Indonesia For Beginners: Priangan and Gamelan Degung

Indonesia For Beginners: Priangan and Gamelan Degung

March 12, 2019

Written by:

Luigi Monteanni

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Over the past couple years there has been a huge, rejuvenated hype around Indonesia and its vast musical tradition. For sure, in part this is, unfortunately, caused by the sad events that are constantly hitting the archipelago, such as the two recent tsunamis in Palu and near the Krakatoa area, comprising Sumatra and Java.

This hype is also, probably, due to reasons more familiar to music: one such reason is the discovery of an Indonesian experimental and underground scene mainly based in Yogyakarta (henceforth referred to as Jogja), a scene which is slowly and progressively emerging. Here, the duo Senyawa basically functioned as a disruptive signal, that there was definitely something going on beyond the surface. In my opinion, another music reason for this hype has to do with the increasing tendency to use Indonesia (mostly Java and Bali) as a landscape to place hip music events in. This is a disposition to which more underground realities such as CTM are also subjected. What is sure, to avoid any naive vision of the nation, is that the new attention comes from a mix of social, economical and strictly geographical factors.


In this fashion, an interesting phenomenon I have been able to observe is, for example, the new attention which extended from the Jogja scene and Central Java unto West Java and Bandung, in particular. When I arrived in Bandung, to begin my research on a local performance, kasenian réak, at least three crucial phenomena were taking place, more or less all connected: Tarawangsawelas were releasing their first LP on Morphine records - Wanci - following in Senyawa’s footsteps, were a new chapter in the label’s exploration of Indonesia’s musical fringes. Palmer Keen, founder of the excellent website Aural Archipelago, was moving to Jogja. Europalia festival had chosen the nation to be represented and showcased for last year’s biennale.

While Palmer Keen has largely helped the popularization of West Java’s traditional music, due to his privileged geographical position and collaboration with artists such as Arrington de Dionyso, Rabih Beaini and Djif Sanders and Europalia along with Morphine records proved themselves to be perfect catalyzers to let the world discover some of the least known faces of Java (Karinding Attack above all). It’s also true that Bandung’s underground and, in general, West Java’s sonic under and upperworld - both traditional and contemporary - has been for decades (or, better say, centuries?) an active and pulsing reality, only waiting to be shared with a wider audience.

Two of the earliest and more or less direct attempts to make this tradition (both ancient and modern/contemporary) more known are the collections gathered in time by internet entities, such as Javasounds and Madrotter Treasure Hunt - the latter being a blog owned by a Dutch expat known across all of Java’s cassette shops, who is said to own more than four thousands tapes. Even more interesting, is the fact that Bandung was already largely known to metalheads for its extreme punk and metal music scene, which was alive and kicking since the Nineties.

Next I will dig a bit deeper into some of the musical styles and traditions I encountered and fell in love with, while I was doing my research in West Java, trying to give a couple of insights regarding these phenomena.

Disclaimer: this article does not claim any scientific validity outside the borders of the research I led. This piece aims to better explain some of the peculiarities of Sundanese music and a few of its native musical phenomena, which too often, such as many other styles, are flattened under the label of “Indonesian music”. This tag, in fact, even if not strictly erroneous, does not take in account the fact that Indonesia is composed by circa 300 ethnic groups, scattered on 17000 islands and two million square kilometers.

Gamelan Degung

From left to right: Bonang, Jengglong, goong and peking. Photo by Teguh Permana
From left to right: Bonang, Jengglong, goong and peking. Photo by Teguh Permana
I spent my time among the Sundanese, the second biggest ethnic group after the Javanese, located in the area that we might call Parahyangan (Priangan from now on), meaning the abode of the gods, a large portion of West Java, extending approximately from Bandung to Garut, Tasikmalaya and Cirebon.

The Sundanese have their own specific set of beliefs, their own costumes and etiquette and, of course, their own music. Of particular interest, at least for me, are the modern styles developed in between Sukarno’s and Suharto’s era, during which Western influenced but also very autochthonous modern genres, such as jaipong and pop sunda, have developed.

