Music of Indonesia: The Present Position of Guitars

June 2016
Person playing guitar

By Philip Yampolsky

Excerpted from the liner notes for Smithsonian Folkways Recordings' Music of Indonesia, Vol. 20: Indonesian Guitars. To learn more and read the entirety of the liner notes, click here.

The Present Position of Guitars

The guitar occurs in a relatively small number of genres of Indonesian music, but it is prominent nevertheless, since some of the genres in which it figures (pop, dangdut, kroncong) are known throughout the country. It is used only in entertainment music and what we may call religious popular music (e.g. qasidah, moderen, which is musically close to dangdut; and, in some contexts, Protestant and Catholic church music which have, since the 1970s or so, borrowed from the pop idiom in an attempt to become more accessible and appealing to congregations). The guitar has no role in ritual music anywhere in the country. (We hasten to add: so far as we know. We have often had to revise our generalizations about the whole country.)

In genres that use guitar, it can have one of three main functions: (1) playing the sole or principle accompaniment for singing; (2) playing the lead melody in ensembles of mixed instruments, or providing a secondary melodic/rhythmic element in those ensembles; and (3) imitating the sound of other instruments. We will take these up one by one.

Principal accompaniment for singing.

Probably the most common use of guitars in Indonesia is to accompany informal singing of popular songs, church songs (in Christian communities), and regional or national folk songs (lagu rakyat; these are taught in school or are generally known but are not perceived as originating in commercial popular music). Nearly everywhere you go, you will find someone sitting in front of a house or at the side of the road, strumming a guitar and singing songs of this type. The accompaniment usually consists of simple tonic-dominant harmonies. Formal, polished performances of these songs, often in three- or four-part vocal harmony with guitar accompaniment, may be given by small choirs or vocal group (so spelled, or Indonesianized to vokal group) for public events like community celebrations of national holidays, television appearances, or in church. Vocal groups are particularly strong, for some reason, among the Toba Batak, but they occur in many parts of the country.

There are also a number of other genres of singing that are accompanied by solo guitar or by homogeneous ensembles of guitar with one or more additional plucked lutes (ukulele, mandolin, another guitar, etc.). (These ensembles are "homogeneous" in contrast to the "mixed" ensembles, where the instruments are not all of the same type.) Three such genres are presented here: gitar tunggal, found throughout southern Sumatra, and Lampung) and heard here in recordings from South Sumatra (tracks 3 and 10) and Lampung (tracks 2 and 7); sayang-sayang of the Mandar in South Sulawesi (tracks 1 and 6); and songs for the four-stringed jungga of Sumba (tracks 4 and 11). Still other genres of this type, not included in this album, are karambangan from Central Sulawesi and makaaruyen and kalelon from the Minahasa region of North Sulawesi. At least on cassettes (we have not heard them live), these Sulawesi genres are all sung in thirds-based harmony by male-female duos or all-female duos and trios, over guitar accompaniment resembling that of the Mandar genre sayang-sayang (as described in the note to track 6).

We can distinguish among these guitar-accompanied genres according to the structure of their song texts. (The reader should bear in mind that both of the song-text structures described here in connection with guitar accompaniment are also found in many genres of accompanied singing that do not involve guitars.)

Sayang-sayang, four-stringed jungga songs, and most varieties of gitar tunggal have texts made up of independent verses: a singer spontaneously strings together verses of the same stanza form, chosen from the singer's stock of memorized verses, or sometimes composed on the spot. The verses are "independent" because the order in which they are sung is not determined in advance, and the verses are not tied to a fixed narrative line; each verse is complete in itself. The singer seeks to make the verses appropriate to the occasion and the nature of the audience; if there are two singers, one will often try to choose a verse that relates in some way- in topic, imagery, or in the use of a key word- to the previous singer's verse. Typically, a single melody is repeated over and over for all verses.

Karambangan, makaaruyen, kalelon, lagu pop (pop songs), lagu gereja (church songs), and lagu rakyat (folk songs), on the other hand, all have fixed texts, where the lyrics and their sequence are predetermined and are not subject to spontaneous reordering or alteration in performance. Often, each fixed text has its own tune, so fixed-text genres tend to have a larger melodic repertoire than independent-verse genres.

