I had enough time to practice and observe Saluang while having my residency in Korea. Anyway, it was difficult to find any literatures explaining Saluang and the music of West Sumatera. It also took time to understand what I have learned with this instrument.
It was in September 2014 when I felt like Archimedes shouting “Eureka!” out after finding that I could do something more based on Saluang. Before telling you further, I will explain Saluang shortly.
Saluang is a long flute originated in West Sumatera, the west part of Indonesia. It is an open bamboo tube, approximately 1 inch diameter and 40-70 sm length, with four finger holes. Like no other flute which is played horizontally or vertically, Saluang is played diagonally. The player holds it against his mouth and projects it obliquely or in perpendicular angle.
The unbroken stream is produced by the technique known as manyisiahkan angok or circular breathing. The technique is totally different compared to when we practice circular breathing with, for example, Saxophones, Piri, Oboe, and other reed instruments. The player shapes his mouth like whistling and there is nothing to hold on since Saluang has no mouthpiece.
Most of the Saluang players are men. The genre using this instrument is called "Saluang" or "Saluang jo Dendang" (Saluang with singing). Traditionally, it is played for local celebrations such as private parties and fundraising. Moreover, it is performed usually in the evening until predawn.
There are only five main notes in Saluang. It is pentatonic but it is distinct with another pentatonic music in another places. It sounds almost similar to do re mi fa sol in western notation. The register is so narrow. The singer(s) usually sings in the same octave while Saluang makes accompaniment by sounding almost similar to the melody with embellishment.
This narrowness of the register looks to be the characteristic of Saluang and its music. It is not found in other instruments in West Sumatera such as Bansi and Talempong which have seven notes in their register.
Philip Yampolsky, in liner notes of Music of Indonesia 6; the Night Music of West Sumatra (1994, Smithsonian/Folkways Recording), wrote that its narrowness seems to be an aesthetic value in Saluang. The scope is constricted and cramped.
As I mentioned above, I suddenly found an idea based on Saluang. I used narrowness as a key. I started to design a modified Saluang with different holes spacing. Actually I am not an instrument builder likewise I have never built an instrument. However, with some knowledge I had, I was confident enough.
I bought 50 cm PVC pipe near my dormitory. Because of dormitory manager’s kindness, I could use his tools such as saw and drill. Fortunately, he has several kinds of drill bit so I could choose a suitable size of the bit.
(There was a funny thing that I couldn’t speak in Korean well and he couldn’t speak in English well. We communicated in a little sign language while trying hard to speak in interlocutor’s language.)
Then I measured the holes spacing. I did it by measuring circumference and used it to point the first hole from sub-open-tube. In traditional Saluang, the second hole is made by measuring a half of the circumference. For this modified one, I measured one fourth of the circumference roughly from the first hole to the next three holes.
After making holes, I blew it. For the first time, it didn’t sound as I expected. It was because I chose wrong size of the drill bit. I perforated it once more with a smaller bit. Then, I covered the failed holes with adhesive plaster.
Once again, I blew it and it worked as I expected. It sounded like chromatic scale in western music. I kept testing my instrument prototype by improvising. I was satisfied with the result.
For me, it is challenging to play music in narrowness. I have played chromatic notes in Saxophones or composed music using chromatic notes. However, it is so different when I make music with only four narrow intervals---sounds similar to five chromatic notes. With the nature of instrument shape and kind of material, I also find different timbre.