BOGOR’S STRIKING SUCCESS © Duncan Graham
In the best traditions of Indonesian tourism a unique attraction involving culture, music and craft is poorly promoted and hard to find. But the effort is worth the energy, reports Duncan Graham from Bogor
It looks like a scene from Dante’s fevered imagination: An ancient, soot-blackened, windowless workshop lit by a volcanic display of sparks. In the centre two roaring charcoal furnaces.
Sweating men squat around the saucer-shaped fires. They look like demons in the flickering red and yellow lights. They wear sandals and T-shirts. Or no shirts. When tongs withdraw the white-hot dish they jump to action.
Before the metal cools they pound it with great hammers; properly beaten into submission the hapless metal is thrust back into the heat for more torture. From such prolonged pain will come extraordinary music.
Bogor’s gong factory could feature as a case study in Western manuals on industrial health and safety. But before activists leap to protest let it be said that it was this writer and not the inferno workers who shuddered at the conditions.
They clearly thought a foreigner’s sensitivities a great joke. Who needs hard hats, steel-capped boots, masks and ventilation? Protective gear is for Western sissies, not Indonesian craftsmen.
Visitors to what’s reputed to be West Java’s last remaining gong factory should set aside squeamish sentiments and ponder the significance of their experience. For they’re witnessing ancient technology little changed since our prehistoric ancestors discovered that mixing molten copper and tin makes a marvellously malleable, durable and attractive metal.
In Bogor the Bronze Age is alive and glowing.
The workshop’s owner Haji Sukarna, 70, said little had changed during his family’s seven generations of gong making. An electric fan is now used instead of bellows to excite the embers and a compressor drives a spray painter, but other tasks are manual.
Thermometers aren’t used to measure the heat. As in many crafts the eye of experience gauges when the metal is just right for beating. Too hot and the chemistry changes – too cold and the shape will not change.
Bronze has excellent acoustic properties which is why it’s widely used for bells and wind instruments.
The Indonesian government supplies bars of tin and copper for the process. The metals are melted and combined to form a flat round disk. The tin component is critical; if much more than 40 per cent is used the alloy can be too brittle.
It takes about four days to hammer this into a gong of about 50 cm diameter, six days for one half as big again. The price tag for the smaller instrument is Rp 2,500,000 (US$ 250) complete with wooden stand and striker. These are also made at the same factory.
Add at least another million rupiah if you buy the same gong from a shop in central Jakarta. It can be an expensive but impressive way to summon the family to dinner. The bigger gongs are sold to mosques. Gong size determines pitch.
The smaller, hat-shaped gongs used in gamelan orchestras are also produced, along with the red-painted and carved frames that hold the instruments.
Pak Sukarna’s son, Mohamed Riduan, 56, now manages the business. “Our gongs have been sold all over the world,” he said. “We get a constant stream of visitors from abroad. We don’t advertise or publish brochures. People get to know about us through word of mouth.”
A listing in the international tour guidebook Lonely Planet – better known as the Backpacker’s Bible - has also helped spread news of the factory and some local tour guides include the place in their itineraries. But it seems that tourism authorities don’t realise what a gem they have in their midst.
“The work is hard and because of this it’s sometimes difficult to get staff,” said Pak Riduan. “It’s a specialised skill. We operate seven days a week with 25 workers to keep up with demand.”
When the business started in the 19th century the workshop was in a rural area. Now Bogor has expanded and houses and shops surround the foundry.
But there’s no doubt about the location, even if you miss the crudely painted sign on the wall outside. The heavy bass bong of hammer on burnished metal echoes down the crowded street; it bounces slowly off the bitumen and rolls round the concrete, unimpeded by the clamour of modern traffic.
It’s the same sound that rang through the forests of Java hundreds of years ago when the magic properties of bronze were the leading edge of technology.
(First publishedin The Jakarta Post 13 September 05)