The Singing Poets of Gayo

06 April, 2011 | Source: Jakarta Post

(Hello, wo... It’s my village, wo... It’s the youth of my village chanting Didong. It’s Kemara)

Women too: A group of women from a Didong group perform on stage in Central Aceh.

Women too: A group of women from a Didong group perform on stage in Central Aceh.

Uroh...

Wo...wo...kaung-kaung bebujang kaung

Wo..wo...kaung-kaung bebujang kaung

Ini Kemara

(Hello, wo... It’s my village, wo... It’s the youth of my village chanting Didong. It’s Kemara)

This is the opening verse you will hear if you attend a Didong — a folk form of poetry singing — show in Takengon, Central Aceh. This particular one is sung by the Kemera Bujang group, from Takengon, Central Aceh.

“This [poetry] verse serves as an introduction to our audience and shows our respect for them,” said Salimi Putra, the leader and Ceh (narrating poet) of Kemara Bujang, who plays an indispensable role in any Didong group.

Didong comes from the highlands of Gayo, Central Aceh.

Practiced by the local community for a long time, this chanting of poems has remained popular among people in the central part of Aceh, especially to accompany other local arts such as dancing.

According to local folklore, Didong, as indicated by the word’s origins — dendang (Indonesian) and denang or donang (Gayo) — implies the tradition of singing while working for amusement, with hand clapping and pillow tapping.

“Didong relies on its performers’ rhythmic clapping and pillow tapping, rather than on music of any kind,” said Salimi Putra.

Didong is known to have served as a means of propagating Islam, with its narrators recounting various tales related to religious teachings.

“The verses chanted by the Ceh and the clapping complement each other, and produce melodious rhythms,” added Salimi.

The most important aspect of Didong is the poetry narrated, which today usually comprises advice for community members and sometimes also criticism to remind local authorities of their responsibilities.

A group leader or Ceh normally creates such verses impromptu or memorizes them.

Poetic duels: During a Didong competition, members of two groups sit opposite each other. Each group will take turns singing verses that require a response from the competing group.

Poetic duels: During a Didong competition, members of two groups sit opposite each other. Each group will take turns singing verses that require a response from the competing group.

“Some flair for poetry and broad knowledge is needed to become a Didong Ceh,” indicated Salimi.

The chief should be well versed in religious stories, have a fine voice, and good conduct in society.

In a Didong competition, he should be able to improvise verses in response to those chanted by an opponent group.

A Didong troupe consists of 30 to 35 members. Three to six of them are Ceh or leading poets and the rest are penunung or supporters.

The Ceh will chant verses alternately with the other members move rhythmically, clap their hands and tap pillows according to the tempo of poetry chanting.

“Didong performers tend to be adult men. But lately there have also been Didong groups with male and female players, some even with woman players,” noted Salimi.

The only “instruments” that can be used to produce sounds are hands and pillows, while the members’ bodies move forward and sideways as the players are seated on the floor, facing each other in a circle.

Two versions of Didong are played in Gayo highlands: Jalu and Berjemaah, the former being the most frequently presented in contests.

A Jalu show and competition as a rule last from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. “Dozens of groups from across Central Aceh join the event to demonstrate their skills,” said Salimi.

Subtle sounds: The chanting of poems during Didong competitions is accompanied by pillow tapping.Subtle sounds: The chanting of poems during Didong competitions is accompanied by pillow tapping.

Members of the jury will judge each group’s performance based on the theme and criteria they have chosen, such as a Ceh’s command of the theme, the beauty of the poetry chanting, the graceful movements of body weaving and the rhythms of hand clapping and pillow tapping.

The leading poets in a Jalu Didong contest make allusions or ask questions in poetic chants, which their opponents must respond to, like the tradition of poem recital exchanges in Malay culture.

Didong nowadays isn’t limited to religious messages. It has also become a medium of narration for all kinds of ceremonies from weddings to political campaigns for legislative candidates.

It is also said to have been a vehicle for voicing criticism against authorities during the Soeharto years.

Although it is still a favorite of the Gayo people, this art of narration is by no means free from the threat of modern cultures currently pervading the highlands.

“A lot of Gayo youths have started letting go of traditional arts like Didong because of booming entertainment technology via TV and the internet,” warned Salimi.

The regional administration’s lack of interest in promoting local cultural elements isn’t helping either.

“The government should help preserve local arts by adding Didong to the school curriculum,” he said.

Salimi acknowledged Didong artists in Central Aceh had not yet received support from the government, forcing most of them to work on their own to maintain the existence of this tradition.

“It’s their passion for art that makes Didong players survive. In material terms, none of them are better off,” he concluded.

Written by Hotli Simanjuntak

 

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