Understanding Kacapi
Kacapi is a stringed musical instrument that belongs to a group Chordophone musical instruments, also referred to as Lute. Shaped vessel (Boat-shaped plucked lute) that has stalk or handle or fingering board, bridge, and legs, is coming from one side of the piece of wood plank, in the resonator covered with a lid and a hole, very good shape and often have intricate carvings, Kacapi have two or more strings, can be played by plucked at the strings, by both men and women; asa solo or in an ensemble. Kacapi can be played as an instrumental music as well as musical accompaniment.

There are various type of stringed instrument in some countriesknown as Kacchapi Veena Saraswati from India, Gwari Kaburu from Nigeria, Kabosa of Madagascar, Kara Düzen of Yugoslavia, Ka ditara of KhasiMeghalaya State in India, Kambre of Sierra Leone, Sitar of India, Yueqin from China, Shamisen / samisen / sangen from Japan, Gurmi from Niger, andLute from Europe.

Kacapi is also found in Indonesia, among others Hasapi of Batak Toba, Kacapi of West Java in various shapes and types, Kacaping of Sulawesi and Sumba, Kucapi of Minangkabau, Batak Karo Kulcapi, Sapek or Sampek or Sape 'of West Kalimantan and East Kalimantan, Panting from South Kalimantan Dayak Deyah lute Tabalong in South Kalimantan, and others, usability and function are almost equal.

Although there are many various sizes Kacapi in Central Kalimantan, in Central Kalimantan, Kacapi or Kecapi is categorized as a long-necked Lute or long-necked Kacapi traditional stringed musical instrument. Kacapi in Central Kalimantan Dayak Ngaju derived from sub-tribe of Dayak Ngaju Katingan, Kapuas-Kahayan, and Tanah Siang.

In Borneo, there are also types of stringed instruments or chordophonemusical instrument:  Lutung, Odeng, and Sambi or Sampe’ or Sape' or Sampek or Sapek as found in West Kalimantan and East Kalimantan;  Panting as found from South Kalimantan;  Kacapi of Dayak Deyah Tribe from South Kalimantan;and Kacapi of Ngaju Dayak Ngaju from Central Kalimantan. All instruments can be classified as Lute and can also be called as Kacapi or Kecapi or Harp.

Lute term itself comes from the Arabic word,al-ʿūd meaningrefers literally to a thin piece of wood similar to the shape of a straw, and may refer to the wooden plectrum traditionally used for playing the oud, to the thin strips of wood used for the back, or to the wooden soundboard that distinguished it from similar instruments with skin-faced bodies.

Organ of Kacapi

From the organ logical and the tone scale, Kacapi of Dayak Ngaju Tribe is different compared with similar stringed musical instrument in Kalimantan. Kacapi uses anhemitonic minor pentatonic scales, Kacapi does not have fret or region dividing line tone, bridge or pedestal strings can be shifted at your will, body of Kacapi is leaner, the neck is functioned as fingerboard, the resonance hole or sound hole is in the front and small.

Referring to the Pieter Johannes Eduard Ferdinandus in ancient Javanese musical instruments, Kacapi Ngaju Dayak tribe classified asa slim and narrowed-body Lute;  the neck functions as a regulator of tone, with straight neck shape, long or short.

Shape and Mythology of Kacapi

Dayak Ngaju Kacapi, both two-stringed or three-stringed, more like the shape of a paddle or pedal boat (Besei lasang Ngaju language).  Kacapi classified as vadya / chordophone instrument that make sound by way of a vibrating string or strings stretched between two points.

Dayak Ngaju community believes that Kacapi have magical powers, as evidenced by the use of Kacapi as one important means of ritual Nyangiang and indigenous ceremony Pantan Adat.

Kacapi is typically made by hand, using simple tools such as handsaw, knife or machete, chisel, sandpaper or smoothing paper and other tools.

There are restrictions for Kacapi makers or Kacapi musicians that should not make Kacapi by adding polish precious metal or gold (“boelau” in the Dayak Ngaju language) in the body Kacapi. It is believed to cause the things that are not desirable, and the listener might be disturbed mind; the listener will not forget the sound of Kacapi so he/she can’t move on with her/his life. 

Kacapi makers normally are also able to play Kacapi. The length of Kacapi can also be measured by height or length from the toe to the navel in the abdomen of the maker in the upright position. This measurement method is believed to produce the sound that will touch the heart and feeling his audience.

Designation for parts of the organ and the size of two stringed or three stringed bowed of Kacapi are almost the same, except for the number of different strings, but the size depends on the creativity of each of the manufacturer. The following description of the name or designation in the Dayak Ngaju language for the parts on the organ as well as the size of Kacapi;

1).Kuluk Kacapi (Head)
Is part of the head of Kacapi where part Palutar (strings player) attached; at the end, there may be no carving ornaments but may also be found in the form of a Tingang / Enggang (Great Hornbill) bird's head carving.

