The man in front of the coffee-sipping crowd is holding a sasando, a traditional musical instrument. The audience’s chattering dies down as he begins to pluck the strings. The melodious tune of “Bolelebo,” a traditional song from East Nusa Tenggara, fills the room.
“It means good or bad, the land in the east is still the best,” he says, explaining the meaning behind the piece of music.
He continues with a classic song by Maywood, “Mother, How Are You Today?,” which the crowd recognizes. Some people hum the tune as he plays, and the applause crescendoes as he finishes.
Although his first name recalls the late King of Pop, that’s where the similarities end between Jacko Hendrick Ayub Bullan and the late Michael Jackson. When he performs, the 37-year-old wears a tiilangga , a traditional hat made from lontar leaves, and traditional clothing. His ability to play the sasando has made him an important figure in preserving the nearly-extinct instrument. Jacko is one of only eight sasando experts known to exist in the country, and is the youngest among them.
The sasando is a stringed instrument from Rote Island, East Nusa Tenggara. Similar in shape to a harp, the sasando is slightly smaller and the strings are attached to a main cylinder, which is usually made from bamboo or wood. The tube is held in place by a larger curve made from lontar leaves.
To play the instrument, Jacko uses both hands. The left hand plays the melody and bass, and the right hand plays the chords. The result is a harmonious sound reminiscent of a guitar mixed with a harp.
“Although it is a traditional instrument, I can play any song on it,” he said.
Jacko was born on Rote Island but grew up in Kupang, East Nusa Tenggara. He learned to play the sasando from his grandfather. He was 13 when he started to learn, but his grandfather was initially reluctant to teach the eager Jacko.
“According to my grandfather, musical instruments were only for unemployed people with nothing to do,” Jacko said. “He told me to start working, taking care of the rice fields and the animals.”
But Jacko never gave up his passion for playing the sasando. One of his relatives was able to travel the world playing sasando, and forged numerous friendships with foreigners thanks to the instrument. Jacko vowed that if one day he could master the sasando, he would marry a foreign woman.
“Motivation is a funny thing, but I was only a teen, so it kept me practicing,” he said.
“I used to put a sasando next to my bed and every day, as soon as I woke up, I would spend half an hour just playing.”
He surprised people in his hometown by becoming the youngest man to learn the instrument. Word of his talent spread and he started to receive requests to perform at local hotels, where he met a girl from Sydney and dated her for a year.
“So, yeah, the sasando made my dream come true,” Jacko laughed.
When he was 19, he was invited to perform at the governor’s office in Kupang, a privilege for the young man. His parents recognized his talent and began to support their son as he received requests to play all over the country.
In the late ’90s, as the monetary crisis hit Indonesia, many hotels in East Nusa Tenggara closed down. In 2000, forced to seek work elsewhere, Jacko moved to Jakarta and has lived in the capital ever since.
“Although I had the ability to play the sasando, it was not easy to become well known in Jakarta,” he said.
He took a job working as a personal bodyguard for a top lawyer and received a good salary, which enabled him to engage in activities that he had previously considered sinful. Jacko soon found himself living what he considered an unhealthy lifestyle, so he quit his job.
“I am a Christian, and I believe that if we want to change, God will show us the way,” he said.
In search of a good, virtuous job, Jacko worked as a cleaner in a church at Gunung Sahari. He believed that it was the right thing to do, as he was no longer earning what he considered “dirty money.”
“I already knew how it felt to earn a lot of money. It’s no good when it’s basically the same thing as being a scammer or a thief,” he said.
At the church, he was paid Rp 225,000 ($24) a month. It was barely enough to live on, but Jacko was determined to follow his principles. After work, he would play the sasando in front of the church to unwind after a long day spent mopping floors. The melodious tunes always attracted a crowd, until one day a representative from the church asked him to perform for some visiting foreign guests.
This became another turning point in his life, and more and more people started to recognize him. Once again, Jacko started to receive invitations to play for audiences across the country.
He also has traveled overseas and performed at cultural events in Singapore, Malaysia, England, Spain and recently at the headquarters of the United Nations in New York. He was also able to visit Niagra Falls, a crowning moment in his life. Jacko said he was amazed at the direction his life has taken.
The chance to make a living by playing sasando has also inspired Jacko to modify the instrument.
“I like to draw, and I designed my own sasando so it can be electrical,” he said.
He said it’s useful for performances in large venues, so that the sound can be projected to the whole audience.
Jacko also often receives requests to teach sasando, mostly from foreigners living in Jakarta.
“Right now, I earn more than enough just playing sasando, which is good for a pengamen [street musician] like me,” he said.
The Origins of the Sasando and a Chance to Meet the Musician
The sasando is believed to have been created on Rote Island, East Nusa Tenggara, in the 18th century. It is made from bamboo, metal and wood (usually from the Cendana tree).
There are two known types of sasando: a sasando gong, with 10 strings, and which, according to Jacko, can only be used to play traditional music. The second type is a violin sasando, with 24 strings, and which can play any style of music, from national anthems such as “Kulihat Ibu Pertiwi” (“I See Motherland in Sorrow”) to religious songs.
A couple of years ago, Jacko started to design his own sasandos. He creates the individual parts of the sasando in case someone orders one or wants to replace a broken part on their own sasando. He uses Cendana wood, which he sources from East Nusa Tenggara — he claims that he can’t find the right type of wood anywhere else. When he performs, he uses his electric violin sasando, which he also designed.
“I created this electric sasando because the traditional one does not produce a loud enough sound, and that becomes a problem when I perform in a hall,” Jacko said.
On Rote Island, the sasando is usually played to celebrate a harvest, at a religious ceremony in a church or at a funeral.
The Ministry of Culture and Tourism will hold a Sasando Music Festival in Kupang in December, and Jacko has been invited to perform. According to Jacko, the festival is part of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s first 100-day program.
If you are a Jakarta resident, Jacko is your only chance to hear a live sasando player. The other seven known players live in Kupang and are too old to travel.
Jacko’s next performance will be at an exhibition at the Jakarta Convention Center on Dec. 10 and 12, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.