Yanger : Tracing the Roots of Halmahera String Bands

Yanger : Tracing the Roots of Halmahera String Bands, 8 June 2018, Aural Archipelago

We can begin by zooming in on Halmahera, an island shaped like a pair of chromosomes, a miniature twin of the lotus-like Sulawesi to the west. One of the largest islands in Maluku, Halmahera was nonetheless historically dwarfed by the tiny island kingdoms which cling to its eastern shores: the small, volcano-studded Ternate, Tidore, and Bacan. Halmahera had its own mysterious kingdom on this western flank called Jailolo, a name so powerful it was once used to refer to the whole island. Still, it’s a peripheral place, especially in modern day Indonesia.

Spend a week in Halmahera, like I did, and you’ll find a place where traces of these rich, world-changing histories are still apparent: nutmeg trees cling to the perfect volcanic dome of Mt. Jailolo, and old colonial-era forts crumble near its black sand beaches. You’re also bound to find music: there’s tifa, booming log drums also found across Melanesia; there’s togal, music for conspicuously western dances played on a violin-like fiddle called fiol. Then there’s my favorite of all, a music at once familiar and enigmatic, a music which wraps up hundreds of years of history in a tuneful package: yanger.

Yanger, you could say, is the local take on a string band tradition that spans the Pacific. It is partly from this angle that yanger gets its familiarity: just as yanger combines upbeat lutes, rubbery bass, and major key melodies, so too do its cousins across the Melanesian and Polynesian world, from string bands in the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu all the way to joyous yospan in Papua and similar forms across the border in PNG. While Halmahera sits on the edge of the Melanesian world, yanger‘s link with this wider world of Pacific Island string bands is a mystery. While those musics seem intuitively like long-lost cousins, their histories are completely different, with those styles often being the result of Western contact during and after World War II. A different, perhaps more complex set of histories is at play here with yanger in Halmahera.

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