2).Palutar Kacapi. (Tuning head)

Is the part that resembles a wedge of wood, there is a flat-shaped, some are round; its function as a string player (stemmer), mounted on the Kuluk Kacapi (Head). The amount is adjusted by the number of strings

3).Gandar Kacapi (Fingerboard)

Gandar Kacapi or melody board (fingerboard) is a field where the player taps with fingers (fingering), same as how to hold and play the guitar. There are no frets or boxes dividing line tone, just like on a violin or cello.

4).Bitin Kacapi. (Resonansi)

Is the body part of Kacapi, where there is a cavity or tube sound (resonance). This section is then covered with a thin sheet of wood, its function as a resonance.
5).Rumbak Kacapi (Sound Hole)

Is a small hole, which is located in front of the center of the lid or on the center of the resonance Bitin Kacapi.Serves as the entry and exit of the sound vibration of the strings of Kacapi.

6).Senta Kacapi (Bridge)

is a cushion or footstool or auxiliary wire (the type of stringed musical instrument), which is placed on the lid of Bitin Kacapi, a few centimeters behind Rumbak (Sound Hole). Senta can be slide forward and backward, in order to adjust to the high and low tones (range) as desired.

7).Alas Senar Depan (Nut)

There is no particular Dayak Ngaju name for Front String Base (Nut), but if given a name according to the Dayak Ngaju language, roughly called is “Senta Baun”.  It is located between Kuluk Kacapi (Head) and Fingerboard.  Functioned as an anchor the strings at the end of the fingerboard. Below is an example of one form of picture Dayak Ngaju Kacapi and parts of the organ.

Measurement of Kacapi

The sizes of Kacapi are varies depending on the creativity and the joy of the maker or adjusted by request or order. However, from view of the shape of Kacapi, the size of Kacapi are generally similar to one another, are identified by carving or ornamentation on each Kacapi. The ornament is for attraction.

1). Length of Kacapi

The length of Kacapi are varies according to the tastes of the maker. There is no standard size. In the past, there’s no standard of measurement in Dayak Ngaju community as we know today. However, when referring to the traditional wayin making Kacapi that is by measuring the distance between the navel down to the foot of an adult or the maker, then the length of the body Kacapi adapted to the Kacapi’s maker. In the old days, Kacapi players were also Kacapi maker. Generally, the average length of Kacapi measured from the tip of Kuluk to the end Bitin Kacapi approximately 1.25 cm, without the addition of ornate end.

2). Width of Bitin Kacapi

Bitin Kacapi has a width that varies as well.  The average Bitin Kacapi are not too wide, it is intended to be easy to play and easy to carry. Based on this, that the width of Bitin Kacapi approximately 15cm to 25cm.
3). Width and Length of Gandar

Axle width varies approximately between 4cm – 4.5cm for the two-stringed Kacapi and approximately 4.5cm for three stringed Kacapi. Axle length varies as well, but if the axle length measured from Senta Baun up to the middle of Kacapi approximately 50cm, while the area used for fingering only about 10cm.

Number of Strings 
Kacapi strings derived from the provision Katingan, totaled two strings one smaller than the second string.  Three stringed Kacapi, so-called Tari Alai Kacapi derived from Tanah Siang, Kapuas-Kahayan, thefirst string is a small string, the second string is medium, and large for third string.

The Material of Strings

Initially Kacapi Dayak Ngaju use strings made ​​of “tengang”, that is loamy ropes made ​​of bark.   Then the development Kacapi use strings made ​​of particular type of rattan or “uei” in the Dayak Ngaju language. The type is called “uei malik rattan”.  Wicker or traits the “uei malik rattan”, when cut or disconnected from its parent stem, it will change color from yellow brown to blackish. Rattan is split into smaller parts resemble elongated, so as to resemble the string or strings.

Currently Kacapi strings have been replaced with nylon strings wear of materials, there is also the use strings made ​​of wire, but the most commonly used strings are nylon strings. Due to the strings made ​​of nylon is considered more practical, durable and not easily damaged or broken, in addition to the strings made ​​of nylon Kacapi can produce sounds similar to the sound color strings made ​​from “uei malik rattan”.

The Materials

Material used to make Kacapi is Hanjalutong wood, Dayak Ngaju language for Dyera Costulata.In Dayak Siang language, the wood isnamed Nyolitung, and the Kenyah language called Ampang wood.  This wood is widely available in Kalimantan, also has the advantage of lightweight, soft or pliable, not easily damaged or broken, when dry will become tight, firm and stronger, the resulting sound is more clear and shrill.


Scales used in Kacapi is minor pentatonic anhemitonic scale,minor pentatonic tones without using half steps, describes as follows:

  • 1. Two stringed Kacapi:La, Do, Re, Mi, or same as 6, 1, 2, 3
  • 2. Three stringed Kacapi from Kapuas-Kahayan: La, Do, Re, Mi, Sol, or same as 6, 1, 2, 3, 5.
  • 3. Three stringed Kacapi bersenar tiga from Tanah Siang (Kacapi Tari Alai):Do, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol, La, Ti, Do, or same as 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 1 octave.

