The Indonesian Angklung: From Village Ritual to Soft Power Diplomacy

fig. 1: Indonesian Angklung

The angklung is a bamboo rattle from West Java, Indonesia. It is an example of an idiophone, an instrument that is struck, scraped, or—as in this case—shaken. Instruments similar to the angklung can be found throughout Malaysia, Thailand, and the Philippines. Ethnomusicologists date the use of the angklung in Indonesia to the seventh century CE.

The angklung is constructed by suspending two to four graduated bamboo tubes on a frame (see figure 1), which is shaken vigorously from left to right when the instrument is being played.

The instrument’s creation story points to its importance for agrarian rituals.

While scholars speculate that the rattling of bamboo stalks growing in the forest may have been the inspiration for the instrument, locals tell a legend of the rice goddess:

Desperate that the rice wasn’t growing, the people called upon their leader, who meditated and was instructed by spirit to cut bamboo and make an instrument. Upon hearing the beautiful sound of the bamboo angklung, the rice goddess, Dewi Sri, was pleased. The rice began to grow again.

In any event, a rich history of using the angklung for planting and harvesting ceremonies was established.

Angklung in procession, rice harvest ceremony, West Java | Photo: Onotrapokenifla [CC BY-SA 4.0]

Angklung continue to this day to be played for agrarian rituals and rites of passage. Angklung are also used in parades, at community centers, in Indonesian music education, and for cultural diplomacy initiatives.

Traditionally, angklung were tuned to tritonic (three-note) or tetratonic (four-note) scales. As the angklung has developed, it has been tuned in regional styles of the pentatonic five-tone salendro scale and the West Javanese (Sundanese) madenda and degung scales (both also 5-tone). Angklung are frequently played along with the Sundanese gamelan to accompany dance and puppet theater.

The most common modern angklung has two tubes and produces one pitch, with the longer tube being tuned an octave lower than the shorter tube. Some angklung have three or four tubes and are tuned to sound a chord.

fig. 2: Angklung on Rack

A collection of angklung can be hung on a rack and organized into rows so they can be played by one person (see figure 2). Alternatively, the instruments can be distributed among a group, one per player, in which case they are played in hocket or interlocking fashion, each musician contributing a single tone to the desired pattern or melody (as in a handbell ensemble).

When playing a single angklung, a musician suspends it between the index and middle fingers of the left hand and shakes the bottom of the frame from left to right with the right hand. In an ensemble, angklung is a great tool to introduce Indonesian music and folk songs while fostering group cohesion and cooperation. This is also why angklung has been used as a form of “soft power” cultural diplomacy.

While Indonesia was under Dutch colonial rule during the 1930s, the “father of the angklung,” Daeng Soetigna, experimented with tuning the angklung in Western diatonic and chromatic scales. Diatonic tuning enabled musicians to play Indonesian folk and national tunes, which led to an angklung revival and a widespread interest in the instrument in Indonesian schools and cultural centers.

Since then, angklung music and performance have spread across West Java and globally. This was in large part due to the educational initiatives of Daeng Soetigna’s student, Udjo Ngalagena, who in 1966 created the Saung Angklung Udjo (“Udjo’s House of Angklung“) performance and learning center in Padasuka, Bandung, West Java. Angklung was recognized as an official music education tool by the Indonesian Ministry of Education and Culture on August 23, 1968, and was placed on the UNESCO list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2010.

15,110 angklung players set Guinness World Record, Jakarta, 2023

Working with the Indonesian government and global embassies, the Saung Angklung Udjo center has coordinated colossal, world-record-breaking angklung events in which thousands of people play together by following cipher (number) notation and Kodály hand signals. These methods, coupled with the accessibility of the angklung, have made it an extremely effective instrument to teach Indonesian arts and culture to groups of children in the classroom or large groups of adults at diplomatic and community events.

Dr. Meghan Hynson is visiting assistant professor of ethnomusicology in the Department of Music, University of San Diego. She is also a teaching artist in the CWM’s World Music in the Schools program. For an expanded treatment of this topic, see Dr. Hynson’s Smithsonian article, cited and linked below.

For Further Reading

Hynson, Meghan. 2015. “Indonesian Angklung: Intersections of Music Education and Cultural Diplomacy” in Smithsonian National Museum of Asian Art Online.

Baier, Randal. 1985/86. “The Angklung Ensemble of West Java: Continuity of an Agricultural Tradition.” Balungan 2(1–2): 9–17.

Perris, Arnold. 1971. “The Rebirth of the Javanese Angklung.” Ethnomusicology 15(3): 403–407.