Jaipongan - a Sundanese Tale of Dance and Power Plays Foto: Giulia Bencini

Jaipongan - a Sundanese Tale of Dance and Power Plays

January 14, 2020

Written by:

Luigi Monteanni

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When I arrived in Bandung, I thought the best thing I could do when taking part in a private ceremony (be it an hajat or any other secular performance) was to behold without pretending to be part of the event itself. As a foreigner and, above all, as a Westerner whom no one had invited and who was unknown to everyone, I thought that learning from aside, only watching and waiting to know what I was supposed to do “by the books” of the local etiquette was a polite and conscious way to approach regional costumes and the thin line between genuine excitement for participation and egotic protagonism.
In Bandung, dance is a fundamental part of social and ceremonial life. Dance is not simply a way to participate, but also a more subtle way to communicate and act within a group of people.

Do The Dance

Foto: Giulia Bencini
Foto: Giulia Bencini
It was almost two weeks after the official national celebration of Indonesian independence when I met Gigi Priadji for the first time. He was going to try and find a réak show at Jatinangor, in the regency of Sumedang, at the border with Bandung. He was also willing to help me see my first réak performance ever. While on the back of his motorbike, watching him slowly and gracefully exploiting every free centimeter of the gargantuesque traffic jam through a wall of exhaust’s exhalations, to push us forward in the two-hours-nine-kilometer journey, we had the occasion to talk quite a lot about Priangan and Sundanese celebrations.

I expressed him my thoughts and doubts about going from desa to desa, from kampung to kampung, asking if we could find any performance to watch, mainly linked to the fact that in our culture, for most cases, it would have been way less than polite to self-invite to something so private; at least for an outsider. Nevertheless, it was a way to discuss my fear of being rejected by the community. He was positive that, in the end, not only I would have been accepted without any doubt, but that I would have ended having to participate and, specifically, I would have had to dance with the locals.

When we arrived at the party, the réak show was over, but a kuda silat performance was taking place. I was baffled, watching the group play a very contemporary, metal version of classic kuda silat tunes, while the performer was staging at the center of the pit, the simple but hypnotic combination of dance movements and pencak silat moves’ impressions against his visibly terrorised animal counterpart. While watching, completely swallowed by the show, I was approached by a guy who, probably in bahasa Indonesia, the national language, asked me to dance. I did not understand immediately, since I did not know a single word of Indonesian, but seeing him point at the center of the pit, I politely refused. Fact is, I got pulled by the man straight into the party. Suddenly I had a crowd of people yelling and screaming at me. All of them wanted me to dance and so I did.

Maybe it is superfluous to say, but Gigi was right. In Priangan you can’t refuse to dance. In Bandung dance is a fundamental part of social and ceremonial life. Dance is not simply a way to participate, but also a more subtle way to communicate and “act” within a group of people. To dance means to accept the invitation and to thank everybody for the wonderful party. Taking part in a dance means honoring the ones who organized the event, while, on the contrary, refusing to is usually interpreted as a despicable action by one of rude manners. If you want to sit apart from the group, you’ll have to invent some very good excuse, as any other answer will have you dragged straight to the pit.

This whole introduction was something I needed to start talking about one of the most incredible and entertaining musical art forms you will find across Indonesia developing around the fine art of public dance: jaipongan. This secular performance art allegedly created after a twelve years study on Sundanese traditional performances by composer Gugum Gumbira Tirasonjaya - during the seventies in Bandung - presents itself as an equally ravaging and elegant mixture of gamelan salendro patterns, polyrhythmic percussive acrobatics, exquisite choreographed body language and groovy party ambiences.

Jaipongan is famous throughout the archipelago since its appearance, when it became one of the people’s favourite genres along with the way more famous and commercial style of dangdut. Since then it became a synonym for a good time spent dancing side by side bringing together the wonderful harmonies of Sundanese music with sexual innuendos and a lot of entertainment. Recently, thanks to the work of collectors, researchers and artists working in Bandung, jaipong slowly became something fashionable and famous even overseas, slowly finding its place in podcasts, selections and DJ sets.
Foto: Giulia Bencini
Foto: Giulia Bencini

Take Back Your Culture: History

The history of jaipongan brings us back to the first years of Indonesian independence. In 1961, president Sukarno, as part of his identically anti-colonial and self-affirmative politics of identity and culture, tried to banish Western music (especially rock ‘n roll), spurring local artists to approach the problem inventing new art forms that could compete with the tempting and fascinating Western aesthetic standards. Although western music kept on circulating thanks to an oblique network of cassettes aficionados - a cheap and easily manipulable technology which allowed this reproduction by means of illegal copies - musicians caught the call as an opportunity and in 1974, jaipongan officially debuted as a genre thanks to pak Gugum Gumbira Tirasondjaja and Jugala orchestra, who sadly left us at the beginning of January 2020.

