Reviews for Tulila: Muzik Bujukan Mandailing

IMG_4014-325x487Tulila: Muzik Bujukan Mandailing. Edi Nasution. Penang, Malaysia: Areca
Books, 2007. xx + 180 pp., photographs, maps, figures, musical ex., bibliography,
index. ISBN: 978-983-42834-4-5, RM35.00.

Tulila: Muzik Bujukan Mandailing (Tulila: Mandailing seduction music) is Edi Nasution’s Indonesian-language study of markusip, a disappearing, late-night, rural courtship tradition among West Sumatra’s Mandailing. In markusip, a love-struck pemuda (young man) braves nocturnal risks of the jungle to sneak up to a young woman’s dormitory (bagas podoman), where he leans his shoulder against its thin outer wall, and tries to rouse an anak gadis (young woman) from sleep with faint melodies played on a slender, fourhole, bamboo, reed instrument called tulila, sung quatrains of ende-ende, and prods from a palm-leaf stem through a small hole in the wall called a lubang markusip. His hope is that the anak gadis will awaken and engage him in whispered conversation, the very meaning of markusip.

Readers of Indonesian will welcome this contribution by an indigenous author to the small but growing body of ethnomusicological literature on Southeast Asia’s lesser-known musical practices. Tulila’s scope is broader than its title suggests. Its five chapters unite tulila performance with various facets of aposoan (the idealized life of Mandailing youths in their premarriage years), broader markusip courtship traditions, and post-courtship engagement rituals (patobang hata). Nasution is a Mandailing ethnomusicologist, native to the region, and an insider to the society he describes, though we do not learn much about his personal connection to markusip or the communities in which this study is based. Mandailing lands are comprised of two regions, and their political subdivisions, called huta, are linked by the northward-flowing Batang Anak Gadis River. They have traditionally been dominated by two principal marga “clans”: the Lubis marga of the mountainous, upper Mandailing Julu to the south, and the Nasution marga of the swampy lowlands and foothills of lower Mandailing Godang to the north. Nasution’s fieldwork took place in the former, his native Julu, as it was the only area where he encountered extant tulila activity. His methodologies include interviewing numbers of Mandailing (including tulila players, community leaders, cultural guardians, and young people), learning how to construct and play tulila, Reviews 133 transcribing and analyzing his field recordings, and writing ethnographic descriptions that are rich and replete with local terms and concepts, and which comprise a significant portion of this book.

Chapter 2 introduces Mandailing history, territory and culture, touching upon its origin myths, premodern alphabet and texts, surviving antiquities, legends, traditional rulers, and clan system, as well as its performance genres, instruments, ensembles, songs, and dances: much of what constitutes a Mandailing identity.

A central undertaking of this book, advanced in this chapter and later in chapter 5, is to correlate tulila to dalian na tolu, a canon of Mandailing concepts and practices governing kinship relations, gender roles, and social stratification—glossed in Indonesian as tumpuan yang tiga, or “three pillars.” According to Nasution, the “pillars” symbolize roles performed by three clan-based groups who interact in a traditional wedding engagement, and meanings they embody. He uses a triangular paradigm to illustrate their relationships; clockwise from the vertex are the mora who “give away” the young woman, the anak boru who “receive” her, and the kahanggi who deal with the arrangements.

Chapter 3 covers a diverse range of topics, and contains an abundance of ethnographic information, though its organization is not particularly coherent. It begins with a rich description of a markusip outing and texts showing how pemuda and anak gadis interact through ende-ende. This is followed by a hodgepodge of explorations of tulila: what it expresses and communicates, how it entertains, its relationships to Mandailing language, poetry, traditions, symbols, and beliefs, and comparisons between markusip in different historical eras. In a section on tulila and si pelebegu, Nasution shows how a pre-Islamic belief system that still guides Muslim Mandailing society informs tulila construction and playing techniques.

