Music of Southeast Asia - Folksongs, Ensembles, and More!

The culture of music in southeast Asia is varied and rich. With a lot of similarities between cross-country religions and traditions, the traditional music of this region will enrich your visit with vibrance and energy. From boat-shaped harps to orchestras with 50 instruments, they have it all.

Here is a brief guide to the music of Southeast Asia:

1. Vietnam

Hanoi water puppet show (Source)

Vietnamese music consists of imperial, ceremonial, folk, hip-hop, and rock music. Their traditional instruments can mainly be divided into four categories- plucked strings, bowed strings, winds, and percussion. Folk music itself has eight types, one of the most popular of which is Cra Tru. It is a form of sung poetry, including three artists and Vietnamese lyrics. It is extensively found in the northern part of the country.

An orchestra is a big deal in Vietnam. It always accompanies operas, plays, and puppet shows, including water puppets. A highly recommended experience in Vietnam is to view a concert on the steps of the Opera House in Hanoi. The audience attends the show sitting on scooters.

2. Malaysia

Malay instrument (Source)

The music of Malaysia is bright and inclusive. It’s more like ‘east meets west’ and includes traditional, contemporary, folk, and syncretic music. The traditional side has four major branches - Malay, Indian, Chinese, and indigenous tribal music. Malay, the classical music of Malaysia, is vivacious and colourful. You can’t help but tap your feet while beholding the charming skits, plays, and dance performances. It includes over 14 different instruments and tells the story of joy, life, and dynamic movement.

The Indian music in Malaysia majorly includes two styles-the north Indian Hindustani styles and the south Indian Carnatic style. Carnatic music is extensively played throughout the country; at various temples, weddings, and religious ceremonies. Punjabi Bhangra is also popular in the festive and wedding season. The Chinese branch includes an orchestra, usually with 15-50 members, and string, wind, and percussion instruments. It also accompanies Lion Dance performances.

The tribal music ( Dayaks, Semang, Kenyan, etc) is mostly about the harvest, war, shamanism, and other likewise events. It includes instruments like flutes, harps, tubes, chordophones, xylophones, and violins in rituals, marriages, and signing ceremonies. The Western music of Malaysia includes pop, metal, rock, hip-hop, and the most popular- jazz. The Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra is the prominent orchestra in the nation for western classical.

3. Singapore

Mosaic music festival in Singapore (Source)

Singapore does not have a native music per se but is influenced by neighbouring nations, various ethnicities, and muti-cultured settlements. The population of Singapore altogether comprises Malays, Chinese, and Indians, along with other small populations. Chinese music is quite popular in the country since they make up a significant population. There are different dialects even within the Chinese community itself, but the most popular music form is the opera. The orchestra for the opera includes instruments such as gongs, flutes, trumpets, drums, and fiddles.

The Malay music is generally inspired by the neighbouring countries of Indonesia, Thailand, and Malaysia. Vocal forms such as ghazal, dikir, and Barat are quite popular, including styles such as Dondang, Sayang, and Keroncong. The Javanese Gamelan, a form of the orchestra, is widely practised in the Malay community of Singapore. Within the Indian community, the south Indian dance and music forms have had much effect on the music scene of Singapore. Forms such as Bharatnatyam fused with Malay or Chinese styles are popularly practised, along with bhajan and Carnatic forms of Indian music.

4. East Timor

Timorese dancers (Source)

The music of East Timor highly reflected on the history under the rule of both Portugal and Indonesia. In modern days, it majorly associates with the independence movement. The traditional folk music of East Timor has been brought to various countries through refugee camps. The lyrics are dominantly sung in Tetum or Portuguese.

There are 24 traditional instruments in East Timor, including buffalo horn, gong, tohin, and Lakadou. The most prominent instrument is the Babadook, which is played during tebe dai- a beloved line dance of the nation. Guitar has also been a vital part of East Timorese music, brought in by the colonizers. Foreign influences also brought in music like rock and roll, hip-hop, and reggae.

5. Laos

Lao mor lam musicians (Source)

Laos' music comprises much of the music of the Tai ethnic group. It is similar to the traditional music of Thailand and Cambodia. However, Laotian Mor Lam is considered more sacred than Thailand. The stories told by the singers constitute topical, colloquial, and often bawdy content, and are accompanied by khaen (bamboo mouth organ) and colourful troupes.

The regional music of Laos majorly has three regions- Luang Prabang, Vientiane, and Champasak. In Luang Prabang, Lao court music took the lead and developed to high levels, but unfortunately cannot be seen much in modern music. In Vientiane, the regional style is highly influenced by Thailand, including ensembles for festivals, marriages, and other purposes. In the southern region of Champasak, the music is a mixture of Khmer influence, Thai, and indigenous Lao traditions.

6. Myanmar

Two harpists playing the Saung (Source)

As the culture flows in Southeast Asia, the music of Myanmar is similar and influenced by the neighboring countries. Western music caught on in the 1930s despite the government’s intervention and a flame 0f classical music was lit during British rule. Mahāgīta is a collection of Burmese classical songs descended from the Burmese royal court and forming the basis of classical music in the nation today. It includes melodies like pat Pyo (royal court music), Iwan chin (songs of longing), bole (songs of sorrow), myin gin (a song that makes horses dance), etc. 

