Sundanese Music

The notes on this page are derived primarily from my article on Sundanese music in The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music, volume 4 (Southeast Asia). Fortunately for those interested in Sundanese music, a growing number of resources has made exploration easy. These resources include Henry Spiller's Gamelan: The Traditional Sounds of Indonesia, Andrew Weintraub's Power Plays: Wayang Golek Puppet Theater of West Java, my own The Sound of the Ancestral Ship: Highland Music of West Java, and Wim Van Zanten's Sundanese Music in the Cianjuran Style. Those are just the books! You can also find our articles in the Asian Music Journal, Ethnomusicology, The World of Music, Oideion, Balungan, Asian Theatre Journal, and The Yearbook for Traditional Music.

To hear Sean's gamelan ensemble play Palsiun, CLICK HERE [MP3]

The Sundanese are Indonesia's second largest ethnic group. They live in the province of West Java (also called "Sunda" by many foreigners), encompassing the interior highlands, the coastal areas, and Cirebon, a culturally distinct region. The boundary between West and Central Java lies at the eastern foothills of the Priangan Highlands, and a wide band of west-central Java from north to south incorporates cultural elements from both West and Central Java. Those who consider themselves ethnically and politically Sundanese speak Basa Sunda in addition to Bahasa Indonesia (the national language), and most Sundanese are Muslims. When the Sundanese refer to their performing arts, they are careful to describe what they call khas Sunda -- that which is characteristically Sundanese -- a designation that bears a sense of regional identity.

Sundanese Gamelans

A large proportion of Sundanese music is performed on gamelans, sets of bronze or iron instruments supported by carved wooden racks. A Sundanese gamelan usually consists of a core group of metallophones (saron), horizontal gong-chime sets (bonang), vertically suspended gongs (go'ong), and a set of barrel drums (kendang). Other features, including xylophones, aerophones (flutes or oboes), a bowed lute, and vocalists, are included according to the type of ensemble. Pieces for gamelan are normally organized in cycles, with the ending of each cycle marked by the low pitch of the go'ong. These cycles may be played many times in a single piece. The drummer demarcates the cycle by outlining specific patterns; he also acts as the timekeeper, coordinator, and controller of dynamics. Gamelans in West Java encompass a variety of types, from the ubiquitous five-tone gamelan saléndro to the rare seven-tone gamelan pélog, the multi-laras (multiple-tuning) gamelan of Asep Sunandar Sunarya, and the five-tone gamelan degung. Gamelan saléndro is used in instrumental performance, and as the accompaniment for a solo female vocalist, a dance, or the Sundanese three-dimensional rod-puppet theater (wayang golèk).

In addition to the standard instrumentarium of metallophones, drums, gong chimes, and gongs, it includes a bowed lute (rebab) and usually a female vocalist. It is versatile and can be played in nearly any context, particularly at important social events, like weddings, ritual feasts, and neighborhood celebrations. Gamelan degung is the other primary Sundanese gamelan; in addition to the usual instruments, it also includes a set of six hanging gongs (degung or jenglong), which gives the ensemble its name. Gamelan degung is frequently used for weddings, and shifted during the latter half of the 20th century from an instrumental ensemble performed primarily by men to one in which the ensemble serves as accompaniment to female singers. In addition, the new repertoire of pieces is less challenging to perform. Women now dominate the performance of gamelan degung, with the exception of the kendang (drum) and suling (bamboo flute), which are still always played by men.

Bamboo Ensembles

The three main types of Sundanese bamboo ensembles are angklung, calung, and arumba. The exact features of each ensemble vary according to context, related instruments, and relative popularity. Generally speaking, bamboo instruments do not have a strong market in the recording industry. Angklung is a generic term for sets of tuned, shaken bamboo rattles. It is found in many other places in Indonesia, but its greatest variety occurs in Sunda. It can use many players of tuned, shaken rattles, a single tarompet (double-reed oboe) player, and a set of four drummers playing conical drums (dog-dog). Angklung rattles are played in interlocking patterns, usually with only one or two instruments played per person. The ensemble is used in Sundanese processions, sometimes with trance or acrobatics. Performed at life-cycle rituals and feasts (hajat), angklung is believed to maintain balance and harmony in the village. In its most modern incarnation, angklung is performed in schools as an aid to learning about music. Like those in angklung, the instruments of the calung ensemble are of bamboo, but each consists of several differently tuned tubes fixed onto a piece of bamboo; the player holds the instrument in his left hand and strikes it with a beater held in his right. The highest-pitched calung has the greatest number of tubes and the densest musical activity; the lowest-pitched, with two tubes, has the least. Calung is nearly always associated with earthy humor, and is played by men. Arumba refers to a set of diatonically tuned bamboo xylophones, often played by women. It is frequently joined by modern instruments, including a drum set, electric guitar, bass, and keyboards.

Zither Ensembles

The Sundanese zither (kacapi) often serves to represent Sundanese culture. It plays as either a solo or an ensemble instrument, associated with both villagers and aristocrats. The instrument may take the form of a boat in tembang Sunda, or the form of a board zither in kacapian. It is sometimes drastically modified to include more strings, electric and electronic devices, and various styles of playing. Pantun is a genre of Sundanese epic narrative, most often performed by a blind male vocalist who accompanies himself on the kacapi. The performance of pantun usually occurs as part of a ritual Sundanese feast, and can last for most of the night. Tembang Sunda is a type of sung poetry developed in the regency of Cianjur in the late 1800s. Its topics include Sundanese history, aspects of nature, mythology, romance, heroic figures, and tragedies. In performance, one or more singers are accompanied by an 18-string zither (kacapi), a smaller, 15-string zither (rincik), and a 6-hole end-blown bamboo flute (suling). Tembang Sunda is traditionally performed in the evenings for the descendents of the Sundanese aristocracy. Kacapi-suling developed during the 1970s as an instrumental offshoot of tembang Sunda, using the same instruments by without the vocalist. In a typical performance (still primarily in recordings, as kacapi-suling is rarely performed live), the kacapi player outlines a cyclic structure of a song and the suling player improvises a melody based on the original song from the tembang Sunda repertoire. Kacapian refers to a flashy style of playing a board zither, and it is known as one of the sources of Sundanese popular music. It can be accompanied by a wide variety of instruments, and can be played instrumentally or as the accompaniment to either a male or female vocalist.

Popular Music

For decades, the Sundanese have enjoyed performances of locally created popular music. In addition to nationally popular genres, such as dangdut and kroncong, the Sundanese have developed a unique regional style, pop Sunda. It began as a Sundanese musical imitation of American and European popular music played on Western band instruments, with performances in diatonic tuning and singing with a heavy, operatic vibrato. The language, Basa Sunda, was almost the only factor indigenous to the area. In the 1980s the Sundanese composer Nano Suratno reshaped pop Sunda to include performance in the pélog tuning system; he created a large number of hit songs that used traditional ensembles like gamelan degung, and successfuly blended pop music with Sundanese traditional music. Since that time, pop Sunda has come to re-incorporate Western rock and pop instrumentation, and local composers and performers have explored many genres of popular music, including reggae and rap.