Rough Guide to the Music of Indonesia

Stretching over 3,000 miles across the equator between the Asian and Australian continental mainlands, Indonesia is the world’s largest archipelago. The name Indonesia has it’s roots in two Greek words, “Indos”, meaning Indian and “Nesos”,islands. An appropriate description historically and geographically for a country consisting of over 17,500 islands, of which about 6,000 are inhabited.

It’s people, culture and religions are as diverse as it’s land. The fourth most populous nation in the world, there are over 550 ethnic groups speaking a similar number of languages and dialects, although Bahasa Indonesian is promoted as the national language. Today about 85% of the population follow Islam, although Hinduism dominates in Bali, Christianity further to the east, while animistic beliefs still have a major influence on life in south Sulawesi. The majority of the population live on 5 main islands and 30 smaller archipelagoes, 70% on the smallest of the main islands, Java.

Indonesia’s strategic position and wealth of natural resources has resulted in a turbulent and at times tragic history. Ensuing feuds and periods of dominance however, left behind a stunningly rich and eclectic culture. It’s unique music is shaped by a tempestuous past and entangled within a complex web of events. Some have ancient roots, lost in the mists of time.

Other musics can trace their source to the first European settlers, while in more recent developments, western trends have been assimilated, sometimes with political coercion, into a music still discernibly Indonesian. From strange and hypnotic gamelan music to wild ‘champur’ or mixtures in a host of modern genres, such as dangdut and pop sunda, Indonesia is perhaps south east Asia’s most exciting musical destination.

It’s female singers can rival those of West Africa for their soulful and searing voices,with that indefinable sense of yearning that just isn’t there in most Western music. An array of instruments; gongs, zithers, flutes, barrel drums, violins, jew’s harp and many more can dazzle the listener. It can, however, be as equally bewildering as breathtaking. Many musicians and singers are capable of seamlessly switching from wistful traditions to heartrending ballads or abandoned pop, making identification of your favorite genre a more trustworthy guide than the performer.

Within the dusty streets of urban chaos in Jakarta, the green tropical paradise of Bali, the cool highlands of Sunda, the historically abundant central Java and Yogyakarta, or the wilderness of Sumatra, there exists a mesmerizing kaleidoscope of sounds to suit every taste and any occasion.

The first known migrants to Indonesia are believed to have been of Mongoloid stock from China dating back to around 3,000 BC. From the first century AD. Indian traders entered the archipelago at the time the Hindu and Buddhist empires were emerging. A powerful Buddhist Kingdom had expanded into Java by the 7th century, and in the 13th century the Majapahit Hindu Empire united the whole region,including modern day Malaysia and ruled for two centuries. This period gave rise to much of the gamelan tradition either as a refined court music or an invigorating spiritual celebration for the gods. The arrival of Arab traders and merchants initiated
the spread of Islam which eventually became the dominant religion by the end of the 16th century. Today many genres still reflect an Arabic influence in varying degrees, most noticeably in the Islamic pop of Qasidah.

One of the first Europeans to arrive was Marco Polo in 1292, but the period of European influence didn’t begin until 1509, when the Portuguese first established trading routes from Malacca on the Malay Peninsula, seeking a monopoly of the lucrative spice trade. They were soon ousted by the Dutch, who despite a brief period of British rule and intermittent bloody wars launched by the local people, mostly kept control of the Dutch East Indies until the outbreak of World War II, when the Japanese occupied the territory. Aside from Western thought, the colonialists brought instruments. The small kroncong guitar, also the name of a music, is derived from the Portuguese braguinha, sharing it’s root with the Hawaiian ukulele. Kroncong music is believed to have originated in the communities of freed Portuguese slaves in the 16th century. European influence from this time can also be heard in the music of the Batak people of North Sumatra, and from the end of the 19th century, the beginnings of guitar accompaniment incorporated within a distinctly Indonesian idiom in music from Sumatra, South Sulawesi and elsewhere.

Following a bitter war with the Dutch who tried to reclaim the territory after the Japanese defeat, Indonesia was granted independence in 1949. The transition to independence was not easy, firstly under the presidency of Sukarno a former nationalist movement leader. Under a policy of ‘guided democracy’, in the early 1960s Sukarno outlawed the broadcast and import of Western music, fearing the rock ‘n’ roll and Beatlemania that was spreading to Asia, ordering musicians to either uphold Indonesian traditions or create an Indonesian pop music. Although many Indonesian musicians had already been updating traditions, this policy provided further impetus and was a particularly fertile time for the development of styles including kroncong,
orkes melayu and sunda modern.

