Indonesian music isn’t terribly well-known outside of academic circles, which is truly a shame — as one of the world’s most ethnically diverse countries, Indonesia is also incredibly musically diverse, and there’s something for everyone. Here’s a sampling of some of Indonesia’s most interesting musical styles:
You can’t get very far in Bali without being hit by the arresting sound of a gamelan gong kebyar. “Gamelan” most closely translates to “orchestra,” in that it refers to a group of instruments that play together, but there aren’t many instruments that closely resemble those in Western music.
The main instruments of the Balinese gamelan are the gangsa, instruments that look a little like xylophones but consist of bronze keys suspended over bamboo resonators. They vary in size and range, but are all struck with the same kind of wooden hammer, called a pangul. Balinese gamelan also uses hanging gongs of various sizes, wooden flutes (suling), two drums (kendang), a bronze pot as timekeeper (kajar), and, sometimes, a two-stringed bowed instrument called the rebab.
Gong kebyar, currently the most popular style of Balinese gamelan music, is so named because of its exciting and bombastic nature: kebyar refers to something like the exploding of a firework or the bursting of a flower into bloom.
Javanese gamelan is the Balinese style’s older brother. It uses similar instruments (although usually with different scale tones), but the music is of a completely different style. Whereas gong kebyar is modern (in musical terms; it started growing as a genre in the early 1900s), Javanese gamelan is of the ancient court. It is slow, refined, and gentle. This is mirrored in the accompanying dance, which usually uses small but precise steps and hand gestures.
Angklung is a Sundanese musical style from West Java. Angklung refers to single-tone bamboo instruments. The instruments are hung along a bar and the musician shakes each angklung separately to make each tone. Therefore, even to play a very simple melody, one either needs an entire orchestra of musicians, ready to play their notes quickly and in time, or some very nimble fingers. It’s like a piano, but with a lot more effort.
Kroncong is a relaxed and old-fashioned style, but it is still popular at restaurants as background music. It usually consists of a kroncong (similar to a ukulele), flute, modified cello or violin, string bass, melody, and a male or female singer. These instruments, however, may change depending on what is available or needed for a particular song. The result is a swaying, beachy style of music that acts as an interesting bridge between Western tonality and a more traditional Javanese sound.
Dangdut is another immensely popular new musical genre in Indonesia. It draws from Indian popular music in terms of style and scale choices, and has been deemed inappropriate by some critics due to the style of dancing that usually accompanies its infectious, pulsing table rhythms. Modern dangdut draws influence from Middle Eastern pop, Western rock, hip-hop, R&B, and reggae, in addition to Indian Hindustani music, and you don’t have to look far to find its influence on many popular dance tracks.
The music of Indonesia is well-worth investigating, and these styles are just the beginning. A simple Google search will bring up many more genres popular all over the archipelago. Which is your favorite?
About the author: Gillian Irwin is a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant at SMAN 3 Yogyakarta in Yogyakarta Special Region. She graduated from Muhlenberg College in 2013 with a degree in Music and English.