited nations; the opinions of outsider heritage experts frequently still take precedence over the values ascribed by the original community. Conservation is often carried out at the request of collection holders, and this led me to question how might conservators preserve world culture collections without reliance on primarily Western knowledge systems?
Returning to Professor Kartomi’s instrument, it belongs to the Music Archive at Monash University (MAMU), which aims to not simply amass a collection of musical paraphernalia, but also to contribute to the preservation of music cultures in the Asia-Pacific region. My first step was to talk to MAMU in order to better understand their goals and expectations. Whilst I could stabilise its material condition, many elements appeared to be missing and no recordings existed. Consequently, as a musical instrument, it had little educational value without further knowledge of its intangible aural properties. As a conservator invested in decolonising collections, I wished to engage with the owners of bundengan’s music culture in order to understand the instrument’s past and current values, including traditional knowledge of how to build, tune and play this instrument, thereby providing context and significance for the instrument in the MAMU collection, as well as identifying any purpose it might hold in supporting the continuity of bundengan within its community.
A press release for a short documentary on bundengan music cemented my decision to travel to Central Java, in order to meet the director and the musician-makers depicted therein as the last of their kind. Whilst I was thrilled to step out of the minivan after a four-hour drive from Yogyakarta to Ngabean Village, I had not yet identified what I could bring to the musicians and their community, beyond of course gifts of coffee and TimTams. I arrived primarily as an observer, to learn as much as I could despite the language barrier, and as a guest in the community I accepted everything that came to me, rather than try to fulfill specific research criteria.
The entire village had assembled in the central field, where two dancers, a musician and a singer performed 1.The standard performance fee, as set by the performers, was paid for by MAMU. This research trip was otherwise self-funded on a student budget; nonetheless an important aspect of consultation between cultural institutions and communities is recognition of the professional expertise of contributors: all interviewees, hosts and interpreters received financial compensation.. Looking back, I find my ignorance of bundengan very endearing. I was obsessed with getting near to musician Pak Munir and his instrument, which I could barely hear. I was instead drawn onto the makeshift stage to awkwardly mirror the dancer’s delicate movements. The performance was followed by an interview with the musicians; I longed to ask instrument-related questions of Pak Munir, but our host, singer Pak Bohori, very much led the discussions. Questions about the past, present and future of bundengan seemed to suggest a dead end: Pak Munir was not teaching new generations and was the only proficient player (our hosts also organised for us to meet two other elders who had played bundengan in the past); there was only one skilled bundengan-maker, Pak Mahrumi, whom we also interviewed and who did not have anyone to pass his skills on to. Almost universally, none of the people I interviewed seemed very interested in photographs of the MAMU bundengan, although they were pleased to hear that one was preserved outside of Indonesia. The instrument-builder Pak Mahrumi, when pressed, identified weaknesses in the old bamboo and asserted it could definitely not be repaired, seeming somewhat bemused by the idea.
All of these events were conducted with a sense of formality, further stilted by the need for translations between Javanese, Indonesian and English. It was agreed that we would stay the night with Pak Bohori and his family. The “work” accomplished, we all began to relax; the house quickly filled with visitors, singers, dancers, music, hot sweet tea and animated conversations. Slowly, more information began to surface in this more casual, intimate environment, as well as a feeling for more than just facts—the role the instrument played within this community and its families. I began to understand how the search for a single objective truth or authority relating to bundegan (or any other cultural expression) was indeed a construct inherited from colonial mandates of hierarchical categorisation. In reality it became apparent that multiple narratives—sometimes contradictory—co-existed. This led to a better sense of how instead of conserving a single instrument, a conservator from the “outside” could contribute in small ways to the bigger picture of its ongoing musical culture.
This is where the true learning began for me, although it was only a small step on the path to building meaningful relationships with this community, and above all to beginning to understand the broader significance of bundengan, across different time periods and locations. The result is a form of conservation that is quite far removed from the classic idea of conservation as a technical or scientific preservation of material art — even though materials, techniques and science are all contributing to its conservation — because it is entirely community-led. I explore in the second part of this article how different groups overlap and intertwine through this preservation movement, and sometimes even clash, but together they contribute to a much richer and stronger bundengan culture.