To understand these differences, we can start from something less modern, but equally useful: gamelan degung. For this brief account, I will mainly follow the texts and researches done by ethnomusicologists Sean Williams and Henry Spiller, which are better, more complete and more extensive texts than I could ever write. I strongly recommend them to anyone interested in Sundanese gamelan music.

Gamelan is imprinted in global imagination as the exotic music of Indonesia. It is known as a sacred and complex style of music, but little, outside of the academic and musical entourages, is really known to wider audiences. To start with, gamelan music can be very “simple” and inclusive. By “simple” I don’t mean easy to play: some of the styles and songs require levels of mastery that take years to be reached. At the same time, in almost all ensembles there are easier and much harder instruments to play and parts to perform. Since in rehearsals groups usually just play the whole sequence of songs without focusing on any specific part, learners can start from fairly easy parts, developing skills and expertise and thus moving to much harder tasks. Gamelan has a very cooperative nature, in which the sum of the parts is much more than the whole.

In this sense, in an ensemble, all members are equally important and everybody collaborates toward a common result. For this reason, the process of playing gamelan allows everyone to play immediately with other people, suggesting the idea that the group as a whole is more important than individuals. This is not to say that gamelan has no hierarchy: instruments are theoretically ordered in a precise power structure, according to which, higher sounds are perceived as of “lower-class”, opposite to bass, to the extent that the gong is often identified with aristocracy.

When we usually talk about gamelan, we do it as if it is a specific genre of music. On the contrary, gamelan, which literally means “bronze percussions orchestra” or, alternatively, “to hit” from the verb gamel, rather refers to an ensemble of instruments and, eventually, to the compositional rules their specific tuning bears. For this reason, according to the place of the ethnic group, we have very different gamelan styles and orchestras, the most well known being Javanese and Balinese ensembles. The differences between styles and approaches - which we have no time to explain in this context - do not only extend and differentiate in space, but also in time, leading recently to more contemporary experiments and results, such as Gamelan Salukat, led by composer Dewa Alit, Iwan Gunawan’s and Stefan Lakatos’ Moondog for gamelan and, finally, SambaSunda’s fusion world music tunes.

The gamelan music that inspired SambaSunda’s founder, Ismet Ruchimat, was the traditional Sundanese gamelan degung: an ensemble composed of a flexible set of instruments that may include bonang, panerus and peking (which plays various elaborations on the melody), goong and jengglong (which provide periodic punctuation), a bamboo flute, called suling (responsible for the melody along with bonang) and a set of barrell-shaped drums, called kendang or gendang (responsible to keep the tempo and to provide rhythmic improvisation). This iconic set is known by the name of degung klasik, classic degung.
From left to right: Panerus, Bonang, Goong. Photo by Teguh Permana
From left to right: Panerus, Bonang, Goong. Photo by Teguh Permana

Exceptionally Sundanese

When I arrived in Bandung, I had to practice and learn gamelan degung, because of its iconic links with Sundanese identity and philosophy, (or at least this is what was told to us), and of course, because it was easy. While gamelan degung may be little fun to listen to or to play, and even if it’s true that my practical competence of degung is not adequate, after one year of lessons, I must admit that, such as with any other genre of the archipelago, the developments of degung are quite interesting to investigate.

Pak Ismet once told me how his first experience experimenting with gamelan instruments - which eventually led to SambaSunda’s first songs - was in 1990, when he started adapting classic rock covers, such as The Eagles’ “Hotel California” and John Lennon’s “Imagine” on a diatonic degung ensemble, which eventually resulted in a cassette release titled Degung Dedikasi. Nowadays, many youngsters may find gamelan a little old-fashioned compared to contemporary mainstream music and that interest for those traditional forms of art may be shown only for experiments conducted in between Indonesian and Western mainstream tradition.

