Songs and Sorrow in Tanjung Bunga

Music and the Myth of the Origin of Rice (Lamaholot, Flores, Indonesia)

In: Bijdragen tot de taal-, land- en volkenkunde / Journal of the Humanities and Social Sciences of Southeast Asia
Dana Rappoport Centre Asie du Sud-Est, Paris, France

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The songs of Tanjung Bunga (Flores, Indonesia) refer in their lyrics to the myth of the origin of rice. This myth, sung several times a year, recalls the loss of a young sister who sacrificed herself so that her body would be transformed into rice to feed her people. Studying the lyrics along with the behaviour and verbalized reactions of the singers offers insight into how these songs intensify sorrow. Two groups of songs are studied, those pertaining to the myth of the origin of rice, and those pertaining to the myth of Siamese twins.

Keywords: Flores; music; myth; rice; emotion

Music, a system of farewells, evokes a physics whose point of departure is not atoms but tears.

Cioran 1987 [1952]: 122

How do societies respond to sorrow? In Papua New Guinea, the Kaluli laments imitate the sound of the muni bird with the deliberate intention of moving others to tears: music is organized through the metaphor of the bird that mediates the feeling of loss and abandonment (Feld 1990). In Indonesia, the Sa’dan Toraja perform song laments as a replacement for weeping: singing is for them ‘a substitute for their grief, a replacement for their sorrow’ (Rappoport 2009). While some societies intensify sorrow, turning weeping into song and song into weeping, others may convert it into musical forms not meant to encourage weeping but to produce other effects.

This article investigates the connections between songs and sorrow in a small region of Indonesia, inhabited by a thousand rice farmers. Having gathered ethnomusicological data on the Tanjung Bunga peninsula of eastern Flores, I came to realize that the songs of this region, exclusively performed as alternating duets, were endowed with a distinctive dysphoric quality1: they were grave, slow, characterized by strong harmonic tension, and I was drawn to them because of their intensity, which I perceived as their sadness. Did the singers themselves feel this tension? It became clear that they did. The singers explained that the singing had to take place under certain conditions. For a song to be performed properly it had to be not only flowing (puna’) and slow (mao), but also earnest, modest, understated (mia), simple (Ind. lurus2), and ‘heartfelt’ (Ind. pakai perasaan). Besides, during two recording sessions, a few members of the audience wept silently. One of them told me that the singing recalled the memory of his dead father. Another explained that he felt engulfed in melancholic reminiscence (hukut, péten). Furthermore, several farmers observed that music is not considered to be entertainment (geneku) but a form of concentration: they told me that ‘true, good and human’ (dike’) music ‘works inside the heart and the mind’ (ta’an ono ne matat): ‘filled with feelings’ (Ind. penuh perasaan), it can bring tears to your eyes. The word ‘sadness’, which apparently does not exist in the Lamaholot language, was never explicitly mentioned.


Figure 1

Eastern Flores in Indonesia

Citation: Bijdragen tot de taal-, land- en volkenkunde / Journal of the Humanities and Social Sciences of Southeast Asia 170, 2-3 (2014) ; 10.1163/22134379-17002023

These remarks point to a line of investigation concerning the effects of music. Where does this song-induced dysphoria stem from? Is it brought about by the lyrics, the music, context, or memories? How do those who experience this dysphoria—both the singers and their audience—talk about it? This article examines the nature of these dysphoric feelings, which pervade the songs of this region. While the study of emotions is a rapidly growing field nowadays, in both the cognitive sciences and ethnomusicology,3 the anthropology of ‘musical emotions’—the study of ‘music-induced feelings’—is in need of more ethnographic work. Admittedly, field data have allowed a more global understanding of the topic, not limited to purely psychological considerations and to a single way of conceiving emotion. But how can a researcher coming from the outside understand the links a given population establishes between its songs and its experience of sorrow? How can one understand what sorrow means for a group of people one is not part of? In certain cases, experimental procedures can be set up that do not require proximity of the researcher and the singers. In my case, I was able to gather a large amount of data by slowly getting to know six singers in particular, over the course of several field trips, in two different villages: Keka’ and Waiklibang. These two villages are located ten kilometres apart on the peninsula of Tanjung Bunga (Figs. 1, 2).4


Figure 2

Location of Tanjung Bunga in the Lamaholot-speaking region

Citation: Bijdragen tot de taal-, land- en volkenkunde / Journal of the Humanities and Social Sciences of Southeast Asia 170, 2-3 (2014) ; 10.1163/22134379-17002023

This article will not examine how the acoustic form of the songs contributes to the experience of grief. While grief can be related to certain musical parameters, it can also be studied through other elements involved in the act of singing; in this article, I have limited my analysis of grief to the lyrics and the ways in which the songs are performed. To start with, studying the vocabulary used to talk about affliction will help map out the affects in question. Then, an in-depth comparison of several songs rooted in mythical thought will identify recurring dysphoric patterns in the lyrics, which, depending on when the song is performed, may have different effects.

An Agrarian Context

In the eastern part of Flores, a particularly dry area, the Lamaholot-speaking populations5 live off the cultivation of rice and maize on grubbed-up plots of land. Their year is divided into two seasons. During the dry season (from June to November), they clear new fields. Leaving their cultivated fields to lie fallow for two or three years, the farmers burn a new portion of forest to clear it. When the rain comes, in November–December, seeds are sown; in April and May, the maize is harvested first, then the rice. From June to October, the rice that will be used for future sowing is stored in granaries.

Until today, this region of Flores is in danger of famine: eating sufficiently is harder in this region than in others, because swidden farming is dependent on the wet season, which is both irregular and becoming shorter. Because a potentially bad harvest can threaten the very existence of these populations, many rituals are concerned with the agricultural practices that govern the lives of the farmers. The cultivation of rice is organized around an annual cycle in which singing plays a crucial role. Most songs are tied to one of the five steps involved in rice cultivation: sowing, weeding, harvesting, milling, and storing the grain in granaries.

Agricultural work is one of the preferred settings for vocal performance (Rappoport 2011a). In Waiklibang and Keka’, nine repertoires are still called upon nowadays, although fewer and fewer young people are interested in this music. These nine repertoires are almost all connected to the myth of the origin of rice, which everyone learns as a child. Rice-related songs are therefore not only sung for entertainment, but also as a means of survival. This myth is not only expressed through singing and dancing, but it is also ‘performed’ or ‘represented’—partly by a young virgin selected each year to take on the role of a key figure in the myth.

Singing in Pairs

Duetting is the main musical texture of the western part of the Lamaholot area, in which hardly any monodic forms are found. Several pairs of duettists sing in alternation, one pair answering the others either by completing or repeating the lyrics performed by the duo that initiates a duet sequence. Between the two voices, the simultaneous intervals are limited, which has led Philip Yampolsky (2001) to speak of the ‘Balkan-sounding style of Tanjung Bunga’. The form chosen both for agrarian activities and for mythical narratives is the duet, which combines two voices, generally of the same gender, according to various polyphonic techniques such as mobile drone, contrary motion, counterpoint, canon, and parallelism (Rappoport 2010b).6 This tradition is threatened nowadays by a decreasing involvement of the young generation, though I observed a localized resurgence for duetting in one village caused by the support and encouragement of a retired teacher. Apart from the Tanjung Bunga region, duet singing has now disappeared from many villages of eastern Flores.