The following is a table of load tones on each type of Kacapi:

Total Strings
Kacapi Katingan
6, 1, 2, 3
Kacapi Kapuas-Kahayan
6, 1, 2, 3, 5
Kacapi Tanah Siang
1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 1 octave

Strings tuning on Kacapi does not have a gold standard or a standard tuning fork as tuning strings on a guitar or a standard basic western music.  Strings tuning system in Kacapi is simply to follow the instincts, habits, and the ability to adjust the range of tones in the chanting vocals (range).
The following description of tones and the location of tone (not chords) on fingerboard of each type of Kacapi:

1) Tones on Two Stringed Kacapi
This type of Kacapi has only two number strings, the strings up and down the strings. The lower string or the first strings if plucked off (lose string) will sound a “Do” tone, while the upper string or second string if plucked off (lose strings) produces a “La” tone.

At the lower string or the first string when pressed or played on the fingerboard tones is “Re”, and “Mi”. Location of “Re”tone is less than 5 cm measured from the base string, then the “Mi”tone is less than 10 cm measured from the base of the strings or when measured “Re”tone is less than 5 cm.
± 1/5”
At the upper string or second strings “La”, when the string is pressed or played on the fingerboard, there is “Do” tonewithin approximately 7 cm from the base strings.

2) Tones on Three Stringed Kacapi
Three-Stringed Kacapi Kapuas-Kahayan Version

Three-Stringed Kacapi Kapuas Kahayan Version has only tones that are Do, Re, Mi, Sol, and La; Fa and Ti are absence.  First strong when loosely plucked produces sound “Mi2”tone three octaves, while the second string is loosely plucked produce sound “La”tone, and the third string when loosely plucked produces sound “Mi”tone.

On the first string, when pressed or played on the fingerboard produces a Sol2 tone octave and “La2”tone octave. Distance “Sol2”tone octaves with nut approximately 5 cm, while the distance of “La” tone octaves with nut approximately 10 cm.

The second string when pressed or played on fingerboard produces “Re2” octaves tone and “Mi2” octaves. The distance between “Re2” octaves tones with nut approximately 5cm, while the distance of “Mi2” octaves with nut approximately 10cm or vertically aligned with the “La”tone, in three strings.

In the third string when pressed or played on fingerboard, produces a “La”tone. This tone is approximately 10cm from the nut. Here's an example of the tones tabulation position.

Learning System
There is no formal learning system of  Kacapi in Dayak Ngaju communities. One learns by listening and watching another player. Memorization character of sounds and tones that produced by Kacapi can help them to learn and how to regulate strings tuning of Kacapi.

1. String Tuning of Kacapi
Whether it is two-stringed or three-stringed type of Kacapi, tuning of Kacapi usually starts from the second string of Kacapi because the second string is the basic tone that determine show high or low tones on Kacapi. Matching vocals have always done using second string that is plucked off. After second string reached satis factory sound, then followed by plucking the second string and first alternately.

Excerpts wear index finger or thumb nail (“Silu”) starting on the last two strings down the string stop roduce minor harmonies, “La”toneand “Do” tone on two-stringed Kacapi;  then followed by plucking the second and first string together to produce achord, but this time in asuppressed first string on the fingerboard “Re” tone.

Playing a Two-Stringed Kacapi

If you want to play a two-stringed Kacapi, first memorize the strings tunning, and then memorize the position of the tone on the fingerboard or axle.   Two-stringed Kacapi always plucked by nails (Dayak Ngaju language “Silu” = nails) that unified index finger with the thumb. But once you have been adept at plucking the strings, the use the index finger will be rarely, use Silu (nail) thumb will be the most frequent. Thumb will be picking it up and down rapidly on a string or two strings at once depending on the tone of the passage.

Picking by using thumb Silu (nail) because the thumb is more powerful but flexible;  while Silu (nail) serve as tool such as picking strings in electric guitar, due to the use of the thumb Silu stronger than Silu index finger.

Playing the two-stringed Kacapi, more frequent by plucking two strings at once, by plucking second string loosely and first string pressing “Re” or “Mi” on the fingerboard. Thrumming strings produced two tone of sound (verticaltone) or minor harmony. For example “La” tone and “Re” tone (see example one), “La” tone and “Mi” tone (see example two). “Do” tone is not plucked on the first string, but rather plucked with the thumb on the second string position, thus “Do” tone is not allowed to be sounded at once along with the second strings but “La” tone and “Do” tone picked interchangeably (see example three). Information contained in the x sign, meaning the tone is not plucked or played. 

Example one:  Pluck simultaneously on “Re”and“La” tone;  strings plucked from top to bottom.

Two-Stringed Kacapi – “La” and “Re” Tone

Example two: Pluck simultaneously on “Mi” and “La” tone, strings plucked from top to bottom
Two-Stringed Kacapi – “La” and “Mi” Tone

Example three: the passage turns on “Do” and “La” tone.
Two-Stringed Kacapi – “La” and “Do” Tone

This is a sample melody kacapi, for tandak mandau dance

post by Satriawan
translate by Rosye Salz