Part Two – A multiplicity of narratives
I have been privileged to observe and participate in discussions around transmission, performance, evolution and innovation, as well as associations between different groups—all forms of an essential continuity, and inherent characteristics of living heritage as an integral part of life past and present.
This has manifested in the development of several “schools” of bundengan, different collaborations through a variety of grass-roots initiatives, where my role has been to connect and promote exchanges, rather than to lead or instruct. I strongly refute the idea that I am now a bundengan expert, or that any “outsider” and non-practitioner of a cultural practice can truly claim expertise based on observation and research. My contribution has been to support those to whom bundengan is not a curiosity but an integral part of their life.
This process was initiated during my first field trip. The language and cultural barriers were undeniable, but our rosetta stone came in the form of social media. As we relaxed together after the formal interviews and recordings, mobile phones appeared and selfies ruled the room throughout the night. Everyone queued up to take pictures with the out-of-town visitors, and the younger generations hustled us to add them on Instagram. My friend Palmer Keen posted to his Instagram account dedicated to Indonesian music, tagging them #bundengan, and found six other posts under the same tag, several of which showed school children playing the instrument. I contacted @m.said.a, the ethnomusicology student Sa’id Abdulloh who had made the posts, and we organised to meet up in a nearby town later that week.
This is where I was introduced to Bu Mul. It’s hard to express even now, three years on, the thrill of arriving at Selomerto SNP2 Secondary School and seeing a dozen bundengans stacked at the school entrance. After a warm welcome, Bu Mul and Mas Sa’id were joined by two other young men, Mas Agus and Mas Andi, who all shared an interest in music and had previously learned the basics of bundengan from Pak Munir some months back, so that they might teach younger generations. The instruments had been procured by the local government from Pak Mahrumi, so that students could play basic melodies to accompany traditional dance performances.
Referring back to my initial visit, it had been our understanding that nobody was currently learning to play, at least not from Pak Munir. Before our departure from Ngabean Village, celebrated with many photos of us alongside our new friends Pak Munir and the Bohori family, we showed them the bundengan photos we had seen on Instagram, but they only expressed what had appeared to my eyes as polite acknowledgement of something that did not interest them. Conversely, when we asked about a young man who posted Youtube videos claiming to be the next generation of bundengan, everyone present agreed that he was an imposter, and also not “from here”, with the sense that authentic bundengan was linked geographically with Wonosobo. During interviews with elderly bundengan players from nearby villages, when asked who had taught them bundengan, both explained that they had independently invented it one day when out in the fields. When asked about other players or shown photos from the 1930s taken by Kunst, they expressed little more than polite interest. Pak Bohori, who joined us for the interviews, also listened with polite interest, but did not appear moved in any way by these statements.
These instances highlight the complexity of understanding the bundengan and its community, demonstrating how there was no absolute objective truth, and certainly not one that could be explained to outsiders. The challenge of providing an explanation to outsiders has led to a simplified, easily accepted narrative. The reality of bundengan music culture was held in a multiplicity of narratives, whether relating to creation and transmission, or to the relationships between people and communities. It also was becoming increasingly clear to me that there were many underlying local complexities which I, as an outsider, could not hope to grasp in a single field visit.
Following my trip, the conserved 1972 “kowangan” at MAMU was now accompanied by a new bundengan purchased from Pak Munir, and my field recordings, photos and conservation research. It is important to avoid freezing objects in time alongside singular, objective definitions, instead leaving more room for ambiguity and evolution in language, music, and technical practices. To some degree we had achieved that, but how was this advantageous for my friends in Wonosobo and the localised continuity of bundengan?
