Investigating the Sundanese Ritual of Kasenian Réak

Investigating the Sundanese Ritual of Kasenian Réak

June 21, 2019

Written by:

Luigi Monteanni

Edited by:

Eric Meyer

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Java’s Sundanese culture, witnessed in the western parts of the Indonesian island, is often dubbed the most rustic and raw, largely echoed by the Central and Eastern region’s Javanese population. The Javanese are known for a history of palace etiquette and aristocratic lifestyles but, even with their biases in context, some Sundanese cultural phenomena might, indeed, express a crude and concrete aspect.

A vivid example is kasenian réak - the réak performative art. It is a community-based art; music performance celebrating life achievements most notably for weddings, circumcisions, institutions’ anniversaries and occasionally city folk festivals.

The name réak is reported to come from the expressions “eak-eakan” or “ngareuah-reuah” and is defined as “festive sounds produced by musicians to get the villagers’ attention”. Réak is related to a genre or style of Javanese “horse trance dances” known as “jaranan” from Central and East Java. More well-known forms are the jathilan, kuda lumping and kuda kepang as well as reog ponorogo, ebeg and buto.

In East Bandung, approximately from Cibiru to Rancakalong, réak is typically performed twice during the arak-arakan, a mostly neighborhood-based parade around circumcisions meant to inform and gather friends and family from the village, the day of the event. The area provides a dynamic socio-economic settlement called desa that sits between a traditional rural village and an urban landscape. Almost all réak performances observed for this article were held for such events and in those places, especially in the areas of Cibiru and Cinunuk.

While the performance itself is quite elementary, a deeper analysis of its elements, components, history, aesthetic, ethic and social values reveals a complex structure of interaction between beliefs, different class populations, historical figures, and art forms.
Foto: Gigi Priadji
Foto: Gigi Priadji

The Early Days of Réak

It’s difficult to give an account of how réak was originally staged and performed. Réak first appeared in the late 1920s by founder groups Juarta Putra and Maska Putra, originating from the oldest form: réak buhun (ancient/original). This form of music performance is held during village celebrations or hajat lembur and features angklung buncis - an art form traditionally performed for agricultural rites and harvest celebrations similar to other forms of Sundanese art and music (especially the ones displaying angklung).

Another historical perspective argues that réak originated specifically for circumcisions. This view suggests that the boy was brought to the nearest river during the parade and immersed in cold water for the purpose and belief of washing away presumed “negative energies” but it may also have acted as an elementary anesthetic.

Réak has seen rapid growth since the 1960s. In the early days reports suggest that there were only two groups comprised of a few families. Since then, that number has grown to more than 200 in the Bandung area alone. The addition of the toa (amplifiers and portable sound systems built on a handcart) and new instruments like the sinden and the tarompet played vital roles in the reak’s rise in popularity, particularly among younger generations. This didn’t come without some complications.

Senior leaders argue new wave réak enthusiasts ignore its historical tradition such as formal attire. They also view the younger generations show a lack of respect for reak’s origin aesthetic and ethical values. Moreover, technological advances in instrumentation like the tarompet, which allows for a single player to play multiple melodies, rendered other devices like the angklung, which needs multiple players to perform single notes, obsolete.

From a political-cultural perspective, the “traditional vs. contemporary” dichotomy could be rooted in more than 70 years of government policies promoting aesthetics over ritual meaning as a soft power grip on Indonesian nationalism. It appears to be a means to build an Indonesian hard-line identity and legitimacy in the eyes of the world by selecting elements of local realities while neglecting the abstract spiritual view. Nonetheless, the old versus new is a challenge all cultures inevitably face.

The Small World

Foto: Gigi Priadji
Foto: Gigi Priadji
A réak group consists of 20-30 participants, largely from lower socio-economic backgrounds, led by one or more ma'alim (shaman-like figures).

Prior to the event, performers socialize with attendees and ready the toa. The ma’alim prepares the sasajen (ritual offerings) placing them on a rice sieve. The first part of the ceremony, and the only proper ritual phase of the event, includes a very complex and intricate body of objects, symbols, acts, and values which symbolize fundamental principles of Sundanese philosophy, history and spirituality. They function as the initial mediator between the visible and the invisible.