According to pak Gugum’s official site statement, ”Jugala was created as a part of a cultural movement. [...] he studied the rural, festival dance music for twelve years. His result was jaipongan. He created his own recording studio in Indonesia called Jugala. Jaipongan was a way for the Sundanese people to take back their culture from the Western ideas and rid themselves of the colonial Dutch influences. Jaipongan elevated the idea of village music or music of the people. It focused on love, money, agriculture, and as the world became filled with more turmoil, it became a vehicle for moral, political spiritual, and social awareness.”

Nowadays it’s still hard to determine whether this information is historically accurate or, rather, jaipong was already around as a sensation and a proto-style when it gained a proper structured status thanks to the composer. The genre proposed itself as an astounding patchwork of different styles from Priangan such as ketuk tilu, pencak silat and kliningan along with more national and classic genres such as gamelan wayang and topeng; all stained with shades of rock ‘n roll vibes. This way, jaipongan configures itself as a mixture of traditional ceremonial music from the countryside, staggering martial dance moves nurtured with powerful drums and influences from the staging of Sundanese street performances.

From 1974 onwards - and coinciding with the foundation of Jugala studio in the ‘80s - jaipong gained a lot of attention in Indonesia. This happened due to some great records such as “Tonggeret” and “Daun Pulus Keser Bojong”, which became similar to standards of the jazz repertoire, as well as to some of the most known superstars of the genre, such as the singer (pesinden) ibu Idjah Hadidjah (who recorded throughout the years more than forty jaipong albums with Jugala orchestra), and kendang player pak Suwanda (leader of the fundamental Suwanda group and allegedly the drummer that shaped and identified the iconic sound of kendang jaipong). These personalities contributed to making jaipong a “performer centered” genre.

Jaipong was recognized in 2015 as a modern classical genre of music. Nonetheless its popular nature brought it to be progressively associated with a hidden world of crime and illicit sex performances, nightclubs, gangsters and prostitutes. For this reason the style was always risking to be blacklisted, with already two ban attempts by fundamentalist parties, which sense its profound association with a sort of erotic and rebellious power.
Foto: Giulia Bencini
Foto: Giulia Bencini

A Manly Power: The Style

Jaipongan comes from a mixture of various genres. The ensemble is usually composed of one kendang, one pesinden, two sarun, one bonang, one kechrek and a goong. The show usually develops along a mixed repertoire of traditional Sundanese tunes, jaipong hits and - depending on the groups and ensembles - readaptations of pop sunda and dangdut songs. While the metallophones play according to the salendro scale (pentatonic) the singer is supposed to seek full expression in a pelog scale (heptatonic) filled with hypertechnical voicing and melisms common to many Sundanese vocal genres. The aural discrepancy created by the clash of these two different scales creates what is known as “adu manis” - the sweet fight, a peculiar harmonic tract of jaipong.

A song always follows the same pattern: the ensemble begins with an ouverture (awal/bubukaan) to which the staged dance follows. The dance can be executed either by a professional, usually female, dancer - and this is especially true for institutional performances and “high-profile” cultural events - or by a member of the audience. In this latter case, the mincid takes place. When some onlooker feels ready, he may tip the ensemble what he believes to be an adequate amount to show his ability in the improvised combination of martial moves in front of everybody. After paying homage to the audience, the dancer tries to interlock complex series of moves, giving the impression of being able to control the drum patterns.

At the same time, a good kendang player should be able to emphatically follow the dancer’s moves, underlining them, and giving the impression that those same movements are generating the sounds. All in all, mincid is a great spectacle to watch, where the aesthetic codes try to underline the manliness and power of the performer, while making erotic bass movements the center of the fun and malicious innuendos. After this first phase, during which up to three or four people can dance, the song starts and the naekeun starts. The kendang begins with its less acrobatic but more groove-centered rhythms while the until-now-still audience walks past the seats to dance energetically together in front of the stage until the next song.

Sex Workers and Goddesses: Spiritual Aspects

Even if jaipongan is a secular genre, it nonetheless shares particular aspects of Sundanese spiritual and ritual culture that may be underlined. Why is there such link between dance, music, sex and power? How can we justify the interplay between these elements in the final configuration of jaipong as a cultural phenomenon?

