One of the most unique traditional musical instruments of the East Nusatenggara Islands is the “Sasando”. However, with modernization its popularity has waned, but now new efforts are made to revive this ancient instrument and to have it blend in with modern musical instruments.
Originally played by the people of Rote island, located south of the island of Timor , Sasando is a stringed instrument that is plucked not unlike a harp. It is, however shell shaped and has a tube in its centre around which are placed the various strings. The shell, therefore, functions as a resonant box.
The Sasando shell is made of lontar or palmyra leaves, that has a tubular center made of bamboo on which are placed at various distances small wooden wedges over which the strings are stretched, providing the different notes when plucked by the musician. As with a guitar, screws are attached to the wood to allow fine tuning.
The Sasando itself, with its lontar or palmyra concave shell, is around 40 cm high, which the musician holds on his or her lap when it is played. The simple sasando has 28 strings, whereas the most difficult one to play has 56 strings. There is also a 32 string instrument.
The name “sasando” itself is derived from the Rote word “sasandu”, meaning vibrating or sounding. The Rote people believe that the instrument was already in use since the 7th, century.
According to Rote legend, there was once a boy named Sangguana who fell asleep under a palmyra tree. In his dream he heard beautiful music played by a unique instrument. The music was so captivating that when he awakened, he was determined to recreate the same instrument and the same music he heard in his dream.
Although playing this instrument could sound pretty simple, but those who know say that the Sasando is more difficult to play than a guitar.
A maestro of the Sasando and ardent music teacher is Djony Teedens who has his studio at Jalan Nanga Jamal, in the subdistrict of Naikoten 1 in the town of Kupang, capital city of East Nusatenggara.
Here Djony not only gives private lessons but also makes sasando instruments himself. He is adamant to continue the tradition of his ancestors and to revive the Sasando to become again a musical instrument popular with the people.
In his studio, students who are able to play the guitar must still be further trained to play the Sasando for another 4 months, while students who have never touched a guitar the course takes 6 months. He normally has 5 to 7 students at home, a number of whom are foreigners. “I have had German, Dutch and Japanese students in my studio” said Djoni Teedens.
Besides opening Sasando courses, Djoni also sells Sasando instruments. A 28 strings Sasando may cost around Rp 1 million, while the 32 strings costs Rp. 1.5 million. The instruments are gaining in popularity, and are bought by his fellow countrymen as well as by foreign visitors.
Nonetheles, the most encouraging for Djony Teedens, is the fact that the Sasando, the ancient instrument played by his forefathers, is again recognized as a worthy instrument to play in line with other traditional Indonesian musical instruments as well as with the more modern instruments in this global world.