The practice of the sasajen, common to harvest rituals and ceremonies, other similar acts (e.g. Tarawangsa), is a fundamental step to establish the proper conditions in order to carry out the ceremony and to act in respect to the contract of collaboration. This also shows the mutual respect between the people and their ancestors – be they relatives of the people, presumed spirits that inhabited the area before the settlement was built or founders of the village. During réak, the group in situ requests from their ancestors (particularly the founders of the group), as well as the ancestors of the family who's holding the hajat, the permission to proceed and asks for protection and safety regarding the ceremony. This ritual is called ngarekes.

The sasajen is moreover defined as “the small world” (dunya leutik) - a set of symbols to create a small version of the world and a metonymy of it, involving, metaphorically and physically, everything the ancestors loved and all the foods that make a Sundanese. This is an apotropaic material that is considered to repel negative entities and energies. All of the sasajen is offered to the Javanese spirits which are thought to consume the rasa (taste) of the food.

Crouched on the ground, the ma'alim starts burning incense on the coal in its container, the paruk kujan, uttering the prayers. During this time the group meditates around the offerings. In the end, the ma'alim directs the incense smoke towards the offerings and instruments, scattering perfume on them. Additionally, the ma'alim puts perfume on the players' and crew's hands and they are required to put the essence on their eyes. When the sasajen, the proper ritual, is over, the réak can start.

The Figure Of The Ma’alim

In many cultures, doctors, shamans and similar figures are an important part of the community. Particular to Indonesia, two kinds of figures can be found: the first is the dukun, which is, although not entirely accurate, a national term for shaman and a traditional doctor which can be viewed as the Western counterpart.

In Indonesia, the ma'alim, a term related to the Arabic mu'alim or 'alim, is a shaman who’s learned in religious matters and/or a magician who is a specialized pawang for réak. The pawang is the one who is “able to control” something, or who is “responsible for” something. Other pawang examples include the pawang hujan - who is thought to be able to control the rain - and the pawang ular - the one that can control snakes.

The ma'alim controls the ritual’s religious aspects and the rite of the sasajen. He determines which religious experiences thought to be true and how to “heal” them. He also has to know which entity is most suitable for a specific body.
Foto: Gigi Priadji
Foto: Gigi Priadji


As mentioned in the previous article, réak compositions have the purpose to invite the apparition to take part in the event. At least formally, they have no composer and can be adapted to many artistic genres. The first five songs usually are Bangbung Hideung, Ayun Ambing, Wangsit Siliwangi, Kembang Beureum, and Kidung. Following the initial songs, performers are free to choose compositions including more contemporary/less orthodox genres, such as dangdut or pop sunda.

The rhythmic section and the melodic section work on two different levels. The dogdog proceeds with a more or less standardized pattern, which is different for each group until the tillingtit or bedug, dictated by the pimpinan (alternate for ma’alim) or the request of a one, speeds up to double tempo. At this point, the other dogdog follows the sped-up groove and, accordingly with the tarompet and sinden in sync with the tempo. The tarompet, a versatile and flexible instrument able to adapt to most rhythms, acts as a bridge into the next composition announcing and starting the next song.

The musical ensemble is composed of four dogdog (wood and leather hand percussions) players, a bedug (Islamic percussion used to call Muslim followers to Adzan) player, tarompet (a double reed instrument similar to zurna) player, kecrek (rudimentary iron percussion) and often features a sinden (female singer). The smallest of the dogdog percussions (tillingtit) is played by the leader of the group. The music features a varied repertoire.
Foto: Gigi Priadji
Foto: Gigi Priadji

The Performance

When the music starts, the Bangbarongan costume is carefully laid on the ground. The jaws are opened and set perpendicularly with the tail pointing towards the head parallel to the body. The Barong dancer enters the costume with the assistance of the ma'alim and his helpers. The costume is large and bulky with limited visibility.

Performance is reserved only for the most expert dancers. A master dancer brings the Bangbarong to life while assuming his own internal experience. While in the Bangbarong, the dancer interprets his experience by shaking and falling to the ground in an apparent seizure state. Members remove the costume mid-show while the dancer’s movements continue in the background.

The Sundanese Bangbarongan's persona is animal-like, mean, rude, arrogant, crude and quite greedy. His body crawling on the ground, chomping jaws near audience members, scratching the back of its head and trying to bite its own legs. His crude motions serve as abrasive gestures for soliciting money inserted into his mouth. To relieve tension, the Bangbarong intermittently serves as comedic relief interrogated by the presenter/leader.