I remained in touch with the bundengan community through social media, seeing videos of performances, or photos of miniature bundengans made to practice their instrument-building skills, and felt so privileged to have insights into their on-going bundengan activities. We began to discuss how the new relationship with Australian institutions might benefit them. Bu Mul particularly liked the idea of workshops and performances in both Australia and Indonesia. As a proof of concept, she worked hard to get local funding for a two-day “Workshop Bundengan”, held in Wonosobo in April 2017, where hundreds of schoolchildren learned about bundengan and to play on scaled-down instruments that she had designed. An important encounter at this workshop was ethnomusicology student, the eternally congenial Luqmanul Chakim, who alongside Sa’id helped me feel less awkward about my role as “guest of honour”. Whilst I was aware that my interest and respect for the music culture demonstrated value to participants primarily because my white, outsider, university-approved status projected authority, my friendship with Luk and Sa’id was authentic and they helped me communicate my respect and pleasure at being reunited with Pak Munir, Pak Bohori, and Pak Mahruhmi.
Part Three – Bundengan connections
The Workshop Bundengan was not the only opportunity to build relationships, and elsewhere other “bundengan connections” were being forged. Engineers and researchers Dr Indraswari (Ari) Kumaraningtyas and Dr Gea Parikesit attended an exhibition of musical instruments in Yogyakarta at which Sa’id performed bundengan, capturing their interest with the intriguing illusion created by gamelan-sounding bamboo and strings. This prompted them to begin a series of studies at Universitas Gadja Madah (UGM) investigating the acoustic properties of bundengan; we bonded very quickly over our desire to address the needs and interests of the musicians, rather than contemplate the bundengan as a stand-alone object. Ari and Gea became valuable collaborators in transcending barriers between academic and traditional knowledge, using multidisciplinary methods and heavily investing in the social value of their research. They continue to work directly with bundengan musicians, as well as instruments made by different craftsmen. Addressing concerns of the younger generation in terms of replicating the original sound quality and construction techniques, their experiments identify the acoustical phenomena that creates such unique sound, reverse engineering construction and tuning methods.
In October 2017, the second International and Interdisciplinary Conference on Arts Creation and Studies was held at the Indonesian Institute of the Arts, Surakarta. Eager to push bundengan to the forefront of an international audience, we presented a paper entitled “#bundengan: Social media as a space for collaboration in the conservation and revival of an endangered musical instrument”, whilst Gea and Ari presented “The musical acoustics of bundengan”. A bundengan instrument-building workshop was presented by Luk, Sa’id, Bu Mul and her nephew Mas Yatno, who had been learning from Pak Mahrumi. This was an incredible opportunity for the wide variety of international and Indonesian participants (including several of Gea and Ari’s students) to participate in the oral and hands-on transmission of knowledge through making and playing their own instruments.
Contemporary musician and composer Bianca Gannon had been inspired by the MAMU bundengan display and immediately after the conference, she and I set out on a road trip to Wonosobo, so she could meet Pak Munir and Pak Bohori. We both benefited from the insights gained during my first trip, that whilst she could not really learn to play fully in the short time, she was able to build relationships and show respect to the community and particularly to Pak Munir, Pak Bohori and Pak Mahrumi, once again being sure to show our gratitude for their hospitality and recognition of their expertise. Much of this trip was spent brainstorming with Bu Mul and the rest of the team about how to bring bundengan to Australia, thanks to a generous grant from the Helen Sumarjo Arts Fund, as well as financial and logistical support from Professor Margaret Kartomi at Monash University, Dr Nicole Tse at the University of Melbourne, and Dr Josh Stenberg at the University of Sydney, for a “Making Connections” series of events.
A strong priority of Making Connections was to emphasize the unique qualities of bundengan, without fetishizing or overly emphasizing it as a “traditional” musical culture. The desire was to contextualise it as living heritage, not as a condemned vestige of the past. In order to make our Australian events more than a simple “show and tell”, and to appeal to a broad range of audiences, the Wonosobo participants were keen to explore creative presentations of bundengan involving its music, history, and meanings. An important consideration was how could these performances in Sydney and Melbourne benefit the community in Wonosobo? In addition to generating funds for the performers, and for those who remained in Indonesia, it was necessary to acknowledge their long-term priorities as bundengan performers and activists. These events were not only entertaining and educating the Australian audiences, they were also giving the performers clout and demonstrating their dedication, so that when they returned to Indonesia they would be in a better position to get support from employers, funders, government bodies, or even the local community, and thereby pursue their bundengan activities.
