– By Ian Morse, ETA in Gorontalo –
A teacher had invited me to his house for dinner. It was my first week in Gorontalo, and I was quickly realizing that this tranquil village was the perfect place to spend ten months. There is only one major road through Ilomangga, where houses quickly become shacks then rice paddies further from the village center. ATMs are far away, and the next day’s cooking depends on what’s available at the local market, but it’s peaceful.
As I entered the teacher’s house with a few others, I quickly found that dinner wasn’t the only thing on the agenda. The lights were off, a colorful spinning spotlight shone throughout the house, and everyone was crowded around a TV. They had karaoke-ambushed me.
And in the back of the room, next to a bureau, sandals and the open doors, were three speakers standing two meters high. For the next two hours—until 11 p.m.—our voices were broadcast across the neighborhood. I can’t imagine that anybody would have wanted to hear my terrible rendition of “Dani California.” Didn’t my host have neighbors?
Yet when I got back to site after the orientation in Jakarta, there wasn’t really reason to believe my karaoke ambush was unique in breaking the auditory peace of the village. Karaoke enthusiasts had decided that a festival outside my house on my first day back was only over when they said it was over. My windows physically and audibly shook late into the night.
Gorontalans’ tolerance of conversation-stopping music seems to come from a simple love for all music. Regardless of the songs I play in class, my students will feel the groove and try to sing along. When karaoke comes out, which is generally at every gathering of more than one family, “I don’t know how to sing” is not an acceptable excuse. Everybody sings, even when there is no microphone in sight. In the teacher’s room, a teacher may let out a few lines of a love song before the room goes silent again.
On average, only the occasional rumble of a motorcycle will break life’s low hum in Ilomangga. That is, if the motorcycle is not a bentor—like a motorized tricycle taxi—that hides heavy speakers under its seat. A bentor’s speakers almost exclusively play dangdut music – an electronic, high-pitched combination of Hindu, Malay, and Arabic music. It’s a bit of a strain on the ear (and the brain trying to understand it), and I can only imagine it is much more so for a bentor’s passengers.
Weddings are a good excuse to have a party, and speakers are often pointed into the street for the benefit of passersby as much as for the guests. I’ve been to 10 weddings, and as much as I thought being on your phone the whole time was rude, there’s no real possibility of a conversation. By the time the MC comes to welcome everybody, the speakers, reaching often about three meters high, have already exhausted everyone’s ear drums.
Not every Gorontalan is so welcoming of constant booming music. One friend from another village bitterly bemoans his neighbors, who he says set up their five speakers—each priced pretty expensively—every night and sing karaoke. Every large party at night has to be registered with the police, but that doesn’t mean neighbors can’t call the police. Another friend from the city often doesn’t hesitate to do as much.
Despite the steep price of speakers, many families have put in the effort to break the rural silence. A family I pass on my jog devotes an entire shack to theirs, even as their house stands in the middle of rice paddies, with only a few other houses nearby. One time, teachers remarked that were were going far up into the mountains for a meal with a student. When we got there, a massive subwoofer blasted so loudly that a small creek at the top rippled with every beat.
Music is not limited to the night, or even the afternoon. A neighbor invited me for breakfast one morning, but knowing that I don’t wake up at the same time as they do (5 a.m.), he offered to provide an alarm clock. At 6 a.m. the next day, speakers less than 30 feet from my house rattled my windows and doors. Indeed, I was woken up in time.
He’s a bentor driver, so at least he doesn’t blast dangdut in the mornings. Speakers are too heavy for his bentor, he says. That’s definitely fine by me. I’m content to stay in the musical middle ground between splitting ears and singing crickets:two chairs, colossal speakers, and a microphone after grilling in our courtyard.