Indonesia: A Musical Archipelago

John Cho

Indonesian gamelan music has been well known and loved by Western cognoscenti for many years. This instrumental ensemble music played on a variety of metal ingots, pots, gongs, and drums (the word gamelan refers to the collection of instruments themselves) has enchanted first-time listeners (including Sir Francis Drake who visited Java in 1580) with its blend of exotic modality and shimmering timbre. Said to have been created by a Javanese king in the 3rd century, the gamelan has retained its ceremonial function in the royal courts of Java and Bali, while evolving into a modern folk form. The course of 20th-century European art music was influenced by the gamelan, as Impressionists like Debussy appropriated the ``strange'' five- and seven-note gamelan scales to expand the boundaries of the Western harmonic language. In the past decade there has been a remarkable surge of American and European interest in gamelan performance; these days one need not buy a ticket to Indonesia to attend a live concert, as many major universities have their own ensembles.

Despite its high profile across the world, the gamelan is not representative of the whole of Indonesian music. This should not be surprising if you are familiar with the vast geographic extent and ethnic diversity of this archipelago, which is sometimes called a maritime continent. With 13,600 islands and 360 ethnic groups stretched across three time zones, Indonesia has the world's largest Muslim population and is the fourth most populous overall. The many incursions of foreign influence--Hinduism and Buddhism from the 3rd to 14th century, Islam from the 11th to 15th century, Portuguese in the 16th century, Dutch from the 17th century to World War II, and short-term occupations by the British and Japanese--have all left musical legacies that are discernible in today's vast spectrum of folk and popular music. Here we discuss three major genres of pop music that have transcended regionalism to become common across the islands: kroncong, dangdut, and jaipongan.

The roots of kroncong date back to the 16th century when sailors brought Portuguese instruments and melodies to Indonesia. These imported elements were absorbed by the local mixed-race Lusophones, who developed an urban music that came to be associated with lower-class rogues called buaya (crocodile). As happens in most cases this music, originally the domain of unsavory elements, was eventually assimilated by the respectable segments of society, and it is considered rather stodgy and old-fashioned by today's youths. Indeed, on first hearing kroncong one may wonder how it could ever have been considered déclassé. The ensemble typically consists of plucked string instruments (kroncong is the name of a ukelele-like instrument), a flute, and a female singer. Over the steadily plucked arpeggios that provide the harmonic backdrop, the singer croons languidly of love, yearning, sadness, and the beauty of the countryside, as the flute flits up and down the scales in free-improvisational flight. Although the instruments and the singing style are clearly descended from European origins, the chord progression takes the Western ear by surprise and provides an unsettling, ethereal flavor to the songs. The langgam jawa, a regional variant, has an even more local character with its use of Javanese gamelan scales.

Dangdut is far more popular today, and it can be heard blaring from the loudspeakers of bemos (minivans used for public transport), storefront TV sets tuned to the music video channel, and, at night, from karaoke bars. As in rock music, there is a fairly wide range of music that gets classified as dangdut, an onomatopoeic word ( dang-dut dang dang!) that refers to its modern, hard-edged dance rhythm. The instrumentation and song forms of today's dangdut are obviously influenced by rock music, but it has its roots in orkes melayu, a syncretic ensemble music that combined Malay and Western elements, as well as in Indian film music and urban Arab pop. The one singer most responsible for the rise of dangdut in the last two decades is Rhoma Irama, a working-class hero whose songs manage to combine Islamic piety, social criticism, and family values, while simultaneously glamorizing his rags-to-riches tale. Dangdut has also become part of Indonesian cinema, and Irama's 1980 film, Perjuangan dan Do'a (``Struggle and Prayer'') may well have been the first Islamic rock film ever made. Women have also made their mark in dangdut. Elvy Sukaesih, who purveys a more indigenous style, is the reigning queen, while Detty Kurnia is making headway overseas in the lucrative Japanese market.

Emerging from Sunda (West Java) in the 1970s, jaipongan has rapidly spread to other parts of Indonesia, riding the wave of a dance craze that can be arguably traced back to a decree by President Sukarno in the early Sixties that banned all ``foreign'' music including rock n' roll. Young musicians who had been happily playing the twist and jive for eager audiences were forced to invent purely indigenous replacements. One enterprising student named Gugum Gumbira Tirasondjaja embarked on a study of rural dance and festival music that occupied him for twelve years. By far his most popular experiment proved to be the updating of a village ritual music called ketuk tilu, which is the name of a pot-gong used in the ensemble. The rest of the group typically consists of other gongs, a rebab (spike fiddle), barrel drums, and a female singer-dancer, ronggeng, who is often also a prostitute. Gugum's contribution was in expanding and energizing the drum section, redefining the singer as just a singer, and giving the music a catchy onomatopoeic name. In jaipongan the gongs are tuned to a pentatonic scale, while the melody carried by the rebab and the vocalist are usually in a heptatonic scale. The subtle dissonance between the two scales comes and goes as microtonal inflections in the melody play on this effect. Within a song, the texture alternates between sections in which the singer lyrically unfurls tales of love, money, and agriculture over a stately gong cycle, and passages of frenetic drumming, whooping, and grunts by the rest of the band. It was hard to miss the irony when the authorities tried to crack down on jaipongan, offended by the ``overly sensuous'' nature of the dancing, which was based on an authentically traditional form--the government got what they asked for.

The official ban on foreign pop music lasted only a few years, and today's bands are free to play anything from reggae to heavy metal to covers of John Denver. It is a tribute to the vitality of the local musical traditions that modern Indonesian pop has not been completely dominated by such foreign forms, as has happened in neighboring countries like Malaysia and the Philippines. It's about time that the rest of the world discovered the flourishing Indonesian music scene beyond the gamelan.

Selected Discography:

Various, Golden Rain: Balinese Gamelan Music and Ketjak, Nonesuch
Various (including Rhoma Irama and Elvy Sukaesih), Music of Indonesia 2: Indonesian Popular Music--Kroncong, Dangdut, Langgam Jawa, Smithsonian Folkways
Detty Kurnia, Coyor Panon, Flame Tree
Idjah Hadidjah, Tonggeret (Jaipongan), Nonesuch

Copyright 1996, The San Juan Star

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