Basics of Indonesian Music

The music in Indonesia is as diverse as its culture. Most people identify Indonesian music as Gamelan, but, there is much more.

Indonesian gamelan music is the best known Indonesian music. This instrumental ensemble music played on a variety of metal 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.

Despite its high profile across the world, the gamelan is not representative of all Indonesian music. Among the many different music styles from the various cultures across this maritime continent, two other major music types that have become common are kroncong and dangdut.

The roots of kroncong music date back to the 16th century when sailors brought Portuguese instruments and melodies to Indonesia. The ensemble typically consists of plucked string instruments (kroncong is the name of a ukulele-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 provides an unsettling flavor to the songs. The langgam jawa, a regional variation, uses 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.

The instrumentation and song forms of today’s dangdut are obviously influenced by rock music, but it has its roots in orkes melayu, a music style that combined Malay and Western elements, as well as in Indian film music and urban Arab pop.