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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. Anklung 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 Anklung“) 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. https://asia-archive.si.edu/essays/article-hynson/

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.

Instruments of the Central Javanese Gamelan: Peking

This is the second in a series of articles exploring the various instruments of the Javanese gamelan.

The peking is one instrument in a family group called balungan instruments. In the Javanese gamelan ensemble, these instruments all utilize similar performance techniques and play the balungan, or melodic line, in unison or with slight embellishments. Within this larger balungan family, there is a sub-group of instruments: the saron family. These three instruments—the peking, the saron, and the demung—together cover a range of three octaves, from high to low. The peking, also referred to as the saron panerus, covers the highest range in this family. The saron represents the middle of the range, and the demung renders the lowest part of the range. The latter is also referred to as saron barung.

Top view of the demung, saron, and peking, each with its mallet

Like the other instruments in this family, the peking is a struck metallophone made from bronze keys suspended over a hollow, ornately decorated wooden box, which serves both to support the keys and as a resonator. A peking has 7 keys in both the sléndro (5 note scale, with an additional note above and below the octave) and pélog (7 note scale) tunings. A small ensemble might only have two peking, one in each scale, and likewise two saron and two demung, one in each scale, whereas a larger ensemble might have as many as eight peking, four in each scale.

Peking are struck with a small mallet made of water buffalo horn, which produces a loud and bright sound. This, along with their high pitch, allows their sound to rise above that of the other instruments in the ensemble to be heard clearly by the other players and the audience. However, when required, peking are also capable of producing tones with a soft and dynamic sensibility. The bronze keys resonate freely and have a long decay. Because of this, when the mallet strikes one key, the player’s other hand grasps the key previously struck so it doesn’t continue to sound. This allows notes to sustain freely for a short time until the following note is played. A similar “damping” technique is used with other members of this family of instruments.

The peking players are seated near the ensemble’s director, who signals tempo changes and gives other cues to the musicians via the kendang (drum). Because they can thus see and hear the drummer’s signals more readily, and also because the sound of the peking can be heard clearly by the other players, the peking players have a special role: to reinforce the signals from the drummer, serving as a bridge between the drummer and the rest of the saron and other balungan instruments.

Instruments of the Javanese Gamelan Series List

Instruments of the Central Javanese Gamelan: An Introduction

This is the first in a series of articles exploring the various instruments of the Javanese gamelan. We start off with an overview of this fascinating topic.

If you were to travel to the islands of Java or Bali, you would very likely encounter the music of the gamelan, an ensemble of traditional instruments for which Indonesia is famous. There are numerous types of gamelan ensembles found across this diverse archipelago. Each has its own instrumentation, associated musical style, tuning, and cultural context. The Javanese gamelan tradition was cultivated in the palaces of Central Java as early as the second century CE. Because of its historical connection to the royal courts and their patronage, the music has developed into a highly refined art form and, like the classical music of Europe, has come to carry great cultural prestige.

The instruments of the Javanese gamelan ensemble at Canyon Crest Academy, San Diego. Photo by Laurel Grinnell-Wilson.

Most of the instruments of the gamelan are struck idiophones, a class of instruments that produce sound when the primary material of the instrument itself vibrates. They are made of hand-forged bronze, suspended on wooden frames. The gamelan ensemble can also include drums, stringed instruments, and wooden xylophones. All pieces of the ensemble are ornately decorated with hand-carved designs and shimmering gold paint.

The instruments of the gamelan can be divided into three families: balungan instruments, punctuating instruments, and elaborating instruments.

The balungan instruments—the saron, the demung, the peking, and the slenthem—carry the melodic lines. For these, players strike the instrument’s bronze bars with a mallet while dampening with their other hand to control the length of each note. Balungan in Indonesian means “skeleton,” which reveals a powerful perspective on how Indonesians perceive melody. A skeleton holds our body’s structure but is not seen from the outside. Similarly, a balungan melody should be strong but subtle. As with our bones, it should not be prominent. 

The ornately carved gong stand at the Kraton Yogyakarta (Royal Palace of Yogyakarta, Java, Indonesia). Photo by Laurel Grinnell-Wilson.

Unlike Western art music, which tends to be linear, gamelan music is cyclical, or colotomic. Colotomic time cycles are marked by the second family of instruments, the punctuating instruments. Most important in this family, and in the ensemble as a whole, is the largest gong, the gong ageng. It marks the beginning/ending of each cycle and is thought to hold the spirit of the gamelan, reflecting the strong mysticism that Javanese people still hold today. The gong ageng and the kempul, which are smaller gongs, are hung from wooden frames and struck in the center with a padded mallet.

