There are about 6,000 inhabited Indonesian islands and, as by now you can probably guess, there may be 6,000 different kinds of Indonesian music. Some Indonesian music
is highly-pattered and meticulously structured, some is loose and sprawling. Some Indonesian music is firmly rooted in ancient tradition, some is ardently modern. Some Indonesian music is Islamic, some Christian, some secular, some all of the above…. Look for almost anything in Indonesian music and you’ll find it. So, let’s look.

If you want to begin with a broad overview of Indonesian music, a good instinct would be to look for a compilation that touches upon various Indonesian musical styles. Throughout the 1990s, Smithsonian Folkways collaborated with the Society for Indonesian Arts on exactly that kind of starter compilation.

It’s a 20 disc set.

Since we don’t have 20 hours available today to get to know Indonesian music, read this National Geographic overview to get a sense of what you’ve gotten yourself into, then let’s take a YouTube tour of some of the most prescient styles, in rough chronological order. (We’ll discuss Indonesia’s most internationally known traditional music, gamelan, below.)

— Tembang sunda:
Tembang sunda is a style of sung free verse poetry that arose as a high class art form in West Java in the mid 19th century. Tambang sunda uses traditional instruments such as the kacapi rincik and the bamboo flute. Traditional tembang sunda, such as the song found in this performance by Euis Komariah flows freely without concern about rhythm. Kecapi suling is a closely related instrumental version.

— Kroncong:
Kroncong is a style of music that started in Indonesia when Portuguese settlers in the 17th and 18th centuries shared their Western instruments with local musicians. The genre only really took off in the 1930s when the Indonesian film industry transformed it from lower-class urban music to music from the cinema. In the 1940s independence movement activists adopted Kroncong as a national form, Gesang Martohartono’s “Bengawan Solo,” written during the Japanese occupation during World War II, is the most famous Kroncong song. The song has been recorded many times and in many languages around the world, including this English version by the Singaporean band, The Crescendos.

— Jaipongan:
Jaipongan is a Javanese dance music with unpredictable rhythms and almost exclusively non-Western instruments that artists in Western Java–specifically Dr. Gumgum Gumbira–created in 1961 when the Sukarno government banned rock ‘n’ roll. Take a look at this Jaipongan dance from West Java. (Be on the lookout for this week’s creepiest mustache.)

— Dangdut:
Dangdut music emerged in the mid 1970s from the poorer areas of Jakarta as a politically astute style that blended Islamic, Indian and Malaysian traditional musics with American rock. More recently it has expanded to encompass new music such as house, hip hop and any other global form it sees fit. A dangdut band is a contemporary outfit consisting of a lead singer with a backing group of musicians who play instruments like guitars, mandolins, keyboards and tabla. Dangdut has become increasingly popular around the region, especially in Malaysia and the Philippines, and is winning fans around the world. For a taste, check out “Gula Gula” by Elvy Sukaeshi, “The Queen of Dangdut.” (We’ll meet the King below.)

— Pop Daerah (regional pop):
“Pop Daerah” is a blanket term that refers to Indonesia’s many contemporary regional styles of pop music. Most of these pop musics use local languages and a mix of Western and local instruments. Some of the most established Pop Daerah genres are Pop Sunda, Pop Minang and Pop Batak.

— Music of Flores:
Flores is an island just east of Java–again, just one of 17,000–yet even this island features several styles of music, such as that from Manggarai, and certainly many kinds of of dance, like this J’ai line dance. “Gili Gilu” and “Sea Siru Seda,” which we mash into one song in class, are originally in the Lio language from Mataloko, Flores.

In class we’re going to listen to:
— “Sada do” by Marsada
Marsada, which means “together” in Batak, is a Toba-Batak band from Sumatra that combines traditional instruments like the hasapi (lute), sulim (bamboo flute) and garantung (wooden xylophone) with Western acoustic guitars. Their close, multi-part Batak harmonies and their dynamic personalities endear them to music-lovers far beyond Indonesia.Â

More information:
National Geographic on Marsada | Marsada performs the lovely “Sada do,” a song we’re going to sing in class, standing some kind of barge.

— “Sahabat” by Rhoma Irama
Rhoma Irama is widely known as “the King of Dangdut” (a style introduced above). After developing a decent career performing light-hearted dangdut, in the mid ’70s Rhoma Irama’s ‘lyrics began to delve into social and political commentary and his music veered more toward American rock. Indonesia’s government feared a politicized, primarily poverty-stricken dangdut audience would become a threat, so they banned Irama from appearing on state television. National Geographic describes Irama’s stage persona at the
time: “the King of Dangdut, dressed in a tight black tanktop, headband, leather pants, gloves and boots, and playing a black flying-V guitar, sweatily glistening in heavy-metal dangdut glory–certainly a far cry from the bubblegum, coy flirtatiousness of the heavily made-up teen dangdut singers of the genre’s early years.” By the late ’80s a very famous and wealthy Irama dampened his political criticism, joined the ruling party and started
recording with international stars like Bollywood playback-singing legend Lata Mangeshkar. Irama isn’t as musically active today and–perhaps this is not a coincidence –dangdut has become increasingly less relevant.

More information:
National Geographic on Rhoma Irama | The awesomely kaleidoscopic YouTube version of “Kata Pujangga” | Irama rocks out on “Sahabat”


Indonesian gamelan (which is actually not a kind of music, but rather an ensemble of instruments that are tuned very specifically to one another) is performed using “colotonic” structure, meaning that it’s organized in repeating rhythmic cycles, the start of each of which is indicated by the sound of a gong. Gamelan compositions are melodically complex because of the interaction of the various gongs and other percussion instruments that seem to sing to one another, dance around each other and playfully chase each other about. Rhythms interlock as well, with two musicians playing intimately connected parts to form a unified whole. (See’s introduction to Balinese gamelan for examples of interlocking rhythms.)

A classic gamelan ensemble consists of many tuned percussion instruments, such as:
the gong ageng (turn your speakers way up to hear it), the largest gong in the ensemble, which marks the beginning of each
rhythmic cycle
–Â the bonang, which is composed of two rows of horizontally mounted gongs and often leads the melody
the kenong, a set of tuned gongs that punctuate spaces between the playing of the gong ageng
the kempul, deeply pitched hanging gongs
the kendang, a double-sided drum that is played horizontally. Often a gamelan has two kendang players who play two intertwining parts of a rhythms. (See’s
kendang page for an explanation.
the saron and slenthem, which each consist of several brass bars on a horizontal frame, and often play the melody
the gender: which often elaborates on the melody set out by the saron or slenthem

More about gamelan:
An example of Balinese gamelan, another of Javanese gamelan, and World Music: A Global Journey’s elaboration on the difference between the two.
(spoiler alert: Balinese gamelan is more dynamic and rhythmically dense than tranquil Javanese gamelan.)

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