Musical Recordings from Borneo, 1 of 4: Syaer Sua

I was listening to some of my old sound files the other day, and found several which I recorded back in 2009 that I thought would be worth sharing.

Unlike the subject matter of the typical recording I post here, these recordings are not of sounds from the natural world.  They are, however, recordings of musical performances by indigenous musicians living in Borneo, and environmental issues are thus implicitly addressed.  One cannot discuss indigenous culture in Borneo without some mention of the environment in which it exists … an environment that is rapidly being stripped of trees by the timber industry, burnt down to make way for palm oil plantations, carried off by mining concerns, or simply flooded in the wake of hydroelectric projects.  In retrospect, maybe I should have presented these recordings sooner.

*  *  *

Syaer Sua is a musician living in the village of Tumbangmanggu in Kalimantan Tengah (Central Kalimantan), one of four Indonesian provinces in Borneo.  Mr. Sua (Pak Sua, in Indonesian Bahasa) is a member of the Ngaju tribe, an indigenous group living along the rivers and streams in the rural regions north of the provincial capital of Palangka Raya.  The Ngaju are noteworthy in that they are one of the few Indonesia groups left in Kalimantan whose members have not entirely converted to Christianity and in fact still follow their indigenous religion, a particular blend of locals beliefs and Hinduism known as Kaharingan.*  I had a heard a track of Pak Sua’s music on the 20-CD series of indigenous Indonesian music recorded by Phillip Yampolsky for Smithsonian Folkways and I thought it was astounding.  Since I was already in Kalimantan Tengah (as per my post on Kalaweit), I thought why not see if it was possible to drop in on Pak Sua and hear him play live?

I began my search for Pak Sua by visiting the state tourist bureau in Palangka Raya.  Officials there, however, informed me that Pak Sua had died recently and they pointed me in the direction of another Ngaju musician.  This direction led me to a rather disappointing musical encounter (the details of which I won’t bother to elaborate on), but in my days of bumbling around the city trying to find more information I somewhere and somehow (my memory fails regarding the details) managed to meet Theresia Herty, a college student and part-time tour guide who knew of Syaer Sua and where he lived and how to get there.  Given my utter incompetency with the Indonesian Bahasa language—not to mention the dearth of public transportation in Kalimantan—it was unlikely that by myself I would have been able to find my way to the Sua home, let alone negotiate a recording session with Syaer, and so I hired Herty to help me … a very good decision, as she was great company, knowledgeable, and could even speak Ngaju.

To reach Syaer, Herty and I first hired a car in Palangka Raya to take us to Tumbangsamba, a transportation hub on the Katingan River.  On the first leg of the journey, between Palangka Raya and Kasongan, roughly two hours, I noticed the landscape was low and scrubby, as if just regaining its footing after being logged; then, between Kasongan and Tumbangsamba the landscape largely consisted of charred stumps of trees.  I was told by Herty and the driver only that there had recently been some “burning.”

In Tumbangsamba, Herty and I bought tickets for a klotok, a small passenger boat that would carry us upriver to Tumbangmanggu.  We had some time to kill before the boat departed but I found the town an enjoyable place to wait.  The river bank was the main drag in Tumbangsamba and while waiting for the klotok I had the opportunity to observe a wonderful assortment of water craft plying the water from dock to dock, from business to business.  The klotok itself was another of the infinite varieties of longboats that travel the rivers of Borneo.  It was a wooden boat, painted blue and motorized, and roughly thirty feet long by about four feet wide.  Passengers sat directly on the flat-bottomed hull, at water level.  In the good weather we had during our journey, it provided a smooth, comfortable ride.


The boat was not full, Herty and I were spread out and comfortable.  The river views that passed before us provided us with insight into the industries that predominated the region:  logging—for we seemed to have passed as many timber yards as we did villages—and gold-mining, indicated by the many gold-mining vessels we saw along the river banks, bizarre contraptions which looked like something straight from the pages of a Dr. Seuss book.



The Sua family lived on the outskirts of their village, in a single-family “longhouse” which serves as both the Sua home as well as a Ngaju cultural center (it was not a traditional Borneo longhouse in that it didn’t function as a multi-family communal dwelling).  Betang Bintang Patendu, as the building was known, was a spectacular place, the construction of which may have itself required the felling of a small forest – Syaer informed me that the structure was raised on eighty belian wood stilts (belian being the famed Borneo hardwood).  The detailing was remarkably clean and precise, and the main room, a veritable grand hall, was magnificent, decorated with carved wooden deer heads and Ngaju art, gongs and drums.  Herty and I gaped, speechless with surprise at the prospect of such a place in such a modest location, and discretion and respect for the family home alone prevented me from taking a thousand photographs to submit to Architectural Digest.


After a pleasant dinner and dessert with Syaer and his wife and daughter, we retired to main hall to discuss music and record.  Herty had explained to Syaer my wish to make some casual recordings and assured him that I had no commercial ambitions for the recordings and that they would likely only ever see the light of day on a website (though I didn’t anticipate it would take 7 years).  Syaer was not unfamiliar with the pitfalls of the commercial music world … he has recorded numerous CDs of his music, several of which I saw being sold in the market in Palangka Raya – all bootlegs, he assured me.  He also told me he had returned from a performance tour of Spain not long before my visit, and that he found the city of Seville to be especially beautiful.

Karangut is a traditional musical Ngaju style.  According to Pak Sua, it was originally a form of a lullaby, though he did not elaborate on this aspect (another musician informed me that karangut was strictly a type of ritual music, so I cannot say for certain either way).  In any case, karangut nowadays is distinguished by a 4-line lyric structure which is sung most typically to the accompaniment of a kacapi, a two- or three-string lute, and a rebab, an fingerboardless, single-string, bowed instrument similar to the rebab of the Middle East and North Africa.

Karangut music is highly repetitive, modal, and with a strong sense of rhythm.  If you are a fan of droney druggy rock and roll bands (like I am) I think you might enjoy this … they are definitely some of my favorite recordings.  The main hall of Betang Bintang Patendu was, incidentally, a great place to record … the sound was fantastic, big and echoey, and absolutely suited to the music.

There are three tracks following.  The first is an instrumental featuring Pak Sua playing the rebab, accompanied by his friend and student Pak Patmodi on the kacapi:

In the next track, Pak Sua plays a seruling balawung, a type of flute, unaccompanied:

Finally, a karangut, entitled Karangut Anak Burung Tiung, which I believe is a Syaer Sua composition, featuring Syaer and Patmodi on kacapis and Syaer singing:


*  This is an excellent article on the fascinating subject of the Ngaju Kaharingan.


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