The kenong, kethuk, and kempyang are sets of inverted pots that are supported by rope in wooden frames. All three instruments are played by one musician, who uses two mallets, one in each hand. The kendang, or drum, punctuates the time cycles and is considered the leader of the ensemble. Much like a conductor in a western orchestra, the kendang player navigates the musicians through tempo changes, starts and stops, and accentuates other collaborative art forms such as tari (dance) and wayang kulit (shadow puppets). All of the punctuating instruments help in marking time in the gong cycle.

The third family, the elaborating instruments, help add shape and movement to a piece, as well as anticipate where the balungan line is headed next. In so doing, these instruments—each following its own special rules of elaboration—play what is known as an “inner melody” to the balungan line. There are many elaborating instruments in the Javanese gamelan ensemble, including a two-string bowed fiddle called a rebab, a zither called a siter, a wooden xylophone called a gambang, a bronze metallophone called a gendèr, and a row of small bronze pots suspended over a wooden frame called a bonang. Vocalists are also included in this group. Each elaborating instrument follows its own special rules of ornamentation.

Central Javanese gamelan music uses two scales: pelog, which consists of seven notes, and slendro, which has five. The two scales are performed on separate sets of instruments, and gamelan ensembles may have one or both sets. There is no strictly prescribed tuning for either scale. The concept of laras, or how the scale should sound, was historically both subjective and protected, a choice based on aesthetic differences from village to village. This means that different gamelans using the “same” scale might have distinct root pitches, and the intervals between any two notes in the scale might vary, minutely or substantially, creating subtle differences in the mood or feeling of the music.

As in other elite musical traditions, the various instruments of the Central Javanese gamelan embody fascinating differences in construction, timbre, and performance methods. Learn more about the individual instruments as we add profiles of each in this ongoing series.

Instruments of the Javanese Gamelan Series List

Laurel Grinnell-Wilson: Bringing Javanese Gamelan to San Diego Students

The Center for World Music is delighted to profile World Music in the Schools teaching artist Laurel Grinnell-Wilson.

Laurel in the gamelan room at SDSU

Originally from Northern California, Laurel has been an avid musician since childhood. After exploring the piano, flute, and violin, she started on the drum set when she was 15, playing in her first band with her brother, San Diego bassist Justin Grinnell.

Laurel graduated from Sonoma State University, earning her BA cum laude in jazz performance studies. While teaching and working freelance for several years, she discovered a passion for world music, bringing together her love of anthropology and her love of music. She went on to earn her M.A. in ethnomusicology with honors at San Diego State University.

Laurel and son Cedar with Pak Djoko Walujo and his wife, Ibu Endang

Laurel has studied Balinese, Sundanese, and Javanese gamelan, performing in Indonesia and throughout Southern California. Since 2007, she has been training intensively under the guidance of renowned gamelan composer, performer, and teacher Djoko Walujo Wimboprasetyo. Laurel has also studied West African drumming, Senegalese kora, as well as Zimbabwean mbira and marimba. With a deep interest in the ways in which cultural-linguistic context and music inform each other, she continues to broaden her expertise in ethnomusicology. 

Currently, Laurel is a lecturer and director of the Javanese gamelan ensemble at San Diego State University. In her role as a World Music in the Schools teaching artist, she serves as assistant director of Canyon Crest Academy’s Javanese gamelan ensemble, supporting the director, her mentor and CWM master teaching artist Pak Djoko. In addition, she continues to perform as a freelance jazz artist and as percussionist for musical theater productions and the San Diego Women’s Choir. She has appeared with artists such as Allison Adams Tucker, Lori Bell, Steph Johnson, and Monette Marino.

When she’s not performing or teaching music, Laurel is a mother to two children and an artisan soap maker

Here’s a short YouTube clip of Laurel playing bonang barung with the SDSU Javanese gamelan, accompanying dancer Casey Lee Sims:

— Contributor Evan Ludington is a student at Canyon Crest Academy and an intern for the Center for World Music.

K.V. Narayanaswamy

Defining “Classical” from a World Music Perspective

By Mark Hertica, professor of music at San Diego Miramar College
and Center for World Music board member

There are many terms in use today for the wide variety of musical styles played, heard, and recorded throughout our world: folk, pop, jazz, world, rock, classical, and more, as well as all their various sub-genres. While these terms are useful for most of us as general descriptors and for purposes of marketing, defining them is problematic. The term classical provides us with an excellent example of the problems posed.