In most cases, guitar-accompanied genres have texts of one type or the other, but not both. If both types are performed within one genre, one singer will typicall specialize in one type. For example, while most gitar tunggal performers in southern Sumatra sing independent verses, we recorded one, Usman Achmad of Lampung, who sings fixed texts. He told us that he himself composed the texts, because he found independent verses unsatisfying. (See the note to track 2.)

We suspect there is a tendency for independent-verse genres to turn into fixed-text genres. Kroncong, for example, shifted from independent verses to fixed texts in the 1920s. (See the note to track 8.( The Central and North Sulawesi fixed-text genres (karambangan, makaaruyen, kalelon) may also have followed this path, deriving (we imagine) from an independent-verse genre with accompaniment in sayang-sayang style.

A final point regarding texts: so far as we know, there are no genres in Indonesia where the guitar accompanies extended sung narrative- no guitar- accompanied counterpart, that is, to such genres as dendang Pauah, rabab Pariaman, kentrung, pantun Sunda, sinrilli', etc.

Mixed ensembles.

By this term we mean anything using more than one type of instrument (not counting voice). There are, of course, innumerable mixed ensembles in Indonesia, but not so many with guitars. So far as we know, the only kinds of music played by mixed ensembles that do include guitars are: the national popular music kroncong, which is now dominated by langgam repertoire (track 8 here; also volume 2); langgam Jawa (a Javanized offshoot of kroncong and langgam; volume 2); bidu in Timor (track 9 here; also volume 16); urban los quin in south Sulawesi (see the comment on track 6 here); yospan in Irian Jaya (volume 10)l Hawaiian, the Indonesian form of which originated in Ambon and enjoyed a limited national popularity for a long while (ca. 1930-1980) but now has largely returned to Ambon; katreji in central Maluku; togal in Halmahera (volume 19); the perhaps sui generis "cross-cultural music" of the group Suarasama (track 12 here); and jazz, pop, and dangdut (and dangdut's pious cousin qasidah moderen) in Jakarta and other major cities.

Of these mixed ensembles, nearly all use fixed texts for vocals (or no texts at all, in the case of katreji). We do not know what text form is used in bidu. Only togal and the old form of kronkong (up to the 1920s) - and conceivably bidu- use  independent verses.

In pop, dangdut, qasidah moderen, and jazz, the guitar usually or often has a leading melodic role; sometimes it takes the lead for a while and then cedes it to keyboard, flute, or other instruments. The guitar in these ensembles is usually electric (always in dangdut and qasiadh moderen). In pop and jazz it may sometimes be acoustic; in Suarasama's music it is always acoustic as a matter of principle. In the genre Hawaiian (or Hawa-ian), the electric Hawaiian guitar is, naturally, the lead. It is also sometimes the lead in katreji and in the langgam repertoire of kroncong (track 8 here), but it is not an indispensable member of either of these ensembles; the typical melodic leader in both is violin.

In the remaining mixed ensembles (kroncong, langgam Jawa, bidu, togal, yospan, urban los quin, katreji), acoustic guitars figure as supporting instruments, playing chords, decorative lines, or (in bidu) a combination of melodic drone and rhythmic ostinato. This is true even for yospan, where guitars dominate numerically: the melodic lead is taken by the voice, not any of the guitars.

Imitations of other instruments

There are a number of instances in which guitars play in the manner of other instruments. WE could have listed most of these in the earlier categories, as solo/homogeneous accompaniment or as mixed ensembles, but their imitative character leads us to group them separately.

The most elaborate example is tarling in Cirebon, West Java, where two or more guitars plus flute, drums, and gongs imitate all the parts of a Cirebon gamelan. The guitars are the melodic leaders of the ensemble.

We heard a report of a quartet of guitars in Bali that imitate the music of the gamelan kebyar, but we could not track this down. The ethnographic film-maker Dea Sudarman told us that Dani children in Irian Jaya play jew's harp music on twelve- or sixteen-string guitars, plucking with both hands, but we did not have the opportunity to seek this our either. In Sumba we met a guitarist who had developed a technique for playing the music of the four-stringed jungga (tracks 4 and 11 here) on the guitar; he was, he said, the only person who could do this. And we have heard a commercial cassette, made in the early or mid-1980s, in which a Sundanese guitarist (Ujang Suryana), along with flute and female singer, imitates Sundanese kacapi (zither). This cassette bore the genre label hitar harirang (slow [i.e. plaintive] guitar). Andrew Weintraub, a specialist in Sundanese music, says (personal communication) that he knows of several older musicians who could play in kacapi style on the guitar.