Duos require a close relationship, which over time also becomes an emotional one. One does not sing with just anyone: it is important to find the voice that will best suit one’s own. The choice of a partner depends on affinities and, especially, on the colour produced by the blending of the two voices. The union of two voices in a duo calls for a lot of time spent singing together. Only a high level of mastery will ensure that the intervals between the two voices will be rendered with precision. The best duos have been singing together for many years. As a result, each singer sings with only one or two partners during his or her lifetime. When one of the singers dies, the other singer’s pain is immense. In August 2012, Bapa’ Sebran Nitit came to see me for a recording session. I made him listen to his voice, which I had recorded six years earlier. He told me that ‘he had lost his noko’ (the second voice). He seemed devastated. That evening, Bapa’ Sebran sang with Bapa’ Sogé Maran, and wrapped his arm around Bapa’ Sogé Maran’s shoulders (Fig. 3).

The shock of a loss—not only of one’s singing partner—can lead even to silence. When a close relative dies, singers stop singing for many years. If the pain is too strong, singing becomes impossible. Since 2006, on each occasion that I have returned for fieldwork purposes, I have found that people I have previously met have since passed away, whether because of illness or an accident. When I have played my recordings to the villagers, they seemed deeply moved by the songs recorded in earlier years. These inner disturbances are what I am trying to understand. The vocabulary used to talk about them can provide us with some insight into these emotions.


Figure 3

Bapa’ Sebran Nitit (left) and Bapa’ Sogé Maran, Lebao, 22th july 2012

Citation: Bijdragen tot de taal-, land- en volkenkunde / Journal of the Humanities and Social Sciences of Southeast Asia 170, 2-3 (2014) ; 10.1163/22134379-17002023

The Vocabulary of Affliction

My mapping of the vocabulary of emotions was based on roughly twenty songs, chosen both within and outside of the Lamaholot cultural area.7 After listening to each song, the singers in two villages were asked to describe their feelings. In the list of expressions that were collected, nineteen described—predominantly—dysphoric emotions, and eleven of these included the term one’ (inside). While ono’ describes the inside of an object (a bag, a house), the variant one’ is used more specifically to talk about feelings. Emotions are therefore located ‘inside’ (one’ mata).8 In the case of suffering (one’ beraran), this interiority is ‘tense’ (ta’a one’) or ‘tight’ (one’ suke). When feeling in distress, this interiority is narrow (one’ mata dudak), which leads to a stiffness that ‘prevents the heart from breathing’. Narrowness leads to despair (one’ puna’, ‘inside with no opening’),9 desolation and dejection. When suffering is physical, when ‘the body is suffering’ (wekin beraran) or ‘feverish’ (wekin beringin), the word one’ is not used. Hence, there is a terminological difference between physical and emotional suffering.

The vocabulary of sorrow in both villages suggests three degrees of afflictions: moderate, deep, or unbearable (Table 1). The affliction brought about by singing is moderate in intensity and never reaches the highest degree of sorrow. Music on its own never leads to despair and it remains in the grey area of melancholy, affliction, and gentle sadness. It displays a languidness (hukut, péten, ‘to remember’) pertaining to the absence of a friend, a relative, or a lover. Both those who sing and those who listen feel that ‘their inside is hard’ (one’ suke); they are sad (one’ belara, ‘to feel pain’), distressed (one’ kuran), and moved (one’ mata).

Table 1

The vocabulary of dysphoric emotions in Keka’ and Waiklibang

Table 1

One’ thus points to the seat of emotions, whether they be dysphoric (one’ beraran ‘to feel pain’) or euphoric (one’ bréa ‘to feel happy’). In poetic speech, often used in daily situations, one’ (the deeps, interiority, feelings) is paired with matik (depth, bottom of the heart).10 These two words locate affects deep inside a person, in the sphere of a specifically human intimacy. After several days of being apart—I was already back in France—a singer sent me the following text message:

Doan one’ kodi hukut Far within interiority recollection lingers

léla matik sama péten for a long time in the depths remains the memory11


This distich, known by all, expresses the sorrow brought on by reminiscence, which acts as a reminder of temporal and spatial separation. Feelings are experienced within ourselves, in an interiority which is independent from physical organs, be it the heart (wuak) or the liver (até). But pain is not solely expressed with words, but also, and above all, in songs.

Songs and Mythical Thought

Many songs are made up of dysphoric semantic motifs which are drawn from social memory and which give rise to a wide array of emotions. The songs presented in this article, all collected between 2006 and 2011, were selected for their melancholy character. They are not necessarily equivalent to one another, as they differ in nature and length. All of the lyrics are fixed: they must always be sung with the same words, without variation. I have grouped the songs into two different categories: those pertaining to the myth of the origin of rice, and those pertaining to the myth of Siamese twins. The myth of the origin of rice is a pre-eminent myth amongst the populations of this peninsula and its surrounding area,12 and it serves as the backdrop for the songs of the agrarian cycle. The second group of songs is related—albeit more indirectly—to the myth of Siamese twins in its way of envisioning loss. These two groups coexist in this culture, though they are not intrinsically related; both of them are concerned with dysphoria.

The Songs Related to the Myth of the Origin of Rice

The Myth of the Origin of Rice

Throughout the year, the myth of the origin of rice is sung in two different ways: either it is sung in its entirety, during the haman opak bélun dance, which takes place four times a year, or fragments of it are performed while sowing, weeding, harvesting, milling, and storing the grain in granaries.

The story tells that in bygone days, humans only ate beans (Ind. kacang), and were hungry. In order to survive, a young sister, Tonu Wujo, ordered her seven brothers to buy swords. She requested that they prepare a field, slash and burn the field, and then kill her in the middle of the field with some animals; afterwards, they should not return to the field until the eighth day. Her youngest brother killed her. Her teeth became maize, her flesh and her blood became rice, the remaining parts became vegetables and beans. On the eighth day, the brothers came to see the garden and saw the rice growing. After four months, the mother visited the garden to look for her daughter. She called her in every direction, but to no avail; at last, the brothers told the mother to come to the centre of the field. All the rice plants leant over and embraced the mother. With the harvest of this field, the brothers filled seven granaries; with the rice they sold, they bought elephant tusks to get married. Thus one girl enabled seven men to take wives. But these seven brothers did not get along anymore. They fought, and that is why Tonu Wujo, ashamed, left to be shared, under her rice form, in all the villages.13

While this myth is found all throughout Insular Southeast Asia in one form or another,14 it seems especially prominent in eastern Flores and western Solor, whereas it remains less known in the neighbouring islands of Lembata and Adonara. This narrative has a fundamental role in the shared imagination and vocal art of the Flores/Solor region. When it is sung, it has the power to move people, sometimes even to tears.

Let us examine the sung version of the central part of the myth.15 The mythemes tell the dramatic intensity that surrounds the death of the young girl and her metamorphosis:

Tonu nala tuén kulit Tonu changes skin

Ema’ nala balik kamak Ema’ changes body16

Bo kolo nala tutu Everyone listen to me!

alan ran nala marin lend me your ear!