Use of classical as applied to music presents several problems. For example, when associated with the Western tradition, as exemplified by such composers as Beethoven, Bach, Mozart, Copland, and many others, it often refers generally to pre-composed music of the concert hall. But one of the more confusing aspects of the term in this usage is that classical also refers to a specific period of time from the latter eighteenth through the early nineteenth centuries when certain aesthetic principles were generally predominant in the music of European concert halls, churches, and the courts—a period in which the styles of Haydn and Mozart are most illustrative. Moreover, beyond the problem of European application, the problem is compounded as it is often used when referring to some traditions found worldwide in places such as Japan, China, India, Iran (Persia), Arabia, etc. Thus the determination of what is classical music is dependent upon the context in which and by whom it is used.

However, there are certain characteristics, some musical, some extra-musical, that upon closer inspection can be observed in all of the traditions referred to as classical music. First and foremost among these characteristics is that the musical traditions referred to as classical in various cultures have historically been associated with material wealth, education, and nobility. While today this music may be performed, observed, and enjoyed by people of all social backgrounds, historically this was music created and performed by members of the socially and politically elite classes. What are some of the other characteristics of classical music, and why would it find its creation and historical home among these elite classes?

Court Gamelan Solo

Court Gamelan, Royal Palace, Surakarta, Java

By their very nature the great courts of the world were, and, although perhaps less so, still are elitist, socially and politically. The high art found in these courts represents the most sophisticated and refined expression of the aesthetics of the cultures from which the courts arise. The art associated with these courts and their religious traditions therefore reflects and glorifies the people of the court and their divinities, and their music is an integral part of those traditions. The music, just as the court itself, must be elevated above the mundane, the everyday, as it expresses the aristocratic nature of its surroundings and speaks to and for its patrons. Indeed, to fully appreciate the artfulness of the music and the musician, it is as incumbent upon the listener as it is upon the musician to be familiar with the musical language. As Ananda Coomaraswarmy points out, “the listener must respond with an art of his own.”

The language of these various court musics, like the visual art, literature, dance, etc., is highly nuanced and packed with meaning for those who know how to listen to those nuances and for the meaning. To the untrained ear subtle details of rhythm and melody might be lost, but those educated in the details of the musical aesthetics of a given culture learn to hear and maintain in memory those details, hearing them as constructing the hidden meanings that may be lost on the unschooled ear.

To convey these messages classical music found around the world requires highly skilled and knowledgeable performers to play in an aesthetically pleasing manner for these audiences. To obtain the proficiency necessary for proper performance, the players must devote years of their lives to acquiring the physical dexterity necessary for flawless performance. But physical dexterity is not enough. Performers must have an intimate knowledge of the various nuances of the musical aesthetics that govern what is acceptable in a given style or genre; this is the basis for musical education. Whether for ritual or entertainment purposes, the musician must be well acquainted with proper performance procedures and practices.

With all of this in mind, if both the listener and the musician are to fulfill their roles effectively, then both must have sufficient time to practice their art. This requires resources for both day-to-day living and musical studies. And around the world it was the court and the religious institutions that possessed those resources. So as these musics developed, it was by and for these social elites that this music was created.

As resources necessary for musical education and training have become much more widely available, classical music is no longer the realm solely of the social and political elite. However, for a fuller appreciation of the art, the listener still must become acquainted with the particular musical language being performed. An uninitiated listener may well appreciate the inherent beauty of an Arabic maqam, a Tyagaraja kriti, a gendhing for Javanese gamelan, or a Beethoven symphony, but without some understanding of the nuances, the subtle art of the composers and performers, the messages put forth within the music will more than likely not be heard. As Wynton Marsalis tells us, “When an art form is created, the question is how do you come to it, not how does it come to you. Beethoven’s music is not going to come to you . . . you have to go to it. And when you go to it, you get the benefits of it.”

Pak Djoko Solo Festival

Djoko Walujo, Revered Teacher of Javanese Gamelan

Djoko Walujo Wimboprasetyo, respectfully addressed by his professional colleagues and his adoring students as Pak Djoko (“Father Djoko”), is one of the most highly regarded senior performers of Javanese classical music. An esteemed artist, court musician, and composer, he is one of the most sought-after instructors of Javanese orchestral music in the world. Pak Djoko is a distinguished grand master of the Javanese gamelan—an orchestra of some twenty musicians that varies in size, instrumentation, musical style, and social function. Typically, however, a Javanese gamelan includes tuned bronze gongs, gong-chimes, single- and multi-octave xylophone-like metal instruments, drums, flutes, bowed and plucked stringed instruments, wooden xylophones, and both male and female singers.