Cilokaq or giciloka' in Lombok is a mixed ensemble including one or more guitars played in the manner of gambus. Typically, the violin has the melodic lead. Seebass et al. (1976:47) reported an ensemble with an electric melody guitar, called gambus gitar, and an electric bass guitar; the gambus gitar sometimes doubles the violin's melody and sometimes decorates the violin line with simple ornamentation (but no harmony).

At one point we wondered whether sayang-sayang and gitar tunggal might themselves be the result of attempts to imitate gambus on the standard guitar, since the areas where these guitar styles have developed are strongly Muslim and the gambus has long been present there. But the idioms of the two instruments sound so different (compare the recordings here with gambus on volumes 11, 13, and 15) that we could not convince ourselves of a connection. (You try it.)

Why is there so much experimentation with imitating other instruments on the guitar? In part, it must simply be fun to try to make the guitar sound like something else. Even if the result does not develop into an established genre, like tarling or cilokaq, it is an intriguing novelty. There is probably an element of enjoyable incongruity in hearing the music of old-fashioned instruments, often ones associated with the village, played on the guitar, which is perceived as modern and urban; or transferring older music to guitar may serve as a way of keeping the music alive. In the case of tarling, it is said that there was also a practical impetus: according to legend, the music was played to entertain the Indonesian revolutionary soldiers in their mountain hideouts in Cirebon, where portability was a necessity and a gamelan would have been an impractical encumbrance.


Plausible speculation (Seebass 1996:234) proposes that members of the guitar family- small four-stringed lutes resembling the modern Portuguese cavaquinho and braguinha (and thus resembling the common ukulele, itself a descendant of the braguinha)- were first brought to Indonesia by crewmen of Portuguese ships in the sixteenth century. Larger four- or five-stringed guitars (violāo) may have come at the same time, and Spanish ships may have brought the vihuela. Dutch and English colonizers may have brought newer versions of the instrument in later centuries. (But, interestingly, guitars and guitarists do not figure among the many European instruments and slave-musicians listed as property of the wealthy Batavian landowner Augustijn Michiels at his death in 1833 [Lohanda 1982: 383-384].) The first incontrovertible evidence of modern guitars (not ukuleles) in Indonesia does not come until the end of the nineteenth century- in, for example, Weber's 1890 report of guitar-making in Flores (cited by Seebass 1996: 236n; cf. Kunst 1942: fig. 9), or the listing of a guitar as one of the prizes to be awarded in a Christmas raffle in Semarang in 1901 (the newspaper De Locomotief, 14 December 1901). The instrument may have been established in Indonesia before that time, but we cannot be sure. Nor does the musical evidence of the genres themselves compel us to place the guitar in Indonesia before the late nineteenth century. (Recall, for example, that there is no guitar-accompanied narrative. If the guitar had been established in Indonesia since early colonial times, we might expect it to be used in narrative, as the violin is.)

Many of the genres incorporating guitar can be clearly shown to have emerged in the twentieth century: pop, dangdut, qasidah moderen, jazz, tarling, langgam, langgam Jawa, Hawaiian, hitar hariring, yospan, kebyar, vokal grup. Kroncong achieved its modern form in the 1920s. Evidence regarding urban los quin and cilokaq is lacking, but they certainly seem to share the characteristics of other, clearly twentieth-century genres; indeed, it seems likely that they are to some extent local imitations of modern kroncong.

Some genres are probably older. The legend that the roots of kroncong as an independent-verse genre lie in the sixteenth century may well be true, though we don't know when the standard guitar entered the ensemble. Urban Eurasian kroncong groups, of the type that clearly included guitar from ca. 1900 on, are reported from at least the 1880s, but the reports do not give details of instrumentation. Katreji, using acoustic guitars for chords and rhythm, may have developed in Dutch military camps in the late nineteenth century (see the discussion in the togal section of the notes to volume 19). A few genres offer no clue as to their time of origin: bidu, togal, sayang-sayang, gitar tunggal, jungga songs. Early twentieth century- perhaps earlier for the jungga songs- sounds reasonable to us, but it's just a feeling, not a fact.