Na’an oé Kasa Rua My brother, Kasa Rua

ama oé Jawa Ama my brother, Jawa Ama

Suri’ soda’ téti koten The sharp weapon cut the head off

gala palén lali jalén the spear pierced the gut

La Loku La Lodé La Loku, La Lodé

La Timu Bala Harut La Timu, Bala Harut17

Nogo nala tuén kulit Nogo changes skin

Ema’ nala balik kamak Ema’ changes body

Raé ilé o raé ilé Far away, far up in the mountain

ula kau wala lota koba a snake wraps itself around the peak

Raé ilé Ratulodong Far up on the mountain Ratulodong

Tonu suku Raja Tonu is from the Raja clan18

Lodo tuén duli Come down and circle the fields

buat to boté béra buat to carry her with haste

Nogo nala tuén kulit Nogo changes skin

Ema’ nala balik kamak Ema’ changes body

Lau nala éka dai From below, do not come up

beta nala éka dai tomorrow, do not come up

ara rua éka dai in two days, do not come up

ara telo éka dai in three days, do not come up

ara pat éka dai in four days, do not come up

ara léma éka dai in five days, do not come up

ara nému éka dai in six days, do not come up

ara pito éka dai in seven days, do not come up

buto getan gamo dai well into the eighth day, come!

buto getan gamo mio dai well into the eighth day, all of you come!

Nogo nala peso rin (From) Nogo springs the shoot

Ema’ nala hipa’ ana’ (from) Ema’ springs the sheltered child

Peso rin wuku’ getan Out from the young shoot spring the joints

hipa’ ana’ raru’ gait sheltered are the young stems19

In this sung version, the metamorphosis, evoked by the ‘joints’ (wuku’) and the ‘stems’ (raru’), echoes the anthropomorphic description of the seed as a ‘child’ (ana’) whose body will only survive and grow if it is protected by humans. This ‘protection’ (hipa’) announces the connection that will last throughout the agricultural cycle: at the basis of the bond between the humans and Nogo Ema’—the child-sister-plant born out of this murder—and between the humans and the land, is an empathetic relationship.

In all the villages of the peninsula, most agrarian songs are based on this myth. Their emotional colouring depends on the time of day during which they are sung. I have chosen four songs performed at dusk at different points in the agricultural cycle. Although one could have expected the harvest to be a time of rejoicing and of euphoric feelings, the songs below illustrate another aspect of the feelings experienced at this time of the year.

Najan perawi’ (the Supplication), a Harvest Song

Before leaving their field at dusk, the harvesters from Waiklibang ask Nogo Ema’, the child-sister-plant, for her permission to go home. This request is expressed as a supplication (perawi’) in the sense of a pressing plea. This is the last address:

Biné’ koré léro léra Sister, the ending sun is setting20

go pé kaé ién go I’ve already called

na’an go perawi’ your brothers and I ask to leave

moé lekut léin toran you, fold your legs and wait

Tobo téden pati leran urin Sit, wait for your brothers till tomorrow

ama gopak téna mao your father lies as a boat adrift

galuk lima lota koba fold your hands one on the other

ban béda nuan doré wait for your brothers till tomorrow21

These lines carry several elements which all convey emotion, whether it be the treatment of time and space, or the anthropomorphizing of the plant or human relations. First of all, time: the scene takes place at sundown. When the sun sets, when work comes to an end, the euphoria induced by working together fades. The harvesters are going to leave one another and, more importantly, they are about to leave this sister they cherish. The end of the day also announces the harvesters’ hope for the following day, which is not without risk: will the child still be there? Will the animals have eaten her? Regarding this song, one singer comments on the separation between humans and their ancestors and the resulting solitude in the following words:

It is sad! When we leave [the fields], it is as if the euphoria of being together comes to an end—we have just lived together in the fields, haven’t we? The song najan comes to an end, everyone goes home, we are the only ones left, the brothers and sisters, the parents, and then comes this song […] we were all together, the people went away and we are left alone, a single family, and furthermore what we sing is the song (lian) that comes from one of our departed ancestors, who is no more, even by just saying it [saying the words], one can start crying […]. You leave, but we remain alone.

Franz Pito Koten, 23 June 2010

Being together intensifies the feeling of unity; sound and movement evince the presence of others, kinship, union, help, and solidarity, all of which are opposed to solitude. Space is also used to dramatize separation: while ‘the sister’ has to stay in the field, the others will leave. What is implicitly staged in this song are two separate spaces, a close one (the field) and a distant one (the village). The plant is described anthropomorphically as her body (her legs are held tight together, her hands are crossed one on each other), which is echoed by its status (biné’ refers to the sister): the plant is never mentioned as such and the tender address is to a sister. Finally, in only five lines, kinship is brought up twice: both under the guise of brotherly relations and fatherly ones. Thus, the sadness brought about by this song is tied to three types of separation experienced by humans: they are separated from their sister, from their ancestors, and from one another.

Punget, a Men’s Harvest Song

In another village, situated ten kilometres away, nightfall is sung about differently, but is experienced in the same way. In Keka’, the harvest song performed at dusk is different for men and women. The one sung by men reminds us of the harsh situation that this sister, who sleeps on the cold earth, has to endure:

Hode’ binék ko Take my sister

lera Pati Boli géré the sun of Pati Boli is rising22

lodo go hodé hodé biné’ kaé’ when it sets I have taken the sister

Binék Nogo Gunun My sister Nogo Gunun

turu lali tana tangen sleeps on the harsh earth

loné weli wato uten her pillow over there, a stone from the forest

Na’an hon ama béto Her brothers on their way, her father coming

lodo boté hodé biné’ coming down to take the sister

The feeling of pity and compassion for the child stems from the fear of solitude, from the danger the child is exposed to, and from the risk of losing her. Hence the importance of mothering: the plant is pampered like a young child and the greatest empathy is shown to allow it to survive.

Tuan nuan (The Day Falls), a Women’s Harvest Song

This women’s harvest song may also be called banu léko owa, with owa referring to the evening:

Piku nuan pé kaé’ The time has come

léra pelau’ buno bauk the sun is setting

Go balélé ilé raé I can see the mountain over there

nuan pelau’ lodo nokok the time is growing dark

Go balélé woka raé I can see the hill over there

tuan nuan o tana bajo the day is falling on the sea23

Tobi légo bala légo Tobi légo bala légo24

Alone, the speaker looks into the distance. Space and time bring about a moment of self-reflection, and an awareness of a here and an elsewhere. The end of the day inescapably leads to a weighing down of the mind.

Oé bala, a Weeding Song

In Keka’, just under a month after sowing the seeds, the farmers split up into small groups and spend the day pulling up the weeds that have already overrun their fields. If the opportunity arises, if fellow singers are part of the group, they sing duets all day long. Three songs (berasi kremet) are performed depending on the time of day: one for the morning, one for noon, and one for the evening. While the morning song is considered joyful and lively, the last song, also called berasi kremet owa (evening weeding song), at sunset, is grave. It is made up of hexastichs, the first four lines of which vary while the last two remain the same.