Sundanese ethnic inherit from their ancestors the general belief that power is not a figure of speech or some abstract energy. Power is a finite and real element, such as a fluid or the legendary “ether”, which haunted western physics until the early twentieth century. As a distributed, concrete and finite entity, power (ilmu/kesakten) can be collected and exploited actively by groups of people or individuals to accomplish various kinds of tasks, both ritual and profane. In this sense, power can be used as a transformative instrument to enact an exorcism, as well as simply to become rich or win an election.

In the specific case of jaipong, in order to reconstruct the relationship between the dancer and this peculiar type of power, one could recall the mystic performance of Nyi Ronggeng, both the figurative and very physical figure of the sacred singer/dancer from the mountains (Ronggeng Gunung). The Ronggeng was a class of performers whose duty was to entertain audiences with a special kind of musical and dance performance, as a symbolic substitute and embodiment of Nyi Pohaci, also known as Dewi Sri, the goddess of rice and prosperity. As her symbolic vessel, it was believed the Ronggeng shares and possess the same power of Nyi Pohaci; a power that could have been acquired by men simply undergoing a sexual intercourse with the dancer, a corollary belief that likely derives from the hindu-buddhist nuances of Sundanese spiritual core.

By having sex with the Ronggeng, one could obtain much power without having to fulfil a series complex rituals and long, tiring practices. This was no secret and became a custom so rooted to the point that even wives, in secret, used to push husbands to this kind of unspoken and sadly, not so consensual activity; often consumed in the shadows behind the stage. This development caused a twofold happening: while on a side, the figure of the Ronggeng first and of the singer-dancer later slowly and unwillingly became a synonym for prostitute, on the other side a growing and oblique sex market started developing under the association between women and dance shows at large.

This relationship between performer and audience becomes in jaipongan a triangulation when the music - especially the percussion and kendang - start playing an important role in this intricate power play. Indeed, the general belief is that two things drive a man to action independently of his personal will and commitment: women and music. In both cases, men are thought to be too weak to control themselves in front of a charming woman - better if a dancer, since dancers are generally believed to have some sort of power - or when they hear a compelling, hypnotic groove. In this sense, men are dragged by music, and in particular by percussion, to dance, as in a sort of mental trance-like state.

At this point, the activity of the triangulation becomes clearer as we think more and more to the capacity of the mincid dancer to “control the drums” through his movements. A dancer has to learn to dance in a way in which he is no more subject to the power of music, but he is on the contrary fully able to master it and thus be in control. The acquisition of manliness through dance entails the possibility of obtaining even greater power through a possible intercourse with the performer, who, depending on the venue and the occasion, may be a real sex worker willing to fulfill this drive or a performer which makes this impossible fulfilment and satisfaction of the need one of the main instruments of empowerment through continuous fascination.

Of course we should not think as fully conscious and strategic maneuvers performers and audience members make during a show, but should be considered more as parts of a spiritual backbone most of performative art forms in Priangan have in common. Most of the people during a show simply try to have fun and get together to dance in front of a stage, compelled by one of the most magnificent genres ever born in the archipelago: a style that defies all generic taxonomies regarding tradition, contemporaneity, spiritual inheritances and beliefs, as well as classic dichotomies such as sacred/profane, institutional/underground and popular/elitist.
The Danced & The Dance Vol​.​2: A Night At Jaipong Club (Communion)
The Danced & The Dance Vol​.​2: A Night At Jaipong Club (Communion)

To the future and beyond: is jaipong dead?

At the end of 2019, a conversation with professor Henry Spiller left me unsettled: talking about our common passion for jaipong and popular music in Indonesia, we kind of agreed on the sad possibility that jaipong could now be a dead genre, in the sense that more than having it develop by itself experimenting around its core, defining elements, pieces and patches of the jaipong aesthetics and practice are now exploited and incorporated by other genres (e.g. Sundanese pongdut).

When Pak Gugum Gumbira passed away, I expressed this concern to Henk Den Toom, also known as Madrotter, who reassured me (and everyone eventually) confirming that after a period during which the passion for jaipong was indeed lower than it used to be, countless new schools and groups spawned from the rear of art academies and Sundanese urban kampungs. Perhaps jaipong is not fashionable and trendy as it was in the seventies and eighties, but even only knowing SambaSunda, Ismet Ruchimat, Namin Group and Pak Gugum’s family, I want to think that jaipong legacy will be around until the end of this world. Goyang!

This article is dedicated to the memory of pak Gugum Gumbira Tirasondjaja.
Mulih ka jati, mulang ka asal.
Jaipong lives in the body and mind of its inheritors: the Sundanese people and the world at large.
Sampurasun and wilujeng tepang deui!

Check out the mixtape The Danced & The Dance Vol​.​2: A Night At Jaipong Club out on the Italian imprint Communion.
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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