Rise of Indonesian Music: Then and Now

Just like being the largest archipelago (a place with many islands), Indonesia also possesses a vast range of more than 300 ethnic groups. With 700+ living languages and a wide range of cultural diversity, Indonesia’s music history has been created over the generations. Every region of this country holds a unique culture and traditional music is part of the zone. Indonesian music though not much known by the rest of the world, especially the traditional music, still manages to have an understated appeal to the tourists. Just like any type of music varies from one another in terms of genre, the music here is sorted as per the history, tradition and modern influence accordingly.

1. Gamelan


The most popular variety for music here is the Gamelan, an orchestra majorly played in the islands of Java and Bali. So the next time you tour Bali other than sunbathing on the beaches and sightseeing, engage with some Gamelan music. Predominantly Gamelan has the usage of percussion instruments like for example variations of metal gongs beat with mallets (akin to a hammer). Other than gongs there are instruments like metallophone or Gender is a series of a tuned bar placed or hung together, xylophone or Gambang kayu, Bonang, similar to gong except this version is placed flat on a solid force. To attain a continuous melody in this genre suling or flute is used especially during a theatre performance.

Other few of the instruments are kendhang, kenong , Peking, saron and slenthem. Kendhang or drum holds a dominant status for controlling the tempo and transitioning from one part to the other in most of the musical acts. Gamelan can differ as per the region of Java, Bali, Sunda and Madura each of them more or less having a different version than the other.

Both vocal and instrumental music in Indonesia is based on two scales of the slendro and the pelog. While Slendro has pentatonic (5 notes) scale, Pelog is heptatonic (7 notes) scale and is the oldest music scales in the history of Indonesian music.

2. Javanese Gamelan

Vocal performance either single or group is what a Javanese Gamelan can be best described as. Along with the large ensemble of bronze instruments, the show Wayang (a drama sequence using puppets) are inspired by the storyline of Mahabharata and Ramayana. Javanese Gamelan is slower, meditative and has a calming effect in comparison to its counterparts.

Few travel agents also include this lively drama performance as part of Indonesia tour packages for their tourists visiting the country. This form was earlier performed in royal palaces and still continues the legacy till date at certain palaces.

3. Balinese Gamelan


One of the Balinese styles of Gamelan is the Kecak, a dance drama believed to be developed in 1930. Widely performed in temples and villages as a victory dance, the instruments used here belong to the percussion category. Make sure you visit Uluwatu temple on your Indonesia tour, as the temple has Kecak dance performances for their tourists. Uluwatu temple dance is the most popular site to witness Kecak, where at least 150 members perform by chanting chak chak, depicting the intense battle of Ramayana.  Also known as Ramayana Monkey Chant, the dancers here include the main characters of Rama, Sita, Hanuman, Jatayu and the chanters.

Faster than the Javanese Gamelan, the beats here are dynamic with a happy tempo and also has an interlocking style. Meaning different groups of people play different rhythm in a specific pattern all forming a complete musical expression.

4. Sundanese Gamelan

Gamelan Degung played in the West Java region of Sunda in Indonesia uses modernized gamelan instruments. On the pelog scale, Degung is played with flexible instruments of bonang, saron, panerus, kendang, suling , gambang, jengglong and goong ageung. This form of music is the main celebratory kind of music specially at public congregation and events.

5. Vocal Music

A pasindhen or sindhen is a female singer who sings in the gamelan. A pasidhen can sing in wayang (orchestra) or gerong (along with male chorus). The wordings of the songs might be different from the male counterparts in gerong and with this female singers got the opportunity to lead the troupes.

A Gerong, also called as Penggerong is the word used in reference to the male chorus used in gamelan. It is more of a group thing singing in unity with a unified pulse rather than expressing individuality. All the members of gerong are connected with each other during the performance in terms of vocal parts.

6. Contemporary Indonesian music


With globalization and the influence of foreign /Western music, there has been a rise of contemporary music over the years. The culture and outlook of people belonging to Indonesia have led to Indo Pop, Rock Indo and Jazz fusion being few of the contemporaries.

Rock Indo music is expressive about individualism, modernisation of the nation in today’s times. Some bands also perform with Dangdut, which is a kind of folk music and is quite popular with both instruments and vocals. Partially derived from Hindustani and Arabic music, Dangdut has its presence in Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and Brunei as well. Just like any type of the band, this also has a male or a female lead singer and at least 4 or utmost 8 musicians supporting them.  Few of the popular Indonesian Rock bands are Andra and The Backbone, Jamrud, J-Rocks, Cokela, Gigi to be named few.

Indo pop has been largely influenced by America, Britain, Japan or other Asian countries as well. Originated in 1960, Koes Plus is considered as the pioneer of Indonesian Pop culture. It is believed that Koes Plus was inspired by The Beatles, a popular English band of 1960. Angnez Mo is one of the popular solo singers who has carved a name of herself in the music industry here. Currently, she works as a coaching panel for The Voice Kids Indonesia along with her singing and acting career.

Thus, a vast change has occurred in Indonesian Music culture since the time once it was only traditional gamelan. It has come a long way replacing former traditional instruments to contemporary implementation.

This post was published by Snehal Jadhav

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