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In this translation, the words in brackets are either vocal flourishes or discontinuous fragments. These little, non-essential words (‘our father’, ‘our countryside’) speak of a ‘collective’ that acts as a shield against solitude—the solitude of Tonu Wujo, or of the nocturnal haziness out there, by the sea, in the lower regions or on the other side, which are all variants of a worrying spatio-temporal indistinctness. Once again, the motifs of remoteness, of the end of the day, and of the anthropomorphizing of rice can be found in this song. Bapa’ Kobus explains,

It is sad because we make a request to Tonu Wujo (Ind. kami pesan Tonu Wujo), we ask her permission to leave, we have already made her content, we have washed her and during this time, she is going to stay with the weeds, and as for us, as na’an ama (‘brothers’27), we come to wash her so that she can live free and well, and then we send her a message (Ind. kami pesan): ‘stay seated here’.


This comment posits two subjects—the brothers and the sister—along with a tension between the two—a request, a desire, and the need for a relationship.

The Myth of the Siamese Twins and Its Offshoots

The myth of the origin of rice, which is truly the basis for agrarian songs, should be considered alongside another, less famous myth concerning the origin of music,28 because it focuses once more on a loss. It seems to me that several stories and songs have come to revolve around this myth and display variations around the themes of intense sadness and death—death by suicide or by accident, for instance.

In a village in Lamanabi, a mother called Wulo’ [Bamboo] gave birth to a boy who had two heads. One of them, the elder, was called Kau, and the other, the younger, was called Ré.29 They would sing and dance; the younger sang the second voice (noko) and the elder the first voice (bawa30). When they sang the hode’ ana [a kind of duet], one would do the first voice, the other the second, and it was extremely melodious. They did not live very long and died and were buried. A few days later, two bamboo reeds sprung out of the earth, where their grave lay. A mother gave birth to a body with two heads. This is where the sason rurén [twin flute] is said to come from.

Known in a small area of Tanjung Bunga, this tale links the birth of the musical instrument to the death of the Siamese twins, whose body was both one and divided. The flute is directly connected with death, loss, and dysphoria. Furthermore, this unbound double flute is the focus of a particularly dysphoric story, which I call ‘the lovers’ flute’. In this story, sound plays a highly dramatic role.

‘The Lovers’ Flute’

Although the unbound double flute has largely disappeared nowadays, it is of major importance from both a musicological and a mythical perspective (Rappoport 2010a). It is not used on just any occasion. Known as rurén in daily conversations, it is named sason rurén in more literary language. It is made from two pipes (wulo’), not joined, and played at the same time by one person. On occasion, the pipes have been linked to a couple—the reed with more holes being female31—but this has not (yet?) been confirmed by the musicians in the field. The following story, however, suggests a possible lead in favour of such an interpretation. I have collected several stories concerning this flute. Here is one version told by Bapa’ Mao Hokon (from Riang Roko) in 2011:

A man was named Kopon, and a woman was called Wolé. This woman never left her home.32 She did not work and would stay inside and sleep, get up, sleep, get up, but never went for a walk and stayed up there. Who would want this woman? Who desired her? No one could love her because she was guarded every night. This man Kopon, however, wanted her. One night, he climbed onto the roof, a roof made of leaves, he climbed and climbed, then he came down from the roof and they made love. They made love until the third or fourth night, when he came back again along the roof but he dropped his dagger by mistake. The girl was sleeping below and the dagger slipped down, fell through the roof and killed her. Her brother was sleeping. In the morning, he called his sister to bring her her meal. He called and called, but there was no answer. Maybe she was still asleep? He called again, but nothing happened. He went up to see what was going on, he pushed the door open: she was dead. The lover was there, sitting watching over her. He told the brother, ‘Oa’ is dead’33.

The brother wanted to kill Kopon. But Kopon said, ‘Do not kill me! If your sister is dead, I am to blame so we will prepare her grave.’ The brother followed him to bury her. They left for the sea and dug a hole in the earth for the coffin. The brother wanted to close the grave by covering it with earth but Kopon said, ‘Do not close the grave! No, do not close it!’ So they left and the coffin was not covered with earth. Kopon came back to the village and told his mother, ‘Mother, prepare a bit of food for me.’ His mother boiled some food and gave it to him, then he washed himself, and once he was done, he put on a sarong and asked his mother, ‘Mother, I will leave now, if during the night you hear something, do not make a noise, do not speak, do not call for anyone. Above all, do not make any noise.’

He then left for the sea and cut a branch and tied the two inseparable [bamboo], hung his dance costume, and his bells to a post and leant back against it, then he climbed down into the hole, onto the coffin. He was playing the flute. Men in the distance were saying, ‘What is this sound that we hear and that we do not know?’ The sound grew stronger as the night went on. The sound grew stronger as the night went on.34 When the sound of the flute stopped, he was dead. In the morning, the mother came to see the grave, by the sea, the earth had covered it on its own and on the top only the two pipes were left. She took the flutes and the dance costume, and went home.

This story describes the involuntary murder of a loved one by her lover, who ends up committing suicide. The flute becomes the instrument through which to communicate with the loved one and enables grief to be somehow overcome beyond death. It displays a number of dysphoric motifs: murder, the decision to commit suicide, the ‘drowned’ lover in the grave, the loss, the burgeoning reeds at dawn. This double flute is linked, in that case, to suicide, which is also the main theme of the following song.

Bewarén, a Suicide at Dawn

Though it is not directly related to the previous tale, the topic of suicide is also present at Keka’, in the lyrics of the song Bewarén, considered to be the saddest song in this village. This song is a duet whose weighty musical flow combines a slow rhythm, unbarred held notes and a certain tension between the two voices. It stands out by its theme and is performed in the evening, during the harvest, or whenever the singers feel like it. The song goes as follows:

Kakaka ko Sister, sister

Ma ma ito dio Come see

Ekan raé In the field

Ekan raé lengat ékan tité naé In the field we will see each other

Ekan doan napé dasé go’é In the field almost at dawn

Moi go Look at me

Binék Nogo My sister Nogo

Léra géré béto moi go kaé’ The sun is rising, you arrive, you see me

Binék Nogo Gunun mio You, my sister Nogo Gunun

Neteng lima pai Show your hands

Lima logé kala bala Hands bedecked with ivory bracelets

Tilu todo nubu gorén go’é Ears adorned with rings

This song brings tears to your eyes when it is associated with your own feelings of loneliness, personal pain, and grief. It is the story of a brother and a sister. The brother, who has decided to commit suicide in the field, calls his elder sister, Nogo Gunun, who answers, ‘Our parents’ house is here, do not commit suicide in the field, stay at home.’ He invites her to come and discover his body at dawn, when the sun rises. He sees her arrive, hands bedecked with ivory bracelets and ears adorned with rings, and kills himself. In this song, a man dies and not a woman. The reason for the suicide remains unknown, but the singer suggests that it might have to do with a quarrel between the brother and his parents.

