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Travelling from Medan to Blangkejeren, the landscape changes dramatically when one passes from North Sumatra into Aceh. Batak churches and Catholic cemeteries along the roadside give way to the distinctive domes and minarets of Acehnese village mosques. Leaving the rolling plantations of the Karo highlands, one suddenly finds oneself surrounded by roaring rivers, flanked by mountains and primary rainforest of the Leuser Ecosystem. While North Sumatra paysage is picturesque and marked by layers of history, Aceh’s particular character, shaped by the interaction of piety and the untamed elements, is at once more severe and more mysterious. But even for one familiar with Aceh as myself, the sense of mystery deepened upon entering the district of Gayo Lues, known as “the land above the clouds” (“negeri di atas awan”). As our vehicle pushed uphill, enveloped first by complete darkness and then by a thick mist, there was an unmistakable feeling that we were travelling into the heart of the the unknown.

When we finally reached Blangkejeren, 10 hours after we started our journey, we were greeted by friends Joe Samalanga and Iwan Amir. Joe, a renowned Gayo journalist-artist, and Iwan, a researcher and ethnomusicologist, had travelled from Banda Aceh, driving for 2 days, braving landslides, mudslides and heavy rain. We were all there for a common purpose: to witness a historic mass performance of the Saman, Gayo Lues’ famous traditional sitting-dance, that was to take place the next day. In 2011, Saman was designated by UNESCO as ‘intangible cultural heritage in urgent need of safeguarding’. Earlier this year, UNESCO presented its certificate to the Government of Indonesia and the Provincial Government of Aceh, and the Bupati (district head) of Gayo Lues declared 24 November 2014 as “World Saman Day” and announced a mass Saman performance with 5005 Saman performers from the local communities.

The Call of Saman

The rest of the evening was spent discussing Saman and Gayo culture with a group of Joe’s friends, local artists, scholars and government officials, over glasses of nutmeg tea. Our friends told us that the form, regularly performed today at weddings and religious ceremonies, had derived its name from its founder, Syech Saman, an ulama (religious teacher) who developed the performance as a means of dawah, to call followers to Islam and spread its teachings.Islam in the Gayo region, and in Aceh more broadly, has a deep and complex history. Research shows that Islam first came to present-day Aceh in the 11th century by way of Sufi traders and from the Indian subcontinent and Persia. Islam has had a profound influence on devotional performance in Aceh. Scholar Margaret Kartomi, Professor of Music at Monash University, who has researched traditional performing arts in Aceh for many years, has written about the links between the extensive use of body percussion (peh badan, in Acehnese) in Aceh’s dances and possible influences from other Indian Ocean, Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cultures. Gayo historian Wahab Daud has written about the ways in which Islam is an inherent part of Saman’s identity, with its lyrics communicating religious wisdom and advice and the movements conveying piety, respect, martial culture, and harmony.

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But Islam has not been the only influence on Saman. It was clear from listening to our friends as well as from watching the performance the next day, that the call of Saman was at once more primal than religious, as well as an emotional marker of a uniquely Gayo identity that sought to distinguish itself from powers that surrounded and often threatened to assimilate or dominate it. As anthropologist John Bowen observed in his book Sumatran Politics and Poetics: Gayo History, 1900-1989, Gayo identity and poetics have, in fact, always shaped by their relationship to power, whether that of European colonialism or that of coastal Aceh.

Testifying to this, our friends were keen to express their displeasure at the growing popularity of performance groups who were appropriating and popularising dances that claimed to be Saman, without the required training or respect for fundamental principles of the art. This included the rule that Saman should only be performed by men, unlike some Acehnese coastal traditions which are commonly performed by both all-male and all-female troupes. Indeed, our hosts were emphatic that we understood that Saman was in essence an indigenous Gayo form, one that emerged in the highlands before the arrival of Islam, and distinct from coastal Acehnese influence. Saman was an art, we were told, which could only have been born out of the natural and cultural landscape of the Gayo people. It lived in their blood and their spirits, shaping their interactions with nature, their values in the world.

These interactions and values were manifest in Saman performances and traditions. Impersonating the movements of nature, performers would become the gentle rustle of leaves, or a sudden wind arriving from beyond the hills. The colours of the Gayo kerawang (filigree and embroidery) motifs on Saman costumes carry particular meaning: black represents tradition; red for courage, white for sincere intention, green for determination and diligence, and yellow for mindfulness in all conduct. Traditionally, Gayo communities would invite each other for friendly Saman competitions (Saman jalu), which could sometimes go on for several nights, cultivating the spirit of fraternity. Another distinctive characteristic is that unlike other Acehnese song-dance forms where vocalists often emerge as highly individualised and celebrated “Syech”, the vocalist and leader of a Saman troupe (penangkat), deliberately blends into the group, remaining almost anonymous. In this way, the performance embodies humility, equality, solidarity and unity. The Saman troupe, in fact, aspires to move as a single living, breathing entity, connected to the nature, to fellow man, and to God, overcoming the dividedness of existence. This connectedness, we came to understand, lay at the heart of Gayo culture.

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The Dance of Duality and Oneness

The next day, a total of 5057 dancers participated in the historic performance total, more than the planned number of 5005. From the audience stand of packed stadium, we witnessed how the movement from duality to oneness permeates every aspect of Saman– philosophical, physical, musical, and spiritual. The opening vocal hum, sounded first solo by the penangkat (known as rengum) and then collectively by all the performers (known as dering), establishes man’s presence in nature. This practice has pre-Islamic roots, carrying aesthetic and spiritual meaning, and also, as Joe explained, the purpose of “scaring away the wild animals”. Man’s presence in nature, then, is conceptualised as having a dual character– man is at once part of nature, living in harmony with it, but also distinct from it. Following the hum, the greeting of Assalamuaikum (“Peace be upon you”) was called followed by a chanting of La ilaha il Allah (“There is no God but God”), connecting the performers at once to God and to their audience.

And then suddenly, the Saman movements began. The crowd in the stadium roared, and tears flowed freely, with joy, pride and the longing of remembrance. There, beneath the midday sun, the performers moved in perfect unison, summoning the movements of the wind, of the forest and meadows through which the wind blows, and even the fluid strength of water. It was a demonstration of absolute control of the body and mind, and the inner freedom that only such discipline could bring.

In his classic ethnography of Aceh, The Rope of God, James Siegel relates that the Acehnese view of Islam held that while the angels were created to be as perfect as the Paradise in which they lived, man was made up of a divided nature, living between hawa nafsu (desire) and akal (consciousness). Men could, however, overcome their inherent hawa nafsu through the cultivation of akal, through practices such as prayer, recitation of the Quran, and obligatory fasting. “Through akal,” Siegel writes, “man returns to Paradise”. Like prayer, which requires full control of the body and mind, Saman is an expression of akal, and a passage of return, of remembrance, of nature, of fellow man, and of God.

That historic day in the Gayo highlands, it seemed as if time stopped and opened, to allow the Saman to call the whole of existence back to its rightful place in the universe. As the sea of sacred movement unfolded across the field, everything seemed connected, all dividedness forgotten. For a land whose history has been so shaped by conflict and contestation, Saman offered, even if only for a fleeting moment, the promise of Paradise.

Lilianne Fan is an anthropologist and researcher who has been working on Aceh since 1999. She is writing a book on history and memory in Aceh, which she hopes to publish in 2015.