The Bangbarong takes on a myriad of shapes reminiscent of a tiger, dragon, buffalo or a combination of animals layered against human elements such as a mustache or hair. Interviewees who discussed the Bangarong concept view it as forces, emotions, and energies meant to be controlled or tamed. Members of the group often fight him with strokes of pencak silat to show dominance. Just like the sasajen, Bangbarongan is not only a symbol it is but considered to manifest supernatural qualities and attributes.

From this point, there is a long cycle of individual spiritual moments guided by the ma'alim's adorcistic practices. Members take turns fluctuating between the interpretive religious practice and playing instruments. Members of the crew and randomly selected audience members participate in the spiritual ritual which involves presumed entities referred to as jurig jarian - or more bluntly translated to “spirits from unclean places” (like as restrooms, or untidy backyards). These spiritual entities are interpreted as presenting themselves in the guise of various species of animals, such as otters, monkeys, horses, snakes, boar, tiger, buffalo, or crocodiles. They could also represent ancestors (Karuhun) or a traditional character known as Buta. In the next part of the performance, participants will exhibit themselves in a frenzy and attempt to imitate different animal-like behaviours.

The first participant experience start after the Barong dance when some of the members of the group are entranced by the ma'alim with an adorcistic maneuver. Those willing and ready to participate in the spiritual “possession” volunteer, then the ma'alim puts his left hand on the back of their neck with his right hand and arm behind and round his head, uttering ancient Sundanese mantras.
Foto: Gigi Priadji
Foto: Gigi Priadji

The Music

Music is also an important element of the ceremony. It is thought that spiritual entities won't present themselves if the music is considered below performance standards. At the same time, a crescendo in tempo and a dynamic climax are performed for the topical moments of the ceremony - known as adorcism and exorcism. It is commonly accepted among the participants a spiritual entity will only take possession of an individual when there is complete harmony between them.

Another aspect of the performance is making the distinction between a successful or a failed ritual, which is decided by the ma’alim based on his own independent evaluation. It is believed that the Karuhun spiritual entities are only accepting a so-called clean soul and that individuals who are considered not fit for this purpose will only connect with the Jurig Jarian entities.

Noticeably there are no female Karuhun presence, ma'alim or participants. Those who are thought to be connected with Jurig Jarian are nearly all male and of younger age. In Sundanese culture, women are percieved as unfit for accepting the presumed spiritual connection with the Jurig Jarian or Karuhun entities especially with those considered to originate from the opposite sex.

After the Barong dance, the audience starts to participate in dancing and the spiritual experience, offering sums of money to the Barong or to members of the crew. During this middle part, the ma'alim or the pimpinan often perform a fight ritual against the Barong, the kuda lumping, or both.

Habitually, hajatan, and circumcisions distinctly, feature more than one kind of performance and various combinations of performative arts, such as rajawali, benjang, réak, kuda renggong, kuda silat, pencak silat, and jaipong. Although the average réak performance costs less than most rituals, for example kuda renggong, a hajatan is still a substantial economic burden for a household in the East Bandung area. A réak performance can cost from 1.5 million IDR (Indonesian Indonesian Rupiah) to 8 million, which translates to a range of about 100 to 550 USD.

In Sundanese culture, réak is held with the purpose of reinforcing the pact with the transcendental, the community, and nature, viewed as a contract between the “visible and invisible”. It expresses a discourse on male fertility, nature and life achievement ceremonies, as a performance held for a rite of passage - the circumcision. Being a tradition that often implies exhibiting somewhat raw and often uncontrolled, violent behaviour patterns, réak can also be seen as a social commentary on what is regarded as proper behavior for an individual in a society. For the members of the community involved, réak is a way of communicating certain feelings or beliefs that may otherwise be repressed.

The Sacred Entertainment: Réak, Ceremonial Horse Trance Music from Priangan is available now on Discrepant label.

*Edited by Claudiu Oancea and Eric Meyer.
About the Author

Luigi Monteanni

Co-founder of post-geographical label Artetetra, Luigi Monteanni (Neurotica Exotica) is an anthropologist researching the ritual of Kasenian Réak in Bandung, West Java, as well as other Indonesia’s most contemporary outputs in terms of regional urban music cultures.

He is currently developing a project involving local groups and artists for the release of field recordings and the production of a documentary in collaboration with Gigi Priadji of Trah Documenter. His current interests concern the idea of exoticism during late globalisation.
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