The gamelan ensemble called degung is believed to be exceptionally Sundanese in appearance, sound, and style, due to its tuning system, name of the instruments, disposition of the set and, in the end, number of instruments and players required. Compared to many other ensembles from Central Java and Bali, which are also much more known globally, degung is quite small. Six or seven musicians are enough to perform most of the pieces. The word degung apparently is an old Sundanese term, which refers to gongs and gong ensembles. For this reason, the words degung and gong are essentially synonyms for the word gamelan. At the same time, the expression gamelan degung may be a way to point at a gamelan ensemble tuned to degung scale.

Without going too deep into tuning systems and such, the scale to which the ensemble is tuned is called pelog degung: a specific version of the classic pelog scale, a seven-pitch and non-equidistant tuning system, in which the intervals between the seven pitches are different in size (from 90 to 400). The specificity of the pelog degung comes from the fact that, instead of being a seven-tone scale, some of its intervals are more similar to the salendro scale, which has five pitches. For this reason, pelog degung fits with salendro gamelan instruments (such as Cirebonese gamelan).

It is possible that what today is called degung originally descends from much older ensembles, brought by Mataram kingdom to Pajajaran kingdom in the area of Priangan, during their conquest of the land in 1600. In this fashion, gamelan could have been used politically to assert dominance and authority over Pajajaran and its aristocrats, to whom they delegated authority over much lower-class Sundanese population. At the same time, it is fairly possible that, in the courts of Pajajaran, ensembles similar to degung were already present.

Of course, degung’s elegant connotation comes from its origins, stemming from Sundanese aristocracy. However, it is different from the courts and the customs of central Java, which degung ensembles experienced since Indonesia’s independence and progressive democratization. Valued as community property, instead of heirlooms of the royal palaces, degung became the genre in which, even with a certain aura of class, a more and more egalitarian status could be experienced, bringing together the solemn lagu klasik (classic songs) but expanding the repertory with pop and rock music international hits and progressively including almost all musical styles.

In the 1950s, the Bandung station of Radio Republik Indonesia (RRI) started broadcasting the genre, which had been little known previously. Thus, major developments took place. Musicians at RRI Bandung first added a female chorus to their degung ensemble in the 1960s, penanbih songs were accompanied by plucked string instruments and suling imitating the gamelan ensemble and, on the other side, gamelan ensembles were tuned to the scale of penanbih songs. As a result, penanbih started to be sung to a degung accompaniment, creating degung kawih to point out the focus on light vocal music (kawih).

The result itself was, nevertheless, popular. Degung kawih not only added female vocalists (pesinden) and backup vocals, female players in traditional makeup, hairstyles and outfits, a kacapi zither and rhythmics patterns from groovier and more modern styles, such as jaipong and dangdut to classic degung ensembles, but also, eventually, a kempul and a pair of six or seven key saron.

The Cassette Era

During the 1970s and 1980s, all Sundanese music experienced various changes and innovations, which resulted in major changes also in gamelan degung. This era is known to people in West Java and especially in Priangan as zaman kaset: the golden age of cassettes. The music industry and market of cassette recordings in West Java and based in Bandung grew and increased throughout these two decades, producing an interest for modern, but still traditional, Sundanese music. This era is remembered as a golden age, because of the general economic boom that cassettes brought to musicians and because of the cassette technology. Cassettes were easy to obtain and purchase and they allowed both groups to exchange and record music, legally and illegally and, most importantly, to take part in disruptive and experimental projects.

The cassette era has also been, of course, one of innovation in the field of music and recording, as it granted continuative success to many of the releases curated during the period. Studio enhanced effects and production contributed at a great extent to cassettes galore and, for this reason, also to the widespread popularity of degung kawih, at the expense of degung klasik - The cassette Sangkala Degung by Grup Gapura became famous throughout Indonesia and was also released in the U.S. by ICON Records.

This made the first also a favourable genre for composition, given the availability of both players and instruments. From this perspective, degung not only experienced a democratization, but also a sudden opening of the genres to women, which are now strongly encouraged to take part in an ensemble.

