Talking Gongs and Aching Buttocks

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The first, middle and last rule of thumb in ethnographic fieldwork is that you gotta spend time with your informants to get to know them. Sounds easy enough. Do a bit of “deep hanging out”, participate in stuff and go write about it. Well, in my experience, spending time was hard work, at least on Sumba, Indonesia where these gongs are from. I have often found myself at the all night rituals in which these gongs are used; tired, back aching and freezing (no need to bring warm clothes, Indonesia is in the tropics, right?) I would sit for hours on end listening to the repetitious beating of the gongs and drums, and the chanting that goes along with it. In short, through the ritual called “Zaizo”, people seek to redeem themselves in the eyes of the ancestor-spirits locally known as Marapu. Usually someone will have fallen ill and the suspected cause is some moral offense towards the Marapu.

The beating is collective work and each gong has its particular place in the rhythm. Or perhaps rhythm is the wrong word, the interplay between the gongs is more like a conversation. The largest gong is called “dou tillu” which means “the place in the middle”. The dou tillu and its beater are placed between the two larger gongs, completing Moesgaard’s set of six. These two gongs are hanging on a suspended stick, but are not beaten in the course of a Zaizo-ceremony. Nonetheless they are important, because they represent the mother and the father. And as my elderly host father told me: “its like with humans; the mother and the father ask the kids to do the work while they themselves stay at home”. So let’s have a look at these “kids” doing all the work. The third largest  called “kawukeka” opens the conversation (the middle part of the word, “wuke”, means to open in the local language). The kawukeka is answered by the second largest gong, the “pa bale”. Lastly the smallest, but by no means least important gong, the “kabongnguka” brings together the conversation of the rest of the gongs and sends the requests of humans towards the ancestors who will hopefully accept the requests for leniency.


Communicating with deities about matters as important as sickness and health, life and death, success or failure of the harvest is obviously not a task to be taken lightly, so perhaps it is not surprising that the ceremony should last all night. For my Western hind parts, separated from the wooden or concrete floor by a thin plaited mat, hanging out was hard work. But insight does not come easy, I told myself. “Hang in there and you will eventually understand what this repetitive, stumbling rhythm means” I thought. So my butt continued to ache in the service of science, and eventually, with a little (a lot of) help from my local friends, I found out what the gongs might mean. In the course of the ceremony, the crowd regularly interrupts the music with a loud cry and embark upon a monologue lasting some three to five minutes, whereupon the drumming, gonging and chanting picks up again. These monologues are requests for support from the people present in the house. In poetic form they retrace the cause for whatever predicament has aroused suspicion of ancestral retribution, and form a fragmented conversation among the living about their relationship to the dead.

Although to me the chant sounded the same all the way through the nights, the words from the various monologues are said to be repeated by the chanter. The chanter is aided by his “friends”; the drums and gongs in his quest to make the dialogue of the living reach the dead. The explanations that people gave me for transgressions toward the ancestors were often confusing and contradictory, stretching across generations. People have had plenty of time to forget why the ancestors might be angry at them. And to be reminded again, and to forget it once more; living with the dead is no easy task. Amidst all this confusion, I like to think that the conversation between the gongs supplements that between humans and puts all the confusion and uncertainty into a rhythm. A rhythm that repeats itself over and over, tying together all those pieces of dialogue into a neat little bundle, which that gracefully rounded gong, the smallest of the four, sends up through the roof of the house to the ancestors watching over, and poking a stick at their living descendants who are patiently beating away at the gongs.

Sumbanese ritual houses have raised roofs, almost like a funnel

//Victor Krusell

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