There are about 6,000 inhabited Indonesian islands and, as 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. If you want to find an Indonesian music starter set, a good instinct would be to look for a compilation that provides a broad introduction to the most important Indonesian musical styles. Throughout the 1990s, Smithsonian Folkways collaborated with the Society for Indonesian Arts on exactly that kind of compilation.
This week we learned about “Jocelynang Baliwag,” a famous “kundiman” (Spanish-era love song) popular in the late 19th century, during the Philippines’ independence movement. Just like the original, our version, “Sweetest Darling,” is a love song. Just like the original, the object of the song sounds like it’s a person, but in fact we’re all singing about how much we love the Philippines: “Sweetest darling who I love, purest flower of delight, You have been the only one to give me hope in the dark of night, In the morning I adore you, all day long my heart beats for you, Oh my darling who I love won’t you love me too?”
Filipino Kundiman is a genre of romantic folk songs that emerged in the late 1800s, toward the end of the Philippines‘ Spanish colonial-era.
A typical Filipino kundiman has a “triple meter rhythm” (1-2-3, 1-2-3), starts in a minor key at the beginning and shifts to a major key. A song we sing in class, “Jocelynang Baliwag” (“Sweetest Darling”), may well be the most famous kundiman. This song is from the late 19th century and was popular during the era of the Philippine independence movement. On the surface it’s a love song dedicated to Josefa “Pepita” Tiiongson y Lara, a lovely woman from Baliwag, but in reality everyone understood the object of the songwriter’s longing to be the nation of the Philippines.
Today we meet kulintang and “talking gongs….”
Filipino music tells the story of the Philippines‘ always-international history through its melodies, rhythms and choice of instruments. While some Filipino styles, such as Philippine gong music, retain distinct Asian origins, many traditional Philippine styles either originated during the Spanish period or became popular during Spanish rule by blending local traditions with Spanish melodies and rhythms. Among the most traditionally Asian of the Philippines’ musical styles, “Philippine gong music” comes in two general varieties — a “flat gong,” known as gangsa, that originates from Cordillera in the Northern Philippines, and a “bossed gong,” which comes from Islamic and animist groups in the Southern Philippines. In this video we see a kulintang gong ensemble, a tradition that exists in Indonesia, the Philippines and Malaysia among animist, Christian and Muslim groups.
In our online class this week we visited the island nation of the Philippines — 7,107 islands to be exact — which is unique among Southeast Asian countries in the fact that its colonial history brought it under the control of both the Spanish and the United States. Filipino culture is a mix of Spanish, American and indigenous strains, with influence from others in the region such as China, Malaysia and Indonesia thrown in for good measure. Over the course of the next week we’ll clang gongs, flap our arms like butterflies and sing a surreptitious song about love.
Earlier this week we met the tourist-friendly Malaysian city of Malacca where, to our delight, tourists ride about in three-wheeled, flower-adorned pedicabs (rickshaws). In class we pretend to be hard working rickshaw drivers as we sing “My Rickshaw,” pedaling from sunrise to sundown: “Abang beca, abang beca di tengah jalan, I drive my rickshaw in the town, Abang beca, abang beca di tengah jalan, I pedal hard to keep those wheels going ’round . . . .” In this video I’m sitting on a chair to teach the song, but the real fun takes place in the classroom. There we get down on the ground and pedal pedal pedal, climbing all the way up an imaginary hill — which, even in our imagination, is hard work! — then letting gravity grab us as we race toward town.
One of our favorite songs of this season is, “My Rickshaw” (“Abang Beca”) a traditional song about the rickshaw drivers in the tourist-friendly parts of Melacca, a port city on the southwestern coast of the Malay Peninsula.
Founded as a port town in the early 1400’s, Melacca had became a strategic pan-Asian trading hub long before the Portuguese conquered it in 1511. The Dutch ruled from 1641 to 1798, then the British until World War II, then the Japanese during the War…eventually Melacca became part of independent Malaya. Today it is a tourist-friendly part of Malaysia — a Portuguese-oriented port town, and a UNESCO-registered World Heritage site. We sing in class about the town’s uniquely colorful, musical three-wheeled pedicabs, like the ones we see in this video.
Traditional Malay music, like so much of Malaysian culture and society, is the result of an ever-evolving interplay between Indonesian, Thai, Filipino, Chinese and global (especially Islamic) styles.Several kinds of traditional Malay music developed as a mix of local and international forms, like traditional xylophone “kertok” ensembles from the Kelatanese communities of Western Malaysia along the South China Sea, Arabian-influenced zapin music (and the accompanying zapin dance), violin/drum/accordion and gong folk music called “ronggeng” from Malacca and, as we see in this video, dondang savang, a “slow and intense” genre built from Indian, Arabian, Chinese and Portuguese influences.
This week in our online class took us to very modern Malaysia, a country that is engaged in many balancing acts at once. An economic powerhouse that boasts skyscrapers, superhighways and enthusiastic international industry, Malaysia is also home to millions who live simply and in accordance with ancient traditions. Geographically, Malaysia balances two distinct regions separated by the South China Sea: Peninsular Malaysia, the urban hub of the nation, and Malaysian Borneo, whose many, many animal species help make it “megadiverse.” Religiously, Malaysia balances a Muslim majority with its Buddhist and other religious minorities. Ethnically, Malaysia is exceedingly conscious about balancing the rights and privileges of indigenous Malaysian people, known as the “Bumiputra” with those of Chinese Malaysians. Because of all this balancing sometimes Malaysia seems modern and easy to understand. Then one runs up against a strict cultural practice or an Islamic law enforced by the nation’s “Religious Police,” and the contemporary Malaysia seems to disappear. . . .
Enjoy this week’s live class! If you want to join the fun, check out the livecast class schedule and contact me to be “in the room” on Zoom. If you can’t make it to Zoom, watch live classes, or watch anytime, on All Around This World’s facebook page. This week in class we sang “We Are Happy,” “I’m Shy,” “Abang Beca,” “Burung Kakatua” and “Ti Oh Oh.” We also played the Southeast Asian “keepie-uppie,” “Sepak Takraw.”