Indonesia 2016

Javanese Music

One of the things that came most highly recommended to me about Java was its music: both because it was apparently great, and because it varies greatly throughout the country. I am no stranger to museums and ruins, but practical things like music and dance I have less experience of, so I was keen to explore those things more fully — something that is more-or-less quite easy to do here.

So far we’ve had two experiences with Javanese music — the first being a centre for angklong music, Saung Angklung Udjo, in Bandung. We were thrilled to be able to visit, not least because it was on the outskirts of the city and therefore a little bit less polluted.

Angklung is a traditional percussive instrument that’s like a combination between a xylophone and pan pipes. They vary from fairly small to enormous, and are made of various types of bamboo. On arriving we learnt that the centre schedules daily performances using the angklong at 11, 2, and 5. Except, dear reader, only one was scheduled on the day we were there, for long after we were due to leave. It is remarkable how often these things happen to us — when I realised, I was irritated, but had felt a clone of that irritation so many times that I was able just to switch it off and replace it with a mild sadness.

Nonetheless, never fear: we were still able to have a guide d tour by two of the staff (immaculate women, a foot shorter than us both, with expensive accessories and enthusiastic English). They photographed us walking and talking with them, so I guess it was a fair trade. We visited the chap who carves the angklung pieces themselves, and has been doing so for forty years. His sense of pitch was outstanding, and he carved a bamboo switch into a key at “doh” pitch within three minutes.

The other highlight was a real live fruit bat in a cage, nestled cosily upside down, wrapped tight in its wings. On approaching it, our guides told us that the founder of the centre had died about fifteen years ago, then left us to take pictures. Was this his bat? Was he reincarnated as this bat? Is this a memorial bat? We will never know.

Here’s an example of the angklong concerts that this centre does from YouTube. I’m so sad never to have heard it in real life, bar my own plinking of the angklong that I was allowed to touch.

The other example of Javanese music was in Yogyakarta at the entrance to the Sultan’s Palace, where traditional arts of varying kinds are performed each day. Elderly men in traditional garb (a ceremonial sword, black shirt, and long skirt (like Indian lungi) made of batik, a Yogyakartan handmade cloth) guarded the area carefully, and there were long benches for tourists.

Apart from a glorious photo opportunity, which the majority of attendants relished, it was also beautiful, eerie, and hypnotic music. I loved how it seemed so calm and seemingly cyclical — each time building up to a crescendo where the vocalists would begin to clap rhythmically, then ebbing to a slow, precise rhythm to build up once more.

I really hope I’m able to see more — and I absolutely appreciate the opportunity to see the examples I’ve seen. There’s nothing like learning about a culture in a way that’s neither under glass nor made of ancient rock.