Dysphoric Motifs

Whether related to the myth of the origin of rice or to the myth of the Siamese twins, the lyrics of many of the songs of Tanjung Bunga revolve around six or seven main dysphoric motifs: sudden death, violence, separation and loss, supplication, the brother-sister relationship, and solitude.35

Death and Metamorphosis

Half of the poems describe a loss resulting from a violent death: whether by sacrifice, suicide, out of despair, or by accident—these are all deaths that vary in nature. Death is central to both myths. The tragedy of the myths reaches its climax with the characters’ decisions to die. In the story ‘The lovers’ flute’, a violent death keeps the two lovers apart forever, as one of them kills the other by accident (his dagger slips and mortally wounds his lover in her sleep) before he dies of despair. In this case, the sudden physical violence contrasts with the slow death of the lover signified by the soft sound of the flute, which tells us of an inconsolable grief.

What do these deaths entail? In some songs, death leads to loss (bewarén). In both of the myths mentioned earlier on, death leads to metamorphosis: in the myth of the origin of rice, Tonu Wujo’s body turns into edible plants that are essential if society is to live on. Murder is thus linked to the fertility of life via the cultivation of rice. This representation of a killing is probably tied to agricultural reasons. The populations of eastern Flores, whose diet involves plants that undergo vegetative reproduction, such as taros, yams, and banana plants, must have discovered the cultivation of rice only quite recently. The techniques for the cultivation of rice, which came from further west,36 modified their relation to plants: ‘Taking the fruit, the produce or part of a plant that goes on living is not the same thing as having to kill it to use it. Picking fruit from a tree or collecting the sap from a palm tree does not destroy them (…). The situation is fundamentally different with annual plants such as cereal and rice in particular where harvesting the seeds leads to its death’ (Friedberg 2011:50). This would explain the emergence of a myth specific to western Lamaholot society. In the myth of the Siamese twins, it is as if the two brothers turned into a single musical instrument made from two inseparable bamboo pipes. This theme is taken up indirectly in the story of the lovers’ flute, in which two reeds spring from the bodies of two people. In all other cases, death leads to oblivion.


Physical violence appears in some examples, each time leading to death. Two stories describe a form of violence inflicted on the body by an exterior source: Tonu Wujo is stabbed to death by her brother; the dagger stabs the lover. The myth of the origin of rice gives some details about the violence inflicted upon Tonu Wujo’s body: ‘The sharp weapon cut the head off / the spear pierced the gut.’ Her suffering in a way goes on after her death, once she has been transformed into an invisible spirit. Part of the myth I have collected (line 1462 to the end) describes her journey (from her place of origin to the place of performance of the myth), and the times she was raped during her travels. In one passage, it is said that after having been raped, she gave birth to a child who was killed by the people of Adonara (line 1558), and that is why rice never spread to this neighbouring island where, up to this day, neither rice cultivation nor the related myth are to be found. Violence is mostly prominent in the myth of the origin of rice, but does not really appear in the lyrics of the songs.

Separation and Loss

Separation is a fundamental dysphoric motif in the songs and matrix myths. Most examples involve separation in both time and space: separation of the seven brothers from their sister, between a brother and a sister, between a mother and her child, between two lovers, between farmers and their ‘child’. Often irreparable, separation is sometimes brought about by death. It is then the irrevocable nature of the separation that infuses these examples with a tragic quality. When it is only temporary, separation nevertheless remains a reason for sadness. In the evening songs (Najan perawi, Punget, Oé bala), the lyrics evoke a separation while announcing a prospective reunion (‘wait for your brothers till tomorrow’). This promise carries a dysphoria in that, whether permanent or temporary, separation always leads to absence. Grieving humans as a result never cease to recall (hukut, pétén) their loved ones, and to miss them (pero ‘bitter’). Emotional memory feeds off the other images conjured up by the songs, which annually repeat the experience of being separated in time and space. The moment that is put into song precedes the separation. It announces it and underlines it. It is more the tension between union and separation that causes the wrench, rather than the actual separation itself.

Supplication (perawi’)

Linked to separation, at dusk, the supplication that humans address to the sister is considered to be the most moving song. They ask for her permission to go, as they are about to set off, leaving her behind. Is it a simple request, a prayer, or a supplication? The word perawi’ (from perat, ‘ask, pray, give an order, make an order’) is not particularly spiritual in its meaning. One can ask (perawi’) a child to go and buy sugar. However, here the word is used as an insistent and sustained request equivalent to the Indonesian pamit, which is used when someone wishes to leave. This request to leave has a certain intensity, both for those who make it and for those to whom it is addressed, and that is why the word ‘supplication’ seems more appropriate than ‘request’. This plea makes one feel sorrow: it expresses the desire humans have to communicate with the deceased, the hope humans place in the dead, and their fear that the girl may disappear (and be eaten by wild beasts), bringing about a food shortage and, as a result, the potential death of the group.

The Brother-Sister Relationship

Three kinds of relationship are mentioned in the songs: brother-sister, mother-child, and man-woman, with the brother-sister relationship being the most prominent. In most cases, the songs are an address from the brothers to their sister. Several factors account for its recurrence. The loss of one’s sister is present in these songs because of the prevalent nature of the myth of the origin of rice.37 Furthermore, the importance of the brother-sister link is obvious because sisters are at the heart of matrimonial exchanges in this society. For the Lamaholot-speakers, marrying implies that a brother leaves his sister. By giving his sister to another family, he will receive the tusk of an elephant from the family of the taker, an indispensable object if he, in turn, is to find a wife.38 Furthermore, he will wed his daughter to the son of his sister. Thus, the brother-sister relationship plays an integral role in alliance and kinship descent. In this society, where marriage alliance is asymmetrical, a boy calls his sisters and his parallel female cousins biné’, and a girl calls her brothers and her male parallel cousins na’an. Gender distinctions in cousinhood are marked by an absolute gender term that allows for the discrimination between male and female in the brother-sister relationship, which is rarely the case in other Austronesian societies (Barraud 2001). The terminology already denotes the specificity of this relationship.

On several occasions, Bapa’ Kobus explained that ‘to lose your wife is not serious, because you can change wives, but you cannot change your sister’. A brother and a sister (na’a biné’), born from the same mother, are said to be born from the same umbilical cord (na’a biné’ talé to’u, ‘brother sister a single cord’). The brother-sister relationship remains so tight throughout a man’s life that he is always particularly concerned about his sister’s and her children’s well-being. The brother-sister relationship is said to be the model for the matrimonial relationship, and a husband and a wife are sometimes called brother-sister (Graham 1991:126). Moreover, a large number of exchanges are organized around the brother-sister relationship. In other words, the brother-sister relationship is prominent in songs, in myths, and in social interactions. Therefore, it is no coincidence that separation from a sister is sung about and lamented. The sister, a fragile virgin, is seen as a child whom one bears, breast-feeds, protects from the sun, and whom the rain cools down. Tonu Wujo is probably the substitute for all the sisters brothers will have to be separated from, despite their strong bonds of affection. Never desired, only endured, separations are imposed on people. This fate causes sadness, which is turned into songs.


