JAKARTA: The sound of tambourines has returned to the narrow alleys of southern Jakarta after a long pandemic hiatus, marking the month of Ramadan with distinctive Islamic devotional music native to the Indonesian capital.
Locally known as rebana biang, tambourines have been used by the Betawi community of Jakarta for the past two centuries. Bigger than those used elsewhere in Southeast Asia and with no metal jingles, the handheld drums are also played during other religious celebrations, but it is especially Ramadan that has traditionally been associated with their sound.
Today, the tradition is being kept alive by the last remaining rebana biang ensemble, Sanggar Lestari Budaya.
For decades, the group consisted only of family members, with the techniques of playing and producing the rebana handed down from generation to generation. It was only in the 2000s that the great-grandson of its founder, Mohamad Natsir, started to teach the music to those who were not his kin.
“He was the one who opened space for those who aren’t family to learn rebana and form their own groups,” said David Rahman, 30, who is not a family member but took over the ensemble this year, after Natsir’s death.
The group now has seven members, all between the ages of 25 and 30.
While they have been experimenting by adding other instruments to their performances, rebana remains the core of their art and to perform with them, a musician needs to master it the way their great-grandfathers did and learn 12 traditional rebana strokes.
“Collaborations are meant to attract people to join us,” Rahman said.
“I will keep the original strokes unchanged.”
To keep the original form, however, the young musicians will find it increasingly difficult to maintain their instruments.
There is only one master artisan left in Jakarta who can make the rebana: Abdul Rahman, a member of the extended family of Sanggar Lestari Budaya.
Already 80 years old, he admits that his eyesight is not good anymore.
It takes Rahman two weeks to produce the three different sized drums that form part of the rebana. Sometimes it takes longer, as materials are sourced from other parts of Indonesia and can be expensive. It costs about $350 to make one instrument.
“The raw materials, such as wood and sheepskin, I take from Loning village in Kebumen, Central Java,” he told Arab News.
Rahman says his son has learnt some of the craft, but his skills still require polishing.
For now, the musicians are not trying to borrow tomorrow’s sorrow and are all focused on practice during the fasting month.
“Practicing during Ramadan is a joyful experience,” the group’s leader said.
“We’ll surely gain a (spiritual) reward as it is a good and blessed month.”
They have already earned a warm welcome from members of the Betawi community, after their performances were suspended for two years by coronavirus lockdowns.
Catur Widarsono, a watchman who lives next to the group’s practice room in Ciganjur, said the neighborhood felt desolate without the sound of rebana biang during the pandemic and everyone was happy to hear it again.
“(For us) residents, when there are activities such as rebana during Ramadan, it becomes serene, the atmosphere in the neighborhood becomes serene,” he added.
Mohammad Alwi, whose family also lives nearby, told Arab News he was glad the sound of music was back.
“Because of the pandemic, their routine was less,” he said.
“I’m glad to hear them (again), especially during the month of Ramadan. It reduces the anxiety the pandemic had brought.”