Of course this has to be read under an ambivalent light: first, not all instruments, until a few years ago, could be played by women; kendang, for example, could not be played, because it forced the individual, due to the position required to play it (namely the lotus position), to spread his or, in this case, her legs. Moreover, as Shota Fukuoka tells us, the most difficult instruments were still played by men, who were often also the ones to record the studio version of the music. Historically, as the researcher points out, the role of women was also that of serving men and for this reason degung kawih, even if popular, was always regarded as low-class music.

In the end, beside the popularity of the figure of the female singer (largely underlined by Andrew Weintraub in his book on wayang golek, The Sundanese Shadow Play), another factor that really made a contribution in building the legitimacy and the status of degung kawih among the people, was the tendency to add, for both marketing and artistic purposes, at least one new song on every new cassette.

Western Vibes

The classic (“klasik”) repertoire is composed of approximately thirty songs, which are also often too difficult for young musicians to learn and play. In fact to be a “klasik” a song has to have a recognizable musical style: irregular formal structure, simple drum parts played with sticks, few melodic structures, that are common in many pieces, and simultaneous variations of the melody, executed by all instruments. Usually, a klasik, becomes a part of collective imagination to such an extent that it often “erases” the name of its composer, claiming that it is in fact unknown and almost becomes a collective intellectual property and heritage. This way the first was literally outnumbered by the second, determining a slow, but dramatic decrease of degung klasik cassettes production.

Of course, many Sundanese musicians, following their passion for Western pop music and culture, tried hard to combine those kind of sonorities with traditional degung music. Koko Koswara, also known as Mang Koko (uncle Koko), a renowned Sundanese musician and composer, pushed by the idea that music should always appeal to the audience, used traditional and non-traditional means for this purpose, and composed successes such as “Badminton” or “Pahlawan Bangsa” (“National Heroes”).

Anyway, not all people were convinced by this fashion for Western vibes. Nano S., Mang Koko’s pupil, was deeply concerned that according to this trend, the young generation could push traditional gamelan aside, preferring contemporary Western music. For this reason, given the similarity between pelog degung and Western diatonic scale, he composed melodies and pieces, such as “Kalangkang” (“silhouette / shadow / imagining / daydream”) that could fit with Western instruments, such as guitars or keyboards, as well as degung instruments. The song, released in 1986, was a complete success, a surprise for both its composer and its producer. Today, seeing these songs performed by a traditional ensemble is just as likely as hearing their midi version played in a karaoke bar.

At present, gamelan degung can be seen in all sort of contexts and, at least in my humble opinion, as a social phenomenon, it has accepted its own peculiar history and historical variations caused by invasions, pop culture, aristocracy, marketing decisions and enginery. Today it is possible to witness performances of gamelan degung (both klasik and kawih) in institutional contexts, as well as in private ceremonies, both hosted by the lower or higher classes of the population. While it still remains rather old-fashioned, it is still also a genre that is widely respected among Sundanese people, both young and old.

So, that is all for now. This article can count as an introduction. In the next three articles I will explore three other genres I personally love, had the time to follow and better understand during my stay in Priangan. At this point, terima kasih dan sampai kertemu lagi.

This article would not have been possible without the critics, the help and support of many friends and scholars. Therefore I would like to thank, in no particular order, Paolo Rossi, Palmer Keen, Laurent Jeanneau, Teguh Permana, Gigi Priadji, Alfred Pek, Henry Spiller, Antonia Soriente, Pak Ismet Ruchimat, Pak Indra Ridwan, Pak Dewa Alit, Robert Wessing, Matteo Pennesi, Alberto Ricca, Simone Bertuzzi and Vincenzo della Ratta.

*Edit: Claudiu Oancea
About the Author

Luigi Monteanni

Co-founder of post-geographical label Artetetra, Luigi Monteanni (Neurotica Exotica) is an anthropologist researching the ritual of Kasenian Réak in Bandung, West Java, as well as other Indonesia’s most contemporary outputs in terms of regional urban music cultures.

He is currently developing a project involving local groups and artists for the release of field recordings and the production of a documentary in collaboration with Gigi Priadji of Trah Documenter. His current interests concern the idea of exoticism during late globalisation.
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