Sunday, April 19, 2015


Music, dance, and theatre have long been a part of Indonesian culture. There are many different nuances, practices, instruments, and styles of playing that vary across the islands. 

One of the most well-known styles of music hails from the islands of Java, Bali, and Lombok. I had to study gamelan music when I was in college. As a music major, I was required to study world music, and this was one of the cultures we discussed at length. I found it one of the most aesthetically pleasing styles of music I’ve ever heard. Gamelan music is made of a variety of tuned percussion instruments, mostly metallophones (like a marimba or xylophone but with metal bars and struck with a wooden mallet), drums, bamboo flutes, spike fiddle, and gongs. In fact, the word “gong” is one of the few Malay/Javanese words that have entered into English.  It’s actually quite complex music; the metallophones usually have the melody and counter melody lines while the gongs punctuate the music. Each instrument is tuned to itself, which sounds kind of hard to believe that the ensemble will sound good. The gongs are often thought to be the soul of gamelan music, and there are usually a variety of gongs (sometimes in different sizes) in an ensemble. It’s also common for other instruments to join the gamelan orchestra as well as vocalists. 

There are other instruments from other areas that also create popular musical styles. Angklung is a type of musical instrument made from bamboo tubes suspended from a frame and originated in West Java. Kecapi suling, also from West Java, is characterized by a zither (kecapi) and a bamboo flute (suling). Tapanuli ogong is a type of dance music from North Sumatra a type of lute, a type of flute, and a trumpet. 

Because of the diversity of Indonesia and of its history, there have understandably been many influences on its music and dance as well.  Some different genres of music reflect more local influences from different islands in Indonesia as well as Malaysia and the Philippines.  Tembang sunda is a type of sung poetry from Cainjur.  The Sudanese people living in western Java introduced a complex rhythmic dance music called Jaipongan.  Dangdut is another type of dance music that has gained popularity in Southeast Asia. The video above was from some sort of Dangdut competition, I believe that took place a couple of days ago.

Some musical genres were influenced by the Arab traders who arrived in the islands.  Not only did they introduce musical styles and concepts but also a few instruments as well.  The Indonesian style called Gambus is named after the oud, an instrument that looks like a bowl-shaped lute with 12 strings.  Qasidah modern is a type of chanted poetry accompanied by percussion instruments.  This style stemmed from traditions in Yemen.

When the Portuguese arrived, they brought along a myriad of European instruments that the native Indonesians had never seen.  However, they adapted these instruments into some of their own indigenous musical styles, such as kroncong.  This particular style gained popularity when it was introduced and fused into film music.  Classical music in the Western sense, which was also utilized in film music, has also played an important part in Indonesian music education.  

Each island and ethnic group has their own set of cultural dances. There are generally three different kinds of dances: court dances, folk dances, and religious dances. Court dances were divided along class lines. And some cultures drew those lines stiffer than others. Many Javanese dances stem from this tradition, and there were a lot of strict rules surrounding these dances. Folk dances were for the common people, and therefore generally had fewer rules associated with it. Hinduism and Buddhism were very much tied to certain dance traditions. Many of these dances were based on different deities or rituals or rites. 

There were quite a few popular bands and groups that I listened to. Generally speaking, most of what I listened to fell into some kind of rock or pop category.  I started with Radja, which wasn’t bad. They had a very basic rock sound circa 1990s. I can tell they had some Indian influences on their music in certain places. They were ok. Dewa 19 is another band that performs in almost the same style as Radja. Again, it’s a lot of acoustic guitar with a few unexpected chord changes. Not bad, but not enough to make me want to buy it. But not bad.

The band Sheila on 7 has a very 1990s-early 2000s sound to it. At times, they remind me of Matchbox 20. They use a type of guitar in a few songs that gives it a psychedelic sound sometimes, sounding a little like the Cambodian-American band Dengue Fever in places. 

Then we get to a hard rock band called Killing Me Inside. What sets them apart is 1) they’re hard rock bordering on metal, 2) the lead singer is a female. And that will always draw me to them. There are some quieter songs, but I’m more impressed with them than others.

There are several bands/groups that model themselves after the globally popular pop-rock genres of Japan and Korea. In fact one Indonesian band calls themselves J-Rocks. And having done a study abroad in Tokyo during the summer of 1998 (I’m a little out of the loop as to what’s popular now; I’ll update myself later this summer when I get to Japan.), I can definitely tell they are really into the J-rock sound. Gotta love a band that sort of reminds me of GLAY. I like it, but I might be a little biased. 7icons (or The Icons) is another group in this category. Definitely pop. Definitely J-pop/K-pop girl group style. The group Cherrybelle is essentially the same style. Hardly distinguishable, except for the fact that Cherrybelle uses more of a “band” and possibly real instruments rather than an electronic pop sound. 

Three bands have a strong 1980s sound to them: Nicky Astria, Anggun, and Slank. If you like the pop-rock of the 1980s, then you’ll like these bands. I’m not such a fan of much of the 1980s except my childhood. If it were more like the hair metal bands, then I might be able to give them a pass, but alas, I’m passing.

One band that stuck out from the rest of SambaSunda. They basically took a lot of their traditional sounds and instruments and fused it with more modern instrumentation, melody lines, and song form. I really liked it.  Another group that did this same kind of thing was Krakatau, except theirs leaned a little more toward traditional sounds in my opinion.

Up next: the food

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