My saluang playing will soon be heard in Santa Fe, New Mexico as part of a collaborative multimedia installation with poet Piper Leigh. The saluang is a large bamboo flute of Sumatra, Indonesia. My saluang was a gift from Hasanawi, who made the flute and taught me how to play in preparation for an English-language production of randai, the martial arts-based dance drama of the Minang people of western Sumatra. To tell traditional Minangkabau tales, randai weaves together songs, dance, acting, martial arts and, of course, music and song.
In preparation for the production a large ensemble of dancers and musicians from the University of Hawaii studied with Hasanawi and another master teacher of randai, Musra Dahrizal. Acting as their interpreter, I would occasionally guide them in walks around the university of Hawaii campus, trying to answer such questions as "Why are telephone poles in America made from wood?" in my choppy Indonesian. Then we'd be off for hours of practice in the music and movement of randai. Randai, which grew out of the circular martial arts training, is performed in a circle which frames the acting area. Between scenes, the dancers move in unison through the circular dance sequences while two singers and a flute player accompany them with songs based on Minangkabau folk-singing tradition. Between the verses of each song the dancers perform circular dances that feature martial arts movements, exciting rhythmic clapping and some amazing and rather unique pants-slapping percussion called 'tapuak'. All dancers wear special pants during performances, kind of like skirts that have been sewn together. By slapping these special pants while they dance, they produce great drumlike sounds in percussive patterns.
During the seven-month preparations for the 2000 randai production I became enthralled by the music of randai. I studied intensively the instrumental music, which included gongs, drums, recorders, singing, 'pants percussion', the rabab (a two- and four-stringed spike fiddle), and (my favorite) the flute that accompanies the singers, the saluang. I approached the visiting performers and asked them if, one evening after rehearsals, we could have an impromptu recording session. I was at first concerned about imposing on them, but found that the Minangkabau enjoy nothing better than staying up drinking black coffee with a ton of sugar, chain-smoking clove cigarettes and singing until the wee hours of the morning.
In 2012 the University of Hawaii's tradition of English-language randai continues. The Genteel Sabai, adapted by Musra Dahrizal and directed by Dr. Kirstin Pauka, will be performed in English at the University of Hawaii at Manoa's Kennedy Theare February 3 through 12. If you are lucky enough to be in Honolulu at that time, I strongly recommend you attend. You won't forget it