After Sukarno was ousted by ironically the army general who suppressed an earlier coup, new President Suharto embarked on a policy of embracing western economic values and culture. At the start of the 70s, modern pop music styles were created that emphasized their Indonesian feel, to combat the free flowing importation of western music, but under those same influences of rock, jazz and latin music. Dangdut, pop melayu, and new mixtures such as kroncong dangdut were all were formed at this time. In recent years, Indonesian ‘champur’ styles have mostly mirrored those of the
west, adopting and dismissing dance trends, for example disco sunda now giving way to sunda house. However the economic crisis has put buying the luxury of music beyond many Indonesians, especially the former ‘middle classes’, with whom more refined music styles were popular. However, dangdut a national music especially popular with the poorest, or the Jakarta initiated gambang kromong have taken on an element of unifying the oppressed.

While political opposition was largely repressed with military backing during
Suharto’s reign, with his downfall the national motto of ‘Unity in Diversity’ has proved impossible to maintain. Tensions between Muslims and Christians, ethnic tensions and independence movements following East Timor’s vote for independence have buried any notion of a free, democratic and united Indonesia. Throughout what is today Indonesia, music is certain to keep evolving and traditions will be maintained. However, with an ugly jingoism in the air and a patriotic militia, the only thing politically predictable about the country’s next course, is it’s unpredictability.


available on the album: SAMBASUNDA

CBMW were formed in Bandung , the capital and cultural centre of Western Java, more commonly known as Sunda. The Sundanese are the second largest ethnic group in Indonesia with a unique language and culture. This group of 14 musicians were formed by Ismet Ruchimat Maulana, a well known local kacapi, or Sundanese zither player, who also featured on the Sunda Africa album devised by Spanish globetrotting percussionist Django Mango (released by GlobeStyle in the UK). CBMW update the lilting sounds of Sundanese gamelan degung and bamboo gamelan by adding elements of Jakarta’s gambang kromong, Sunda’s jaipong, Balinese kebyar and the
Brazilian rhythm of samba. The result is a mesmerizing mix that manages, strangely, to be both relentlessly exciting and passively tranquil.


available on the album: LANGGAM JAWA, ANOMAN OBONG

Born in 1943 in Solo (Surabaya) in eastern Java, Waldjinah first came to prominence aged 15 after winning a local music competition singing kroncong in her native Javanese language, the first singer to do so. Although still today she is probably best known as a kroncong singer, Waldjinah has proved herself capable of singing a variety of other local music genres. Toward of the end of the 1960s she developed her own pop style, known as langgam jawa using the traditional pelog and slendro scales with kroncong instruments in an approach reminiscent of a gamelan ensemble. In 1969 a song in this style, “Walang Kekek” (The Singing Cricket) was a big hit for Waldjinah, and remains her best known song. Anamon Obong is fairly unrepresentative of her usual repertoire, it’s story taken from the Hindu epic, Ramayana, the hero being Anoman ( a white monkey). Musically it contains elements of the gamelan that accompanies Wayang Kulit, the Javanese shadow puppet theatre, often based on Ramayana stories. It’s exciting arrangement cleverly mixes kroncong and gamelan, with a heavily percussive background and chanting, keeping both a modern and traditional feel.


available on the album: THE DANGDUT QUEEN

Dubbed the “Queen of Dangdut”, Elvy Sukaesih was born in Jakarta in 1951, made her first recording at only 13 years of age, and by her late teens had already made a name for herself singing with a famous orkes Melayu ( literally “Malay orchestra”, but in this sense meaning a new form of pop music sung in the Melayu language and encouraged to unite the newly independent nation). She sung together with Rhoma Irama as a duet and in his group from 1973, before turning solo three years later. Ever since, she has had a consistent string of hits, releasing hundreds of albums and aside to her glorious voice is known for her entertaining and humourous style. Kareta Malam “Travelling at Night” (presumably by train) is taken from her early solo career, and exemplifies the still early development of dangdut, blending Indian film music, Arabic pop with western elements, a sense of fun and spontaneity adding to the music’s vitality.


