In Indonesia’s Flores, a lifelong bamboo flautist looks to the next generation

In Indonesia’s Flores, a lifelong bamboo flautist looks to the next generation

  • Flautist Marselus Selu has started a music collective on the island of Flores to foster traditional wind instruments made from native bamboo.
  • The 64-year-old taught himself to build and play the instruments as a teenager.
  • In nearby Langagedha village, Margaretha Dae has become the first woman to plant bamboo, contributing to improved water storage and reducing carbon emissions.

NGADA, Indonesia — Marselus Selu wanted to be a musician from an early age, but he didn’t have the money back then to buy a flute. Today, he’s a master craftsman of bamboo instruments and has played for Indonesia’s president.

“In the early ’70s it cost 5 rupiah, but I didn’t have any money,” Marselus, 64, told Mongabay at his home in the hamlet of Wogo, in Ratogesa village, near the southern coast of Flores Island.

Undeterred, Marselus earned money hauling bamboo from the forest back to the village for others, and taught himself to both build and play the traditional flutes that have accompanied life in Ratogesa for centuries. The bamboo forest is around 20 kilometers (12 miles) uphill from the village.

“They used to play bamboo flute music for wedding processions going all the way to the church and back to their villages,” Marselus said.

He learned his trade by observing the location and depth of the cut that craftsmen made in the bamboo. He learned the subtleties of working with the raw material, including the best season to cut down the bamboo in the forest, and how this influenced the instrument’s sound.

“If the bamboo is thin and the water content is low, then the sound will be loud,” he said.

Marselus Selu, head of the One Tekad bamboo music group, stands in front of a traditional house in the Wogo traditional village, Ratogesa Village, Ngada Regency. Photo by Ebed de Rosary/Mongabay Indonesia.

Bamboo has long been used to build traditional wind instruments across much of Asia. The shakuhachi emerged in Japan during the 16th century and remains in use as part of meditation. In Java, the suling flute continues to be used as part of gamelan orchestral ensembles.

In Flores, the foy doa and foy pai are distinct wind instruments that are combined and played together by a single musician. The foy doa presents a louder sound at higher pitch for melody, while the foy pai produces rhythmic lower tones.

As a young man, Marselus recalled the flutes often being played at daybreak in Ratogesa. The music would reflect the mood of the musician at the time. Songs from the bamboo flute could appear buoyant and hopeful, or dark and mournful.

Bamboo instruments are at their best when part of an ensemble, he said.

“If played by a lot of people, at least 25 people, then the sound of the music produced will be better,” he said.

Marselus is also the founder of Satu Tekad, a traditional bamboo music collective that has played as far afield as the island of Bali. The group has also played for Indonesia’s president, Joko Widodo, commonly known as Jokowi.

“Early last June, when Pak Jokowi came to Ngada district and stopped by Wogo, we played this bamboo music,” he said. “It felt nice to be able to play bamboo music in front of the president.”

Homes throughout the hamlet of Wogo use bamboo in their construction, from the roofing down to the load-bearing posts.

Forestry scientists say bamboo is highly effective at restoring degraded land and providing protection to communities from land slips that often occur following storms.

Traditional houses and structures in Wogo village.
Traditional houses and structures in Wogo village built using bamboo. Photo by Ebed de Rosary/Mongabay Indonesia.

A short drive west from Marselus’s home, in the village of Langagedha, Margaretha Dae waters and applies compost to her bamboo seedlings every day. The 30-year-old visits homes in the area and requests seedlings whenever a family has harvested wood from bamboo forests.

Each stand of bamboo here stores around 5,000 liters of water during the rainy season. A hectare of bamboo can absorb 50 metric tons of carbon emissions per year.

“Bamboo is very important in the future because it has many benefits, so let’s plant bamboo,” Margaretha said.

Just as Marselus is seen as a keeper of the bamboo music tradition in Ratogesa, Margaretha is breaking taboos in her village — becoming the first woman to open a bamboo nursery.

“She is a pioneer for women in Ngada,” said Paskalis Lalu, regional coordinator for the Environmental Bamboo Foundation (YBL), a Bali-based NGO.

Margaretha Dae.
Margaretha Dae, a pioneer in bamboo nurseries in Langagedha Village, Ngada Regency. Photo by Ebed de Rosary/Mongabay Indonesia.

In Wogo, Marselus also serves as the Soma, or head, of the traditional house of Sao Liko Woe, Woe Ngate. There are 32 of these traditional houses in Wogo.

A central customary office acts as a village hall for the community, where issues are discussed and local resolutions cemented.

“This customary office is used to reconcile the problems of each clan. All problems are discussed here,” he said.

It took Marselus five months of consistent self-taught practice before he felt he had finally grasped the instrument. Today he spends part of his time offering lessons to schoolchildren, giving young people access to a traditional music education that he fought for as a child.

“We remain committed to preserving traditional, cultural and natural heritage according to the message of our ancestors,” Marselus said. “That’s why we always invite young people to be involved in every traditional cultural activity so that later they can pass this down to the next generation.”

This story was reported by Mongabay’s Indonesia team and first published here and here on our Indonesian site on Sept. 9 and Oct. 9, 2022.

Banner image: Marselus Selu, head of the One Tekad bamboo music group in Ngada Regency, NTT Province, plays traditional bamboo musical instruments. Photo by Ebed de Rosary/Mongabay Indonesia.

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