Burmese music features instruments such as the brass se, hne, the bamboo wa, and the boat-shaped harp- saung. The folk traditions include a form named byaw, which is often played at religious festivals, with a beat of a long and thin drum. An ensemble (named hsaing waing) is used in Burmese theatre and is made up of different gongs and drums. 

7. Brunei

Dombak instrument (Source

The music of Brunei is downright influenced by Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, and Indonesia. The influence of the Islamic religion in the nation somewhat regulates the dance performance and music of Brunei. The native folk music includes Aduk-Aduk, which is a ceremonial dance performance by the Kedayan children before birthdays and at the end of the harvest season. 

It also includes a group work song by the name of Adai-Adai, that is sung by fishermen while fishing. The percussion instruments include drums and coconut shells. The Malay population is admired for a dance called Zapin, which includes instruments such as the gambus dan Biola, dombak, and rebana. Malay folk music is played at various fests and celebrations. Benari is another folk dance that is performed during various festivals. 

8. Cambodia

Khmer music instrument (Source)

Cambodian music is a fusion of cultural traditions from the Khmer empire, India, China, and the indigenous tribes of the nation. Pinpeat is a form of the orchestra played in the ceremonial music of the royal courts. It includes nine to ten instruments along with dance performances, shadow, and masked plays, and ceremonies. Mohori was a form of less formal entertainment but is not played much now. 

The village music of Cambodia includes kar boran music for weddings, araak music for communication with spirits, and various kinds of theatres. Temples have a korng Skor ensemble including gongs and drums, as well as a pin peat orchestra. Cambodian rock and pop were introduced in the late 1950s, including slow jazz and dance music. 

9. Indonesia

Percussion instruments of Indonesia (Source)

Indonesian music is extensively diverse, spread over eighteen thousand islands with several ethnic groups. Islam has a considerable influence over the culture and music, accompanied by dance and theatre. The islands have plenty of indigenous instruments such as drums (bedug and rebana), suling (flute), and various types of gongs. Angklung, made of bamboo tubes, is one of the most prominent instruments of the country. 

The traditional forms of Indonesian music include Gamelan, Tembang Sunda, Dangdut, and Qasidah. Gamelan is a 50-80 instrument orchestra and Tembang is a type of sung poetry, with indigenous instruments. Dangdut is a prominent form of music in Indonesia, which has been borrowed from Hindustani and Arabic music. It forms Indonesia’s own pop genre and has been inspired recently by Western rock and Malaysian music. Qasidah is an Islamic form of poetry, quite popular in the city of Jakarta. 

10. The Philippines

Kadayawan Festival in the Philippines (Source)

Music in the Philippines is described as ‘indivisible from life’. It is a paramount part of civilian and rural life, being the bailiwick of the nation. The music describes the daily life of commoners and villagers, along with nature and the divine. Vocal music holds the better half of the music and is sung higher than an octave. Filipino music is a jumble of traditional and western music, both with the same intensity and power. It reflects Asian, Spanish, American, and indigenous influences. Chinese, Indian, and Islamic can also be seen to some extent. 

The traditional indigenous music consists mainly of Gong music. The flat gong, popularly known as gangsà, is played by the administrative region of Cordillera, on the island of Luzon. The bossed gongs, on the other hand, are played among the Islam and animist groups of the southern Philippines. 

Hispanic music is also a significant part of the country. It was introduced by Spain in their rule of 333 years, more so in the Tagalog and Visayan regions. It has four major types- Rondalla music (a traditional orchestra), Harana and Kundiman (lyrical songs dating back to the Spanish rule), Tinkling (dance with bamboo poles), and Cariñosa (the national dance reflecting affection and love).

11. Thailand

A music festival in Thailand (Source)

The music of Thailand delineates the geographical location of the country. It is a major part of the music in southeast Asia, consisting of instruments and traditions from all of the region. They have instruments like the jakhe (Indian origin), the klong jin (Chinese origin), the klong khaek (Indonesian origin), and the klong thap (Persian origin). The traditional music included Luk thung and Mor Lam.  The words ‘Luk thung’ translate to ‘song of a child of the fields’. It is more popular among the rural class, depicting atrocities faced by farmers, social practices, and affectionate love. It developed around the mid-twentieth century, with lyrics in Thai, Isan, and Lao. The music is harmonious with a slow tempo and beats. 

Mor lam also describes the village life and was originated in Laos. It is a paramount part of folk music. Like Luk Thung, it has a slow tempo, with lyrics in Thai, Isan, and Lao. However, the new version of Mor Lam is upbeat and fast-paced, with various western instruments. The pop influence started in the country in the 1930s with jazz. Although Thailand was never colonized, the music (hip-hop, metal, rock) made its way through the neighbouring countries.

This post was published by Pranjali Jain

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