available on the album: BEGANDANG- THE GREATEST HITS 1975-1980

If there is one music that could identify the Indonesian nation it is dangdut, the music popular on the streets and particularly associated with the working classes. The word dangdut was coined in the late 1960s and is an onomatopoeic word, based on the sound of the kendang, a drum similar to the Indian tabla. The origins of dangdut lies in orkes melayu (orchestras) especially encouraged by Sukarno to cultivate national identity in the wake of independence, who would play latin and jazz music adding an Indonesian taste and later Arabic and Indian film music. The first band to incorporate the kendang into the ensemble was Orkes Melayu Punama, who at the same time added electric guitar, bass and organ. Rhoma Irama and his female counterpart Elvy Sukaesih both sung with Punama before singing together as a duo and a few years later turning solo. Rhoma Irama (real name Raden Irama) was born in 1946 in Sunda, and was first known by the nickname of Oma. Together with Sukaesih, he raised the popularity of dangdut to become an established genre, the two respectfully dubbed the “King” and “Queen” of dangdut. Rhoma Irama has released hundreds of albums, mixing styles such as kroncong and dangdut, with strong western and Arabic elements. Released in 1975, “Begadang” is his biggest hit and the title track to a million selling cassette.


available on the album: KACAPI SULING

Kacapi suling (zither and flute) is the instrumental form of tambung sunda (track 8). The larger Kacapi indung (the “mother” kacapi) plays the major lines, and on this recording two kacapi rincak (“small” kacapi) add extra ornamentation. The floating melody, which replaces the vocals of tambung sunda, is provided by the suling (flute). The soloist, Endang S. was born in 1961 and is one of the top Sundanese suling players, the nature of Kacapi Suling music, allowing him room for some spellbinding improvisation.


available on the album: DARI SUNDA

Born in Bandung, Sunda in 1960 Detty Kurnia is Indonesia’s finest singer of pop sunda, that mixes traditional Sundanese music with western elements, the term coming into general usage at the beginning of the 1980s. Detty Kurnia started singing traditional music in her early childhood and made her first recording aged 11. She went on to sing what was to become known as pop sunda from the mid 1970s and became well known first locally before her fame spread to other areas of Indonesia, eventually recording over 150 albums. Dar Der Sor is a pop sunda song composed in the 1970s, and is taken from the album “Dari Sunda” (‘From Sunda’, released in the UK by Riverboat) produced by Japanese producer Makoto Kubota who brought new recording standards to Indonesian music. Dari Sunda became a popular album in Japan and Detty Kurnia performed at the inaugural WOMAD festival in Japan in 1991. Her mellifluous voice is still one of the most beautiful to ever emanate from Indonesia, and a match for anyone, in any genre in the world.

(* Detty Kurnia died of breast cancer on April 20, 2010, aged 49.)


Grup Bamba Puang are Mandar people from South Sulawesi, whose guitar accompanied music is known as ‘sayang sayang’. Originally one guitar was used to accompany the singers although from the mid-1960s sometimes a second guitar and ukulele were added, although this track reverts to the original style. Sayang sayang are performed at weddings and other celebrations and usually have alternate male and female verses. This track is related to the urban los quin style of Ujung Pandang, and mixes western guitar elements into a sayang sayang format, and is sung in the Mandar


Male and female vocalists Imas Permas and Asep Kosasih perform a Sundanese style of music known as tembang sunda, the word tembang used to denote any vocal genre. Although related to Sundanese gamelan music, it developed in relative isolation as an aristocratic music, in Cianjur, located between Bandung and Jakarta, during colonial Dutch rule. The music takes the form of sung poetry, accompanied by kacapi or zithers, suling (flute) and occasionally rebab, a two stringed violin. This song is from the Rarancagan category, metered in time, as opposed to the free rhythm of other styles, and describes the final words of Rahwana, defeated by a supernatural weapon and facing death.


The bassist and singer with the legendary 3 Mustaphas 3 left his family behind in the Balkans and resurfaced some years later in Indonesia. He composed a song, ‘Denpassar Moon’ which became a massive hit, spawning over 50 cover versions. Although he received no payments for royalty, he was treated as such when introduced as the song’s composer but was widely mistaken for being Lebanese. Sumbawa is taken from his second album ‘Jalan Kopo’ recorded in Bandung with top Sundanese musicians and regulars at the famous Jugula studio. Sabah Habas Mustapha combines great melodies into a clever musical concoction, washed down with large helpings of cryptic wit.


