Samosir Island On Sumatra

November 2014

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Imagine an evening spent in the outdoor version of a Casablanca Bar, surrounded by ex-pats and young European backpackers, all drinking Tuak.  The notorious film-noire pianist SAM is not here to PLAY IT AGAIN. Instead, cries for an encore are met by a Batak band that performs a genre of music so unique it defies articulation.

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We are on Samosir Island, surrounded by the largest crater lake in the world, situated centrally in Sumatra, the sixth largest island in the world. Samosir is home to the Toba Batak, a proud and hard-working people blessed with abundant land and lake harvests. Boat-like architecture recalls Batak past. The apotropaic Singa, a symbol of benevolent and protective power, suggests the Batak tenacity to endure. The Toba Batak, who self-identify as simply Batak, assert a healthy sense of entitlement to balance tradition with desired cultural advancement.  This is most apparent, perhaps, in their music.

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Contemporary Batak music announces its self-awareness audaciously. It is bold and crisp, with a sound larger than the supporting instruments. The melody, if not carried by vocals, resonates from a hand-carved, two-stringed, ukulele-sized instrument. A chorus may include yodeling, bottle tapping, the click and clash of Tuak jars, and the stamping of feet. The energy is addictive. It induces a fever-like incapacity to orient oneself in time or place. Salsa. Mariachi. Irish Pub music. Hungarian Folk. Gospel. American and European Pop. The roots are unmistakably Batak Folk and the music echoes a plethora of genres.

Batak Folk music is the passion of our companion as we gather with the band drinking Tuak the following night. Mark, our sometimes-guide, is a local and a musician, an American who came to Samosir over a decade ago and stayed. The band members are family to him. They are inquisitive, and well-traveled, and delight in battering us with questions in English and Batak. Mark, who translates when necessary, hands me one of the two-stringed instruments and challenges me to play.

My fingernails, long and hard, are an asset. Fingertips deaden the desired sound that is rich yet sharp, a controlled and clean reverberation.  I pluck and I strum until someone kindly relieves me of my efforts. Back in the musician’s hands, the instrument sings as if glad to escape me. Conversations drift and the hour escapes us.

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Overall, our experience on Samosir Island is as timeless as the music. This is a land where cultures and religions have for centuries crossed. Regardless, the indigenous Batak have tenaciously hung on to their identity. Their unapologetic response to their colonizers of the past, the missionaries, the ex-pats, and the fair-weather tourists, is to embrace a little of what every sub-culture has offered. This they incorporate it into their unique genre of music.

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