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JAKARTA: The sound of tambourines has returned to the narrow lanes of South Jakarta after a long pandemic hiatus, marking the month of Ramadan with distinctive Islamic devotional music originating in the Indonesian capital.

Locally known as rebana biang, tambourines have been used by the Betawi community of Jakarta for two centuries. Larger than those used elsewhere in Southeast Asia and without metal jingles, portable drums are also played during other religious celebrations, but it is especially Ramadan that is traditionally associated with their sound.

Today, the tradition is kept alive by the latest rebana biang ensemble, Sanggar Lestari Budaya.

For decades, the band consisted of nothing but family members, with rebana playing and production techniques being passed down from generation to generation. It wasn’t until the 2000s that its founder’s great-grandson, Mohamad Natsir, started teaching music to those outside his family.

“He was the one who opened the space for those who are not family to learn rebana and form their own groups,” said David Rahman, 30, who is not a family member but took over the ensemble this year, after Natsir’s death.

The group now has seven members, all between the ages of 25 and 30.

Although they experimented with adding other instruments to their performances, the rebana remains the core of their art and to play with them a musician must master it as their great-grandfathers did and learn 12 rebana strokes traditional.

“Collaborations are meant to inspire people to join us,” Rahman said.

“I will keep the original features unchanged.”

To keep the original shape, however, young musicians will find it increasingly difficult to maintain their instruments.

There is only one master craftsman left in Jakarta capable of making rebana: Abdul Rahman, a member of Sanggar Lestari Budaya’s extended family.

Already 80 years old, he admits that his eyesight is no longer good.

It takes Rahman two weeks to produce the three different sized drums that are part of the rebana. Sometimes it takes longer as the materials come from other parts of Indonesia and can be expensive. It costs about $350 to make one instrument.

“Raw materials, like wood and sheepskin, I take from Loning village in Kebumen, Central Java,” he told Arab News.

Rahman says his son has learned some of the trade, but his skills still need to be honed.

For now, the musicians aren’t looking to borrow tomorrow’s grief and are all focused on practicing during the month of fasting.

“Practicing during Ramadan is a joyful experience,” the group’s leader said.

“We will surely earn a (spiritual) reward because it is a good and blessed month.”

They have already earned a warm welcome from members of the Betawi community, after their performances were suspended for two years by coronavirus lockdowns.

Catur Widarsono, a caretaker who lives next to the group’s practice hall in Ciganjur, said the neighborhood felt desolate without the sound of rebana biang during the pandemic and everyone was happy to hear it again.

“(For us) residents, when there are activities like rebana during Ramadan, it becomes serene, the atmosphere in the neighborhood becomes serene,” he added.

Mohammad Alwi, whose family also lives nearby, told Arab News he was happy the sound of music was back.

“Because of the pandemic, their routine was less,” he said.

“I’m happy to hear them (again), especially during the month of Ramadan. This reduces the anxiety that the pandemic had brought.

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