available on the album:AIRMATA

Of mixed Japanese and Hawaiian ancestry, Sandii (Suzuki) is one the world’s most versatile singers. She is a multilingual vocalist but not a copyist, who manages to stamp her own trademark style on whatever kind of music she is performing. Recorded with a rich cast of Indonesian musicians, this song was produced by Makoto Kubota who at the beginning of the 1990s set about making a pan-Asian music. In the process he set new standards in recording quality and pioneered new Asian mixtures. Under the guidance of Indonesia’s greatest singers such as Elvy Sukaesih and Rhoma Irama, Sandii and Kubota succeeded in updating classic Indonesian songs by respecting Indonesian tradition and pop rhythm flavours, and bringing hitherto unknown studio techniques and a touch of genius. Rentak 106 is originally a Melay song from Medan in North Sumatra.


Joged Laksmana Mati Raden Ditembak (“Prince Laksmana Is Stabbed Dead” Dance) was recorded in Binjai, North Sumatra in 1972. Ibu Maimunah Mochtar, a former well known bangsawaran or Malay theatre singer, was 62 years old at the time. The song and instrumentation is a blend of Malay, Portuguese and Middle Eastern influences, performed on accordion and the rebana frame drum. The Melayu (Malay) are one of many ethnic groups in Sumatra, who can trace their ancestry back to the fourteeth century Islamic kingdom of Malacca, which was conquered by the Portuguese in 1511. This passage is believed to refer to the death of Hang Tuah, a legend of Malay
folklore, who at the court of Malacca, received the title Laksmana, “Admiral of the Fleet”.


The Batak of North Sumatra comprise seven ethnic groups, totalling about 2 million people centered around the largest volcanic lake in the world, Lake Toba. Although related, each group has distinct languages, customs and traditional arts. Uning Uningan belong to the Christian, Toba group. Music and dance play an important role in Batak society, and musicians occupy an exalted position as intermediaries between humanity and the creator. Pege Sakarimpang is a lively song taken from the Opera Batak repertoire created by Tilang Oberlin Gultom (1896-1970). Singers Kalabius Simbolon and Zulkaidah Harahap are accompanied by unique Batak instruments, the hasapi ( two-stringed mandolin), surune etek (small clarinet), gurantung (xylophone) and sulim (flute).


available on the album:GAMELAN DEGUNG

The wistful charms of Sundanese gamelan degung can reportedly be traced back to the Bajajalan dynasty (1333-1579), and continued to develop during Dutch rule. It is usually performed by a small ensemble of seven musicians playing various gongs; suspended (jengglong), metallophones (a metal barred xylophone called Bonang) and two types of sarons or glockenspiels. The rhythm is supported by the double headed wooden barrel drum the kendang, although the most distinctive instrument is the suling, a bamboo flute. The suling player on this tune is Ujang Suyana, born totally blind in 1939 who has recorded more than 60 albums for local release. The scale, also known as degung is similar to the pelog scale of Java and other Sundanese music. The music characteristically takes an identical phrase and gradually adds extra ornamentation with a trance inducing effect.


The leading exponents of Islamic pop, qasidah modern, Nasida Ria from Semerang in Central Java, are a nine piece all women group under the leadership of H.Mudrikah Zain. Their music is an updated form of qasidah, originally a storytelling/singing form of Arabic religious epics accompanied by chanting and percussion. Nasida Ria add electric guitars, keyboards, violin, mandolin and flute with a rhythmical backing influenced by dangdut and melodies derived from Arabic pop. Not afraid to tackle controversial issues or offer advice, this song meaning “Amuse Yourselves”, contains the message “Let’s sing together and banish sadness, we may amuse ourselves, as long
as we do not get carried away and forget God.”


available on the album: WALDJINAH SINGS GESANG

Bengawan Solo (Big River of Solo) is one of Indonesia’s most famous tunes,
designated as a national song. It was written by the legendary vocalist Gesang, born in 1917 in Solo (Surabaya). Dating back to the early 1940s, Bengawan Solo is a Langgam Kroncong classic, a 32 bar style that resembled American pop song, developed by Gesang and encouraged by the Japanese occupiers at the time. The song also became well known in Japan. This version is performed with a fairly standard kroncong accompaniment of two three stringed kroncong guitars, (the lower pitched cuk, and the higher pitched cak), cello, bass, violins, flute with the addition of Malaysian accordion player S.Atan. It features duet vocals by kroncong’s greatest male singer and composer Gesang, and female vocalist Waldjinah.

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