The motif of solitude (Ind. sunyi) is present in the lyrics: the solitude of the sister, and of the brother who commits suicide. The solitude of the rice shoot in the fields echoes the vulnerability of the plant to animals. When humans go to the fields, they protect the plant with maternal love. If she is left alone, one risks losing her, and thus one risks being exposed to famine. Solitude entails restlessness and anxiety. All supplication songs (perawi’) concern a return to solitude—the ‘sister’s’ solitude and the humans’ solitude—and to isolation, something this society dreads. In this society, where the social whole is valued, solitude corresponds to emptiness, silence, and cold, and is linked to isolation, despair, and to a dead end (one’ puna’). Noise and activity are associated with life, whereas silence is the sign of a threat and of tension. While rice is growing, between planting and weeding, it is usually forbidden to make a lot of noise in the fields, for fear of disturbing the rice shoots. Solitude is associated with cases of difficulty, pain, and family problems or economic hardships, or when one is destitute and has to give an animal offering to one’s bélaké (wife-giver). Steven Feld (1990:29) notes the same thing about the Kaluli, for whom the greatest fear is that of being alone.

Does that mean that all these themes—death, violence, separation, the loss of one’s sister, supplication, and solitude—run through the whole of the corpus of songs? Are they the only themes to have an impact on the affects? While they do overshadow most of the poems sung during agrarian rites, with the myth of the origin of rice as a backdrop for them all, they are not the only ones to influence the affective reaction of the people.

Time and Space: A Fertile Ground for Affects

The supplication songs are not performed at just any time, and the moment of their performance is an indicator as to the specificity of their influence over grief. How can the context, and not only the lyrics of the songs, induce dysphoric emotions?

Table 2

The analysed songs and their combination of dysphoric motifs

Table 2

Dusk Songs

On the Tanjung Bunga peninsula, songs are organized according to the location of the sun. They correspond to different moments (ékan) of the day, depending on the light. While the Indonesian language distinguishes five different moments of the day,39 the songs of this peninsula distinguish nine moments: not yet the morning, daybreak, sunrise, the full sun, the dwindling sun, the very low sun, the cold sun, dusk, night.40 These moments are sung in the agrarian songs of sowing, weeding, harvesting, and milling—the weeding and the harvest being the two periods during which the time of day is the most fragmented by music into smaller units. While the harvest repertoire is made up of eight songs, the sowing repertoire only consists of two songs. What needs to be understood is how the segmentation of time by music can influence affects. One example should suffice to illustrate the strong link between music and the time of day: the harvest repertoire, called najan (the call),41 where lyrics and melodies change depending on the time of day (Table 3).

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When the sun is dwindling, in the middle of the afternoon, it is time to go back to the village. This brings about a feeling of unease because it forebodes separation. All the songs that follow this moment are about returning home and solitude. Contrary to what one might expect, going home is not seen as a moment for relaxation, joy, and unwinding, because a loved one is left in the field. The last song (the ‘dusk’ song) is a way to soothe the pain that comes with separation. Songs performed at the end of the day bring about the highest level of affliction.

Table 3

Eight harvest songs from the village of Waiklibang according to the time of day

Table 3

The fact that the time is divided into songs leads to varying emotions throughout the day. This emotional fluctuation, determined by the music, is intrinsically linked to the relation of the farmers to the anthropomorphized plant. In fact, if Tanjung Bunga singers sing, it is perhaps more to soothe the pain induced by loss and separation, than to alleviate the hardships of work. Furthermore, emotions are not only linked to the time of day, but are also experienced over a much longer timeframe: that of the growth of rice.

Agrarian Time

The year is punctuated by alternating dry and wet seasons. During the wet season, sowing starts; barely a month later, weeds have already overrun the fields. Two months later, it is time for the harvest. Farmers are thus busy from November until May–June. After that, once subsistence has been ensured, they will focus on their ceremonial house, weddings, and the preparation of new fields. During these first eight months, the first songs, those linked to sowing and weeding, are considered to be the darkest ones. They correspond to the harshest period of the year—just before the harvest—when farmers no longer have enough to eat and it starts raining. Not knowing whether this year’s harvest will be sufficient, the peasants live through this moment of uncertainty as one, which causes dysphoric feelings:

In the women’s sowing song (berasi naruk), there is some sadness. It is a supplication for the rain to fall. It is sad, because we understand that if it does not rain, it will be hard for us, the plants will not grow, the words are about this, and it inspires pity (Ind. kasihan).

Franz Pito Koten, Keka’, 28 June 2010

More generally, the passing of time affects the singers’ nostalgia. Sorrow has to do with the fading away of song-related tradition, which affects one’s relation to the land and to time. It is by reactivating the feelings linked to a past memory that a song induces nostalgia. A song thus creates two different time frames: a past one and a present one.

The songs of the Tanjung Bunga peninsula thus refer to different times, depending on whether they are considered from the point of view of performance or from the point of view of content: distant times, the time of the year, and the time of the day all coexist. Generally, songs can stir up the memory of a vague and distant past. Each year, they signal the passing of seasons and the recurrence of more or less difficult periods. Finally, on a daily basis, during the periods of agrarian work, they echo the different types of emotional states which follow one another from morning to evening.


Affects are not only influenced by time, but also by space. In the lyrics, the field where humans spend most of their time is distinguished from an ‘elsewhere’ (ékan raé, ‘land-uphill’). By opposition to the field, there is an elsewhere, which can be towards the sea (lau’), towards the mountain (ilé raé), towards the hill (woka raé), over there towards the sea (tana bajo), hidden in the hills (lau gelého woka), on the other side of the mountain (gelipen ilé), or in the east (timu’). The field is the territory of the farmers from inside the woods (kiwan kajo one’), who are to be distinguished from the people from elsewhere (Jawa raé).42 This distinction between the field, what is here, and an undetermined elsewhere induces affects that are generally dysphoric.

An Aesthetic Answer to Sorrow

How do the lyrics of the songs affect the singers? Why are they sung and not simply said? Is the act of singing endowed with a greater efficacy than the mere act of speaking? What is the impact on daily life of these songs, which are progressively disappearing, and are only sung at certain moments of the year? The songs that the singers consider to be the saddest involve a strong affective relationship between brothers and a sister. The anthropomorphization of the plant is at the basis of the empathy in these songs, as it posits a relationship between living persons, and not only between humans and a plant. Empathy is defined as ‘the ability we have to put ourselves in someone’s shoes to understand what that person feels’ (Bonini-Baraldi 2010:323). This is why the supplication songs initially devoted to Tonu Wujo now certainly have a broader scope that stretches beyond the agrarian context.

Two recent examples may illustrate this. Tina, a grandmother at the age of 38, lives behind the house of her parents, right at the end of the village. Her life is made difficult by both subsistence issues and complicated family alliances. Regularly, the harvests fail because of a lack of rain, and manioc is the only food available. She and her husband have to feed their children and grandchildren. One day, while singing a lullaby and rocking one of her grandsons (who had not been acknowledged by his father), Tina started crying. Nothing heralded her emotion. The situation was all the more delicate since this happened during a filmed recording session where other people were present. The song had exacerbated some of her sorrows: the grandson’s father’s family was present in the audience, and the customary debt which they should have repaid to Tina had not been settled to that date—and this source of grief had been added to the difficulties of her daily life.

