Finding Soul in Siter Strings

The Jakarta Globe

Dalih Sembiring & Elisabeth Oktofani


All the seats on the porch of the Banana Cafe are taken. The occupants of the cafe, in the first kilometer of Parangtritis Street in Prawirotaman, Yogyakarta Province, are mostly men, including Western tourists, enjoying a night out over cold beer and cigarettes.

A remixed dance track is playing loudly through the speakers, its beats blasting the warm air, permeating conversations of amplified voices that every so often break into hoots and laughs.

From a distance, a man wearing a jacket and a pici, a rimless, black velvet cap, is seen striding slowly along the sidewalk with a musical instrument in hand. Stepping from the showering street lights onto the cafe’s dim terrace, the old man puts down the small wooden siter. His wrinkled fingers begin to tango upon the strings that let out piercing notes of an old Javanese song called asmarandhana. The dance track stops as he begins to sing.

“Excuse us for killing the music, but we appreciate his presence here,” whispers Peter Yohanis, one of Banana’s waiters, to the customers.

The cafe visitors lower their voices. All eyes have turned to Pak Gareng as he croons his sharp, trembling voice while the tunes from his siter cords dive, swish and soar melodiously. A few moments later, even though Gareng has not finished playing, raucous conversations resume.

Gareng — one of many Javanese whose names consist of a single word — and his music may seem out of place here. He is used to receiving pitying looks more than appreciative attention.

Sometimes, when the Banana Cafe is crowded, none of the waiters move to turn off the deafening music from the bar. “It has happened twice” said Peter, who has been working at the cafe for five months. “Out of annoyance for his coming on busy nights, we did not turn off our music.”

Maria Retnaningrum, one of Banana’s regulars, said that she was not a fan of traditional music, “But Pak Gareng’s piece was interesting.”

“His voice and his music blended beautifully,” she continued. “So I thought I should show some appreciation by giving him money.”

Every time he has the chance, which usually depends on his health, Gareng heads to Prawirotaman, one of the several areas where many foreign tourists stay in Yogyakarta. He goes into a cafe, plays one song, walks around to every table and silently asks the audience to put money into a small can that he takes from under his jacket. He then heads to the next cafe and repeats the sequence.

“I love playing siter,” said the 78 year old after sipping on some hot lemongrass tea. “And I’m not ashamed to have this profession.”

“I’m doing this for myself. I don’t have to provide for anyone else since my son is able to support himself, his wife and their children,” he added.

Gareng used to accompany a dalang, or master puppeteer, in wayang performances by playing his siter as part of a gamelan, a traditional Javanese ensemble. When the dalang died more than 10 years ago, members of the orchestra went their own way and Gareng lost his steady income. No one would hire only a siter player to complement a puppet show.

“My wife and I decided to roam the streets. She would sing to my music,” Gareng said softly in a delicate dialect of kromo Javanese. But before they could busk, Gareng had to go to Solo, Central Java, to purchase his own siter as the instrument he used to play belonged to someone else.

“I bought two, medium and small, for Rp 500,000.”

The medium-sized instrument Gareng bought is called a celempung, which has 13 strings. A siter, which is related to the kecapi in a Sundanese gamelan, has 11 or 12 strings attached to both ends of a resonator box. The box, propped up by four legs, is usually 30 centimeters long but has varying widths. To play the instrument thumbs twang the strings in rapid succession while other fingers muffle the vibrations by holding down the strings that are not being plucked.

“I only bring the siter when I go busking because of its lightness,” said Gareng, with a smile ever present on his face. He has become used to employing the singular pronoun, since his wife died four years ago. As he lives alone in Mantub village in the southern district of Bantul, he often stays at the house of his friend Slamet, a pedicab paddler, after his nightly tours which usually end shortly after midnight.

Making an average of Rp 75,000 a time, Gareng does not spend a penny on changing his siter strings even when they start producing stifled sounds. Instead, he simply heads to a vehicle repair shop to ask for used motorcycle brake wires with which to replace the strings. These wires are not only free, but also durable.
Asked about his life motto, he answered: “Tiyang nyambut damel menika dipun kanteni remen” — You should be happy with what you’re doing.

At around 11:30 p.m., Gareng said thank you for the tea and, clutching his long-time companion to his chest, left the cafe to carry on playing popular dance tracks for another few hours.

Some weird advice about learning once came from an extraordinary man. His name is Hadi Subiyanto, a siter player, whose life motto has been: “The best teacher is the best student, and to be the best student, you have to learn like a mad man.”