Amongst the younger generation a bundengan subculture had forming, in contrast to the more traditional ensemble of Pak Munir and Pak Bohori, or Bu Mul’s choreographed performances at school and government events. Sa’id, Luk, Agus and Andi had been exploring ways of integrating bundengan into their musical practice; this ranged from playing pop or rock songs on bundengan, either on its own or as an accompaniment to other instruments, to experimental variations on bundengan tuning—adding new strings or percussive elements. Collaborating with Bianca Gannon and Indonesian-Australian artist Jumaadi during Making Connections, they were also able to workshop contemporary bundengan performances, experimenting with projections and lighting as well as sound and texture, whilst simultaneously reflecting on the socio-economic changes triggered by colonial practices that had seen bundengan and duck-herding disappear from Wonosobo society. The resulting show, “The Sound of Shadows” held multiple performances at the Middlehead Fortifications in Sydney, an appropriately eerie remainder of Australia’s early colonial days, and was repeated in Melbourne, each time to an intimate audience themselves seated within bundengan instruments. I myself was a participant in the performance, as the puppeteer’s assistant, and the magic of the show never failed to enchant me. My biggest regret was that I could not be in the audience!
In addition to these collaborative contemporary performances, the Wonosobo participants designed their own show for Making Connections, re-imagining the creation of bundengan with humour and skill, and showcasing the unique sound of the instrument as well as the beautiful songs that accompanied it, honouring the work of Pak Munir and Pak Bohori. This was performed at the Robert Blackwood Hall and at the Consulate General of Indonesia in Melbourne, followed by projections of the initial documentary which had first connected me to Wonosobo, and Sa’id’s own short film about bundengan. Another opportunity to get up close with bundengan was the Aural Archipelago Listening Party, with all funds going directly to the Wonosobo community.
Our target audiences were not only music-lovers, but researchers with whom we wished to share knowledge about bundengan without reducing it to a simple concept within a western knowledge system, e.g. “ethnomusicology” or “Indonesian studies”. We presented a seminar series “Ethnomusicology Revisited: Contemporary Approaches to the Study of Indonesian Music”; organised a one-day symposium on the music and culture of Wonosobo; and led an instrument-building workshop (including an authentic Wonosobo lunch). Generously hosted by the University of Sydney, Monash University, and the University of Melbourne respectively, this was an opportunity to emphasise the multiplicity of sometimes contradictory narratives, the prevalence of oral and traditional knowledge transmission systems, and the social life of a music culture within and beyond its original context.
All of these events were documented via social media, emphasising the use of the #bundengan tag and encouraging participants to share their bundengan experiences, in order the enhance and archive a broad range of views and understandings, ranging from videos of performances to detailed photos of instruments, from excited selfies with the musicians to proud recaps of their own speeches and presentations. The #bundengan tag is an organic, open-source resource, documenting the significance, usage, practice, or observations of many, rather than a single authority. This democratic approach is to my eyes the evidence of a strong, on-going conservation of bundengan music culture as it continues to manifest in different ways, reflecting its multiple narratives, and above all grounded in living heritage.
Part four – Bundengan today
After I started a new job and took a step back from the Making Connections project, through #bundengan, I was able to witness many performances and events organised by the musicians in Indonesia, and to see the different participants gaining momentum.
I was very honoured to be invited by Gea and Ari as a participant for a National Geographic grant in researching the acoustics of bundengan—not as an expert in bundengan itself, but in supporting the researchers in their aim of supporting the social value and continuity of bundengan music culture. I joined them in April 2019 and was able to present to the students about conservation aims, then participate in a round table with other experts and researchers, where we discussed the identity of bundengan and what makes it unique, what ensures its endurance and continuity. This was followed by three days of fieldwork in Wonosobo, where the real complexity and the new shape of bundengan began to emerge very clearly.
When I had first visited Wonosobo two and a half years earlier, Pak Munir and Pak Mahrumi had little direct connection with Bu Mul’s projects, which were more focused on the unique visual appearance of the bundengan from a performance point of view, rather than preserving the traditional knowledge necessary beyond that required for building her “props”. She was supported in this by several young musicians whose various talents enabled these basic requirements. That is to say, at the time of my initial visit, there was a sense of the unique and endangered nature of the bundengan, but also of the inevitability of its eventual demise, beyond featuring symbolically, a mascot of Wonosobo identity embedded in dance and music performances.