She had learnt this song from her parents, and especially from her father, who was famous in the village for his mastery of ritual lyrics, his musical sensibility, and his abilities as a healer. Like her brother, Tina likes to sing. Her voice goes well with the delicate voice of Bapa’ Kobus, with whom she sings during the harvest. Also, she often sang with her sister, who has now emigrated to Malaysia to escape famine. The distance has intensified their bond and she tells me how much she misses her sister. When they call each other, they sing duets. What is created by singing over a cell phone? When Tina sings with her sister over the phone, the song rekindles the bond and the memory of a past union. It stimulates the empathy between the two sisters, who share the same expressive and emotional codes. Thus, music, via shared emotion, implies that the singers are part of one affective community (Bonini-Baraldi 2010:317).

In these examples—the lullaby and the song over the phone—the song is performed by someone who is sad, either alone or in a duet. In the first case, the song rekindles the grief and leads to tears. In the second case, it makes the other’s absence less painful and intensifies the bond between the singers. Hence, the relation of singing to sorrow is two-sided: either singing intensifies sorrow or it soothes it. Where does this ambivalent impact of music on affects stem from? The research conducted by F. Bonini-Baraldi (2013) has brought to light some aspects of musical empathy, as experienced in the relation Romanian Tziganes establish between tears and music. Some of his conclusions apply to the Lamaholot situation. First of all, songs bring inanimates to life via the anthropomorphization of the rice. This humanization could be linked to ‘aesthetic empathy’. According to Bonini-Baraldi, representing inanimates as something living is something of a vital necessity for a man who wants to find life where he feels a lack of it. Out of empathy, singers project themselves in an imaginary figure that is mentally simulated and reactivated by the voice of the singer. Singing thus consolidates two opposed feelings: union and separation. Bonini-Baraldi (c.p., 2012) explains that tears arise because of the coexistence of two things: the experience of affected relations with unapproachable beings and simultaneously an increased proximity with one’s brothers. The psychological wrench comes from the tension between a feeling of reunion and the awareness of being separated from loved ones, and from feeling powerless in the face of this condition.

Concluding Remarks

The songs of the Tanjung Bunga peninsula are related to the myth of the origin of rice which, when it is sung, brings back to memory several times a year the violent and irreparable loss of a young sister whose body underwent a metamorphosis to feed her people. Not only did this sister feed her people, she also enabled men to get married and thus ensured the renewal of society. This loss, which is the source of grief, is constantly atoned for by the living through the maternal care they show in return to the anthropomorphized plant. The pain is thus doubly soothed: firstly, by establishing an active, or ‘enacted’, relationship with this ‘sister’—all year long, the humans care for this ‘child’ to ensure their own survival and they sow her, wash her, and cherish her; secondly, by establishing a passive, or ‘thought’, relationship through singing, which stimulates the imagination and brings the two parties together. In other words, it is by taking care of someone that we show them our love, and it is by singing poems that we remember this love and reactivate it. Far from exacerbating despair, singing alleviates it. Through singing, these motifs affect someone from inside (one’), recalling to mind (hukut péten) the gap caused by the absence, the loss of a loved one, of a sister. One is reminded of the sadness caused by an irrevocable loss, of bygone days, and of an inaccessible space. The songs’ melancholy refrains can activate the emotions attached to other separations, past or future, real or imagined. Singers, and the people who work in the fields at the same time, are reminded for a moment of their fellow singers who have passed away, of their children who have died, of their close relatives, of their ancestors, of their children who have left; they are taken back to various moments of shared sadness.43 The vital character of what is at stake contributes to the major dysphoric quality of this repertoire of songs: lack of food leads to certain death, but the conditions of survival come with a necessary loss. To eat, one has to lose the person dearest to one’s heart, one’s sister. In this society, in which feelings are not expressed extravagantly but are rather restrained and shared with a sense of modesty, the economy of musical means regulates, through performance, the intensity of the representations of these feelings. Without the music, these feelings would probably lead to unbearable pain.

The two myths mentioned here, which serve as semantic frameworks, highlight a similar process at work in the imagination: a loss is followed by metamorphosis. From the body of the dead sister spring edible plants, including rice, and from the body of the dead brothers spring two bamboo pipes that will give rise to two-part singing. These losses, when they are sung about, produce a dysphoric effect. Loss is not final, but a process of transformation and renewal indispensable for the survival of societies. It is noteworthy that this double movement of ‘loss/metamorphosis’ is reflected in the musical structure itself, a structure that is symbolized by the duet. In the vocal duets of Tanjung Bunga, two individual voices seek each other, draw apart and in the end symbolically disappear by blending with one another, thus morphing into one new voice. Are the aesthetics of this music to be understood as being suffused by the dialectic movement of ‘loss/metamorphosis’ which seems to be at work throughout this society?


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This article is a revised version of ‘Le chant et la peine à Tanjung Bunga. Musique et mythe d’origine du riz (Lamaholot, Flores, Indonésie)’, in H. Bouvier (ed.), L’art du pathétique en Asie du Sud-Est insulaire. Le choix des larmes, pp. 60–118. Paris: L’Harmattan. I wish to thank all the singers from Tanjung Bunga, and also F. Baraldi, F. Léotar, G. Nougarol, P. Yampolsky, C. Friedberg, and H. Bouvier for their insightful comments on early drafts.


I use the word ‘dysphoria’ to describe a state of sadness that encompasses any form of melancholic distress. The etymon of ‘dysphoria’ is the Greek δύσφορος (dysphoros), which comes from δυσ- (difficult) and φέρω (to bear). Dysphoria can be experienced by anyone who has lived through a painful event. In this article, it covers a range of emotions (or afflictions), starting with feeling blue and moving onto melancholy, sorrow and, finally, despair. It thus describes varying degrees of grief.


‘Ind.’ is used to signal words in Indonesian. The other words are in Lamaholot.


Becker 2010; Benamou 2010; Bonini-Baraldi 2013; Demeuldre 2004.


Since 2006, I have spent nineteen months in the Lamaholot-speaking region: from August 2006 to July 2007, I worked throughout the region, and since 2009, I have spent fifteen weeks specifically on the Tanjung Bunga peninsula.


The Lamaholot language group consists of roughly thirty-five dialects belonging to the Austronesian language family (Keraf 1978). They are spread out over several islands, ranging from the eastern tip of the island of Flores to the islands of Adonara, Solor, and Lembata, including the coasts of Pantar and Alor. Today, the vast majority of Lamaholot speakers are Catholic. Although Catholicism reached Flores and Solor as early as the sixteenth century, a large portion of the population still mixes its Catholicism with ancient customs, calling upon Lera Wulan—Tana Ekan (‘Sun Moon—Land Field’) and regularly feeding the land with animal offerings (Graham 1996:158).


For more on this kind of singing, see Kunst 1942, 1954; Messner 1989; Yampolsky 1995; Rappoport 2010a, 2010b, 2011a, 2011b.


Ten singers (from both villages) listened to five songs external to their culture, and to ten songs that did belong to their culture (from their own village, or from neighbouring villages or islands). The songs had been chosen for a survey about taste judgements and not all songs had a dysphoric quality.