Pak Djoko at CCA

For more than two decades, Pak Djoko has directed Javanese gamelan ensembles at the California Institute of the Arts, at the Los Angeles Consulate General of Indonesia, at UCLA, at UC Riverside, at San Diego State University, and at Canyon Crest Academy in San Diego.

As a dynamic teacher of university students as well as K-12 children, Pak Djoko recognizes that gamelan is an excellent tool for music education. Indeed, anyone can learn to play gamelan, since no previous knowledge or experience is required, one learns and plays by ear, without written notation, and the simple playing techniques of the various instruments makes the musical experience almost instantly accessible to children and adults of all levels alike.

Pak Djoko studied gamelan music in Java from an early age, under the tutelage of many well-known and distinguished gamelan teachers, including such luminaries as Raden Lurah Dhamowijoyo, Raden Ngabehi Prawira Pangrawit, Raden Mas Handoyo Kusuma, Bapak Harjaswara, Bapak Sunardi Wisnubrata, Bapak Promono, and Bapak Hadi Sumarta. He continued his studies in music at the Indonesian Arts Institute, Yogyakarta, and also in Indonesian law at the University of Gajah Mada. From 1975 until 1992, he served as professor of music at the Indonesian Arts Institute, after which he accepted the position of visiting artist at the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, California. Significantly, Pak Djoko’s most distinguished teacher, K. R. T. Wasitodiningrat, a revered senior Javanese gamelan teacher residing in the United States, selected Pak Djoko to be his successor as the Javanese gamelan teacher at the California Institute of the Arts.

Pak Djoko has performed widely, composed award-winning music for Javanese dance-dramas and shadow-puppet plays, or wayang kulit. He has received awards from the Javanese Ministry of Education, the Governor of the Special Region of Yogyakarta, Radio Republic of Indonesia, and the Governor of Central Java.

Canyon Crest GamelanAs the musical director of the Javanese gamelan ensemble at San Diego State University since 1992, and at Canyon Crest Academy since 2010, Pak Djoko has been the revered teacher of many students in San Diego. For the past five years, he has served as distinguished teaching artist for the Center for World Music’s World Music in the Schools program, which is partially supported by grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the California Arts Council. He has also served as artistic director of the Center for World Music’s gamelan festivals at Canyon Crest Academy and Ellen Browning Scripps Park in La Jolla.

At his home in Yogyakarta, Central Java, Pak Djoko hosts musical soirées—in support of local Javanese musicians as well as for American university students studying gamelan in Java or traveling to Java in search of deep cultural immersion.

—Lewis Peterman, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus, School of Music and Dance, San Diego State University

Ade Suparman

NEA Visiting Artist Ade Suparman + $50K Grant to CWM

Good Morning San Diego, April 30, 2013

Indonesian visiting artist Ade Suparman appears on KUSI TV, celebrating the Center for World Music’s 50th Anniversary and a $50K grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.

ISI Solo Gamelan

Indonesian Music, Dance, and Puppetry comes to Solana Beach

San Diego Magazine, May 3, 2012

A nice report on our May 2012 Java concert series, cosponsored with the David Allen Collection and the Indonesian Consulate . . .

The Center for World Music presents an evening of Indonesian music, dance and puppetry. Over 20 professional musicians and dancers, a Balinese puppeteer, and a Balinese painter are traveling from Indonesia to San Diego for this event. Performances include Javanese gamelan with dance, a Balinese shadow puppet play, and a Balinese painting exhibition.

[The full article is no longer available online.]

UT Article Photo Canyon Crest

CWM-Canyon Crest Program Receives Grammy Enterprise Award

San Diego Union Tribune, June 1, 2011

Canyon Crest Academy has become the first public high school in San Diego County to receive a Grammy Signature Schools Enterprise Award. The $5,500 award was in recognition of the high quality of the school’s music program, and in particular its “border-leaping” Javanese gamelan ensemble.

Canyon Crest is the first school anywhere that ever that applied to us for funding for a gamelan ensemble. Our screening panel and blue-ribbon committee — which includes the president of Disney Music and the chairmen of the music departments at USC and UCLA — though that was really cool.

—David R. Sears, Senior Director of Education, Grammy Foundation

Canyon Crest inaugurated its gamelan classes in 2010 in cooperation with the Center for World Music’s World Music in the Schools program. The Canyon Crest gamelan is directed by World Music in the Schools artist in residence Pak Djoko Walujo.

Read the full UT article here.