Through si pelebegu, the pemuda imbues his instrument with love magic in order to stir sadness in the anak gadis when she hears it played, and capture her heart. We learn that this enchanting quality is obtained by harvesting the bamboo when “sorrowful” sounds fill the air—such as the shrieks of a soaring eagle or the mournful cries of a grieving family—or by placing the bamboo in a coffin alongside a corpse as it awaits burial. Discussions of ende-ende poetry, here and elsewhere in the book, do not convey to the reader how it sounds. And they might have benefited from comparisons to other genres in the region, whether in regard to the use of parable, floral symbols, and nonlexical syllables to heighten expressive delivery (which calls to mind the Malaysian dondang sayang, the Deli-style senandung, and southwest Thailand’s phleng tanyong), or contrasts in rhyme schemes between hata andung (a literary idiom) and hata somal (a common vernacular) forms. A discussion of customary norms, baso and sangko (67– 68), helpfully illuminates the importance Mandailing attach to 134 Asian Music: Winter/Spring 2014 guarding the clandestine nature of markusip (so as not to challenge moral standards), but might have fit more appropriately in chapter 2.

Chapter 4 deals with tulila construction, learning methods, and playing techniques. It explains how a thin, wild variety of bamboo, bulu sorik, is selected, cured, and fashioned into a four-hole instrument, with accompanying illustrations of carving methods and tulila in various sizes and builds. Tulila is learned through imitation and repetition, and its pedagogy is discussed in terms of its all-male mentorship system that comprises several age groups: (1) elders who possess broad knowledge of Mandailing traditions; (2) older “young at heart” men who pay evening visits to the boys’ dormitory to bring them amusing stories and life lessons; and (3) the boys’ older peers who have already gone on markusip outings, or who have a particular talent for the courtship arts. Two musical transcriptions provided here (92) represent sung syllables used to convey a tulila melody from teacher to student, for the latter to memorize. As boys learn, they are free to develop an individual style through melodic variation and ornamentation, though readers are not given an idea of how these might sound.

Chapter 5 contains transcriptions and analyses of tulila melodies based on recordings of two elder Julu performers, rendered in common Western staff notation, and five-line fingering tablature. Nasution’s first concerns are with melodic contours of brief phrases, and their arrangement in sequences. He then shows how each discrete formal section has a corresponding identification to both a “pillar” of dalian na tolu, and one of the five pitches (including the highest, unstopped note). To compensate for the disparity between three pillars and five pitches/sections, he includes the patobang hata engagement ritual alongside dalian na tolu, matching it to the “opening” pitch (the first-hole pangindik) and introductory melody. In addition, he refers to a Mandailing saying, opat ganjil lima gonop (four odd/five even, or four incomplete/ five perfect), to explain the enigmatic fifth pitch, whose absence would leave an pemuda and anak gadis feeling uncomfortable, as if something were missing—just as a ceremonial betel nut platter at a patobang hata ritual would be perceived as incomplete without its five requisite ingredients: Piper betel, areca nut, lime, gambier, and tobacco.

While Tulila is a commendable effort, it has a number of deficiencies that should be noted. Its perspective is largely male, with very little attention given to the anak gadis. The ethnographic writing paints a somewhat general and ahistorical portrait of Mandailing. Its organization and focus can seem confounding. A whole section of melodic transcriptions (109– 13) is marred by a sloppy manuscript that makes it difficult to distinguish some pitches on the staff. An especially frustrating omission is the lack of a glossary of 135 Mandailing terms, which appear so abundantly in the text. Most surprisingly perhaps, there is no mention of neighboring ethnic groups who share similar social practices, such as the Batak or Minangkabau, or any effort to contextualize tulila within the greater region. However, solely for its insights into markusip practices and Mandailing society, this book is a worthwhile addition to the growing ethnomusicological literature of the region.

Original article by Lawrence Ross, The Graduate Center, City University of New York

Featured in Asian Music, Volume 45, Number 1, Winter/Spring 2014, pp. 132-135 (Article)