Mata has various meanings: eye, source, the state of being closed, completeness, and death (Pampus 2001). The union of one’ and mata is surprising. What is associated with the ‘inside’ is what completes it or what ‘closes’ it; the inside is ‘covered’ to create an entity: interiority. One’ mata, which could be translated by ‘feeling’, is used frequently in expressions such as one’ mata goé maé hala (‘my feeling is not good’) or moi one’ mata goé hala’ (‘you do not know my feeling’).


Puna’ has seven different meanings: ‘complete, full, flowing, homogeneous, conjoined, finished, desperate’. The phrase One’ puna’ was explained to me as denoting some form of severe distress because the internal space has become full (in the sense that when two things are joined together, there is no space left between them).


The word ‘feeling’ (tawe) can be used, although it is less common.


Literally ‘far inside always recall, for a long time in the deeps continually remember’.


This area extends 80 kilometres west, from Tanjung Bunga to Boru Kédang via Lewolema (Figs. 1, 2).


This is a summary of a myth that I have published elsewhere (Rappoport 2011a:111).


See Mabuchi 1964; Josselin de Jong 1965:284; Friedberg 1980:267; Lewis 1988; Hoskins 1989; Erb 1994; Pelras 1974,; Barraud and Friedberg 1996.


This is an excerpt from the long sung narrative that I collected in November 2006, during the period when the grain is stored in granaries. The transcription consists of 2,268 octosyllabic verses. In Waiklibang, this myth is known under the name Opak tutu ukut raran Tonu Wujo (The story of the path of Tonu Wujo).


Throughout the myth, the sister is given different names: Oa’ ‘girl’, Nogo Éma’, Nogo Gunun, Tonu Wujo—Tonu means Miss. Kulit kamak means ‘body’.


In the Waiklibang version I have collected, Tonu Wujo’s brothers are called Kasa Rua, Jawa Ama, Butu Rua, Marin Bajo, La Loku, La Lodé, La Timu, and Bala Harut. Bala Harut, the youngest one, is the only one who kills his sister, as he decapitates her. Karl Kohl (2009:339–62) gives a slightly different version of this myth, collected at Belogili, a village not far from Waiklibang.


Lamaholot social structure is divided into patrilineal clans (suku). In western Lamaholot, the raja tuan clans (or ruling clans) are separate from the other clans (suku ama). Raja here is a reference to the expression raja tuan, and indicates that Tonu Wujo belongs to the ruling clan (Graham 1987:42–3; Barnes 1996:65; Rappoport 2010a:223).


Excerpt from Haman Opak Bélun, entitled Gurun Gawak Be’ola Tugu, lines 1347–80.


The word biné’ is used to address the sister of a boy or a man. It often refers to the sister of the father, that is, the paternal aunt. For more details, see below ‘The brother-sister relation’.


Leran urin and nuan doré have the same meaning, literally ‘the following time’.


Pati Boli is the name of a farmer.


Tana Bajo is an expression borrowed from the Nagi language of Larantuka and points to the people living close to the sea, probably in connection with the Bajau people.


This line appears to be consisting merely of non-semantic vocables.


The ‘shelter’ is the sacrificial altar set up in ceremonial fields, usually in their centre.


This closing quatrain is called ohok, meaning ‘shelter’.


Na’an (or na’a) refers to the brother of a sister and ama to the father. Na’an ama describes here the brothers of a sister in a tender, respectful, and authoritative way.


I have rewritten this telling based on three versions collected in Karawutun, Waiklibang, and Lamanabi.


They are sometimes called Lau and Ré or Kauré.


In one of the versions, the second voice is called hodé’ (in Waiklibang); in another version, nahin (in Lamanabi).


Vatter 1932:81; Kunst 1942:138; Yampolsky 1995:17–8 and track 9.


The narrator explains that she is a berokan, a girl from the nobility who never leaves her home.


‘Oa’ is a name given to girls and women.


The narrator says this twice: Nokon’ mété doan, alan mété léré, meaning ‘The night further and further, the sound stronger and stronger.’


It would not be right to limit the songs from Tanjung Bunga to dysphoric motifs only: other songs (such as lian kenolon, goken, lian semogon, and morning and midday songs) deal with other topics, like animal offerings, ancestors, and rituals. However, I suggest that a great part of their songs are embedded in dysphoric motifs.


The myth of the origin of rice says that Tonu Wujo comes from Lio, a region west of Tanjung Bunga.


In Bosavi (Papua New Guinea), the myth of the boy who became a Muni bird also describes a rupture of the ade’ relationship, between a brother and a sister, and is also linked to the themes of food, hunger, and reciprocity (Feld 1990:27).


Nowadays people often cannot find ivory, so they substitute money or other objects of comparable value.


Ind. Subuh, ‘dawn’, pagi, ‘morning’, siang, ‘noon’, sore, ‘afternoon’, malam, ‘night’.


The following are the categories used in Lamaholot for daytime, collected in Waiklibang: 1) gulen wati ‘not yet morning’; 2) lera géré kia’ ‘sun rises first’; 3) tonga widé ‘lift one’s eyes’; 4) rera léga’ ‘dwindling sun’; 5) lera owa ‘afternoon’; 6) wai doé nuhan ‘water far to fetch’ [there is still time to fetch water far away]; 7) rera baun lera léré ‘sun sitting sun low’; 8) ékan béruren ‘moment towards darkness’, dusk; 9) nokon ‘night-time’.


The word najan literally means ‘he/she calls’, but nowadays its meaning has become fossilized and it is only used to refer to the harvest repertoire. This name is found in a vast region, ranging from Lewoléma to Tanjung Bunga.


The Lamaholot-speakers call themselves ata kiwan (the people from inside) in contrast to the people from the shores. The toponym Jawa refers to a vast space located to the west, which includes the Malay Peninsula, Java, and Sumatra.


This dysphoria noted in the eastern part of Flores is reminiscent of situations found on other islands of the archipelago such as, for instance, Java or Timor. Among the Sundanese of West Java, the myth of the origin of rice, which is influenced by the Sivaite pantheon and bears Vishnuist traces, describes how rice was born from a half-human, half-divine sacrifice. During the harvest rites, the Sundanese used to play the tarawangsa fiddle: ‘When playing the tarawangsa, one makes the soul of Nyi Pohaci Samyam Sri [the young girl who was killed and turned into rice] speak, and one rekindles in the hearts of those listening all the melancholy and sadness of the exemplary sacrifice of the mother of rice’ (Sukanda Teissier 1977:101).

  • 4

    Since 2006, I have spent nineteen months in the Lamaholot-speaking region: from August 2006 to July 2007, I worked throughout the region, and since 2009, I have spent fifteen weeks specifically on the Tanjung Bunga peninsula.

  • 14

    See Mabuchi 1964; Josselin de Jong 1965:284; Friedberg 1980:267; Lewis 1988; Hoskins 1989; Erb 1994; Pelras 1974,; Barraud and Friedberg 1996.

  • 31

    Vatter 1932:81; Kunst 1942:138; Yampolsky 1995:17–8 and track 9.

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