Hadi was able to say those words in perfect English, and then gave an example of what he meant. “You, celempung, when did the Diponegoro War take place? No, 1908 was when the Budi Utomo organization was founded. You, siter? Right, 1825 to 1830! You, saronen [a traditional wind instrument], where was Cut Nyak Dhien, the Acehnese heroine, buried? No, not Aceh. She was buried in Sumedang, West Java,” he rattled on to the instruments, as his motto goes, like a mad man.

“In learning, everything has to be exerted — eyes, hands, mouth, mind,” Hadi proclaimed. Hadi was a teacher for almost 10 years.

“I graduated from senior high school in 1963, and then I taught English, German, geography and other subjects at a technical school,” he recalled.

“At the same time, I also worked as a civil servant for a koperasi [small cooperative economic enterprise] and taught at a pesantren for no pay in the morning,” Hadi added. A pesantren is a traditional Islamic boarding school.

Hadi took on many other occupations before an offer came to him to play siter at Dharmawangsa Hotel in Kebayoran Baru, South Jakarta. Moving to Jakarta in 1973, he found work as a technician for the construction of the sky lift in Taman Mini Indonesia Indah, or TMII, a culture-based recreational park. Here he also joined the Tanduk Majeng musical group, where he played various Madurese musical instruments in the East Java section.

“In 1980 I went to Aceh and worked for the liquefied natural gas mill in Arun until 1985. After that, I traveled to Palembang, Lampung, Suralaya and Batam. In 1997, I returned to Jakarta,” said Hadi, who heads the arts and culture division of Rampak Naong, an association of Madurese people in Jakarta.

“Months later — it was in 1998, I think — someone asked me if I could play East Javanese musical instruments at Dharmawangsa Hotel,” he continued. “Apparently, the hotel people had asked the TMII people, and the TMII people mentioned my name.”

Hadi and other traditional musicians then formed a group called Gema Palapa. The members have been taking shifts performing at the hotel’s Majapahit Lounge ever since. Five people play Sundanese musical instruments, and four, including Hadi, focus on the Madurese ones. But his range of musical knowledge is not limited to traditional compositions.

“I was once invited to play in Singapore. There were artists from various countries, and I saw a flag throwing group from Italy perform in the accompaniment of the song Gondola. During a break, I played my saronen to the Gondola tunes, and one of the Italians was really surprised. The truth was, I already knew the song,” he said with a big laugh, showing the four front teeth he had left. His group has also performed in Malaysia, Japan, Australia and Canada. Back in Indonesia, they get invitations to play at big events from time to time.

“I taught myself how to play siter. Most traditional musicians learn by doing,” said Gareng. “You pluck a string, you remember how it sounds, you pluck other strings, and then you try to combine everything.”

Gareng believes he inherited the artistic talent of his grandfather, who ran a reog performance group.

“As a kid, I found entertainment in sounds — the sounds of the rain and the wind, the croaks of frogs in the rice field,” said Hadi, who just turned 66 this month, describing his earlier interest in music.

“I tried all the instruments lying around in the house,” he continued. “Now I can play siter, celempung, the flutes, gender [a percussion instrument], angklung and several others.”

Hadi rose from the sofa in his living room, located on the second floor of his house in Lubang Buaya, East Jakarta. He grabbed his siter, sat on the carpet spread on the green-tiled floor and started playing a Chinese composition. In this abode that he built bit by bit, artistic skills are nurtured.

“One day I found my son playing the angklung. I never taught him how to use the instrument, but he played it quite well. He’s a member of my group now,” Hadi said.

Angklung is an instrument consisting of bamboo tubes that produce sounds when shaken from side to side.
“My youngest child, Ayu, teaches traditional dances there,” the father of four said, pointing at the balcony, his siter now placed by his side. Hadi believes that not many people in Indonesia know what a siter is, let alone know how to play it. As part of a gamelan ensemble, its presence is not of the highest necessity so it often gets ignored, and it is occasionally left out of the group.

Agus Suseno, a Javanese ethnomusicology professor at the Indonesian Arts Institute in Yogyakarta, said that there is only a small number of siter players left in Indonesia.

“It is very difficult to learn how to play siter. Besides, most people are interested in contemporary music,” Agus said, referring to the decreasing number of applicants for ethnomusicology studies.

Hadi goes even further by claiming that his group members are the only professional Madurese-style siter players left.

Professional siter players, Agus said, use special strings, “Others use guitar cords, but most siter buskers prefer the cheaper motorcycle brake wires, which do not produce the best tunes.” However, like Gareng’s, the strings of Hadi’s siter are also recycled from brake wires.

The strength of the cords can be seen as a reflection of the hardship both men have faced in life. The beautiful notes they create, however, may also stand for the happiness they have found along life’s journey, each in their own way.