My involvement and the raising of the bundengan profile amongst different demographics (outsiders, academics, youth, government) had triggered a new wave of interest and sense of responsibility to ensure the continuity of bundengan as a true artform amongst the various individuals. With this has come some rivalry but also a sense of pride, and of identification of the different roles that are necessary for the music culture to thrive.
Following her victorious Australian tour, Bu Mul continues to organise splendid choreographed performances featuring a wide range of different sized bundengans, weaving the instrument into local mythology and linking it to other traditional performances including lengger dance and wayang shadow puppets. She also has become the caretaker of the largest and most varied collection of bundengan instruments in the world. She travels throughout the region to source all kinds of bundengan, made by different people and according to different methods. Some of them are still rain-capes, which she sometimes converts to instruments; others are instruments but in no way comparable to bundengan’s traditional format, having evolved from other musical genres or through the experiments of music students. Without making claims to being a master of bundengan herself, Bu Mul’s tireless efforts have ensured the heightened visibility and social awareness of the instrument’s shape and sound. Additionally, she has encouraged her nephew and other young men in the community to learn how to make the instrument, in an attempt to recreate the auditory magic that is woven into Pak Mahrumi’s instruments, as he is now in such ill-health he can no longer build instruments. Mahrumi builds are now considered the Stradivarius of the bundengan world.
On the back of Making Connections and with the help of Bu Mul, the musicians Luk and Sa’id and Agus have created WooHoo Artspace, a creative space for local artists and musicians to assemble, and where international residencies can take place, focused on a contemporary bundengan musical practice which is highly innovative and experimental. These types of evolutionary experiments and adaptations are a necessary feature of music culture survival, and rather than repeating a single repertoire on a standardised instrument, incorporate traditional knowledge along with modern practices, just as musical instruments—or any other technology—always have.
One of the most exciting reactions to the Making Connections project is the strongly renewed desire of Pak Munir and Pak Bohori to lead the revival and regeneration of the traditional musical knowledge, which requires thousands of hours of practice to hone the musical skill necessary to making and playing the instrument. They had increasingly felt perceived as something of a “support act” for the other performers, but it has become clear that they have seen the importance of self-determination and of keeping the skill “within the family” as their younger relatives now join them in playing. They are the only purveyors of performances at a high level of skill, and to avoid being usurped by apprentices, they have simultaneously tightened their standards for taking on students, as well as taken seriously the promotion of their roles as teachers and leaders in the community. Supported by the younger generation of enthusiasts, including WooHoo, they are planning to conduct workshops of their own within their home village of Ngabean. The next event will be in October 2019. You can follow @bundengan_connections on Instagram to find out more.
Bloomfield, T., 2008. ‘Pupuru te mahara – Preserving the memory: Working with Maori communitites on preservation projects in Aotearoa, New Zealand’, in ICOM Committee for Conservation, 15th Triennial Meeting, New Delhi, 22-26 September 2008, Preprints, ed. J. Bridgland, Allied Publishers Ltd, London, pp 144-149.
Clavir, M., 2002. Preserving what is valued: Museums, conservation and First Nations. UBC Press, Vancouver.
Sully, D., 2007. Decolonising conservation: Caring for Maori meeting houses outside New Zealand, Left Coast Press, Walnut Creek, California.
Rosie Cook heads the textiles conservation department at Cheng Shiu University Conservation Center in Taiwan. Following a Masters of Cultural Materials Conservation (University of Melbourne) and a BA in History of Art & Archaeology of Asia (SOAS, University of London), her research focuses on the links between objects, performance and people.
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|↑1||The standard performance fee, as set by the performers, was paid for by MAMU. This research trip was otherwise self-funded on a student budget; nonetheless an important aspect of consultation between cultural institutions and communities is recognition of the professional expertise of contributors: all interviewees, hosts and interpreters received financial compensation.|