Sumatra Jungle Jam

“Without music life has no soul”

Ollie the paper shredder worn out helping to arrange the music books.

Ollie the paper shredder worn out helping to arrange the music books.

Earlier this month I spent 2 weeks having a break in the Sumatran jungle in Indonesia. The main reason for the trip was to check out the wildlife including elephants and orang-utans. However the bonus fun activity was the nightly jamming and singing sessions with the local guides in Bukit Lawang and Tangkahan. The trip was organised by friends who are regular visitors to the region. They run an organisation The Tangkahan Effect which helps to support wildlife and local eco-tourism. Before we left we were informed that there are nightly jungle jam sessions with singing and guitar playing. So I prepared myself by creating song books to share with the locals and planned to buy a guitar in the city of Medan before heading out to the jungles of Northern Sumatra.

After arriving in Medan we headed to Gramedia to do some guitar shopping. Gramedia is a small department store selling books, bags, stationery, clothes, electronics and musical instruments. A bit different to Australia where instruments are sold from shops that just specialise in them. At Gramedia the guitars ranged from budget Chinese models up to mid-priced Yamahas. As I planned on leaving the guitar with the guides at the end of the trip I wasn’t going to buying an expensive guitar. However this doesn’t necessarily mean that the guitar I chose would be a low quality instrument. I was looking for a steel string acoustic that had a good (reasonably) low action and intonation. Features such as a pickup weren’t required as it wasn’t going to be used with an amp. A cutaway to play more easily above the 12th fret would be nice but I would prefer an easier to play guitar (low action etc.) over a harder to play guitar with a cutaway.

 

"Legend" Chinese Guitar

“Legend” Chinese Guitar

In comparison to Australian guitar shops I discovered that the guitars on display were really out of tune (e.g. floppy strings!) so it took a bit of time tuning each guitar before seeing how they really played. In the end I chose a cheapish Chinese “Legend” acoustic for 1.26 million Rupiah ($126 AUS) due to it having a nice low action and great intonation all the way up the neck. There were a few of these models at the same price (some with cutaways) but they all had higher string action plus some also had bad intonation making the one I chose the best of the bunch.

First stop after leaving Medan was Bukit Lawang. Here we hiked up the hill to our accommodation At The Rocks with beautiful views of jungle and Thomas Leaf monkeys playing in the trees. We spent the days trekking in jungle where we saw a Thomas Leaf monkey plus a mother and baby orang-utan close up which was amazing. In the evening after dinner and a few Bintangs needed due to the heat we jammed with some locals including Jack and Tara who had a great rock voice and sang a fantastic version of Pearl Jams “Black” as I accompanied him on guitar. Here we also got our first taste of Indonesian songs including Terlalu Manis and Susi Minta Susu.

 

While the music in playing in Bukit Lawang was great it was just a tasty morsel of what was to come as we moved onto Tangkahan where there is an elephant sanctuary and more jungle to explore. The first night we arrived there was a huge party with all the villagers. They welcomed us at the restaurant/bar of Green Lodge with an evening of music and more refreshing Bintang. With a larger group you got to see how the locals are really into their music especially the Indonesian songs. Many young men played guitar to a good level and more could sing and even harmonise. The enthusiasm when they were singing these songs was infectious. In Australia you wouldn’t see a bunch of 20 something blokes singing and playing like that at the pub.

Morning sunrise in the Goat Cave

Morning sunrise in the Goat Cave

In regards to western songs they are fans of Bob Marley, The Beatles, The Eagles, Jack Johnson, Robbie Williams, Guns n Roses and more. They can sing some of these songs quite well but they really let rip with the Indonesian songs. For me I had fun singing songs such as “Wagon Wheel” by Old Crow Medicine Show, “Naive Melody” by Talking Heads, “All Along The Watchtower” by Bob Dylan and “Heart Of Gold” by Neil Young. My partner Rachael (we perform as the duo Deuawd in Melbourne) sang songs including “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” by U2, “Forget You” by Cee Lo Green, “Higher & Higher” by Jackie Wilson, “What’s Up” by 4 Non-Blondes and “Thinking Out Loud” by Ed Sheeran.

For 2 nights we trekked off into the jungle to sleep behind a waterfall at the goat cave. The guides made a special effort to bring up the guitar and djembe (played by Ika – master of card games and “black” magic). Here special musical moments included an acoustic version of Joe Satriani’s “Flying In A Blue Dream I improvised one morning with Ika on djembe while the sunlight streamed through the waterfall. That same morning I found the hit jungle theme song of “The Lion (AKA Tiger in Sumatra) Sleeps Tonight” which the guides sang and harmonised while Jempul (the guide with the smooth moves) danced in the morning sun.

Dodi & Bim restringing

Dodi & Bim restringing

We returned to Tangkahan staying down river at Jungle Lodge where we spent our days washing elephants and tubing down the river. I also had an afternoon guitar service session helping to restring and adjust guitar necks. Following this I gave an informal guitar lesson/clinic with guides Meddi, Dodi and Bim. Bim could improvise guitar solos which the others couldn’t really do as they were mainly rhythm players. We ran through Guns n Roses “November Rain” (including the end guitar melody), Jack Johnson’s “Banana Pancakes” and “Wanted Dead or Alive” by Bon Jovi. While they knew their chords my students for the day couldn’t read tab and were more comfortable learning by ear and copying my playing. They told me that they learnt songs from each other this way. Bim’s soloing skills were due to him learning licks using his great ears vs knowing scale patterns or notes.

 

Guitar lesson with Meddi and Dodi

Guitar lesson with Meddi and Dodi

In the evenings it was more music and Bintangs – are you getting the routine now? Highlights on the last few nights included Bim playing some blues and in his great voice singing Bob Marley songs including “No Woman No Cry and “Could You Be Loved”. By this stage I learned to play the chords to some Indonesian songs including Terlalu Manis and some of the words too.  One of guides Hendra let us know his appreciation of us playing with them as it was like a performance for them every night too! A final word from the locals comes from Pirman who said to me that “without music life has no soul”.

Overall it was a fantastic music experience and it was great fun playing and singing every night. While I gig 1-2 times a week at home in Melbourne it’s not quite the same as a Sumatran jungle jam.

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