Indonesian Folk Music

• Folk and Traditional Styles

Indonesian Folk Music


Indonesia is home to a wide variety of peoples and cultures that encompasses 17,500 islands, 300 languages, numerous religions, and a wealth of vocal and instrumental styles. Because of this diversity, there is not specific Indonesian folk music that can be said to represent all people in the country. To summarize this vastness here would be impossible, but there are some particularly well-known styles that can highlight the beauty of this immense country's music.

Indonesia is an archipelago, or group, of islands found in Southeast Asia that spans from the island of Aceh in the west to Irian Jaya (one half of New Guinea) in the east. The capital, Jakarta, is a city of over 9 million people and is found on the island of Java that lies roughly in the middle of the archipelago.


The gamelan music of Java and Bali is far and away the most well-known Indonesian music style outside the country. There are many different types of gamelan ensembles, from formal, ceremonial ensembles to more informal folk groups. Though labeled under folk music here, many gamelan styles can arguably be called art music because of the professional nature of the musicians and composers.

Much like an orchestra in the United States, gamelan ensembles contain combinations of many different types of instruments, including metallophones, drums, cymbals, flutes, plucked lutes, gongs, and even vocalists.

Gongs are the most visible and audible instruments in a gamelan ensemble. In Java, gongs called kenong are laid flat on a frame and arranged like teapots in a row. Two or three musicians sit behind the frame and play kenong with short sticks. Other gongs are hung vertically with rope from large wooden frames. The largest gong of the Javanese gamelan is called the gong ageng and is almost a yard wide. Its deep, resonant vibrations sound from the strike of a soft mallet.

Some instruments, like the wooden flute called the suling as well as the singer, play and sing the melody. Most instruments play repeating cycles of notes of differing lengths. As a result, Javanese gamelan tends to create a clock-like, soft, ethereal soundscape. In the Balinese gamelan style called gong kebyar, the sound is quite different, with an emphasis on rapid, rippling pitches. To create the incredibly fast melodies, two players alternate every other note using a technique called kotekan.

Wayang Kulit

In Java, another function of the gamelan ensemble is to accompany the incredibly popular wayang kulit, or shadow plays. In wayang kulit, puppeteers manipulate intricate puppets behind a white screen that captures their shadows cast by a single lamp. A gamelan orchestra accompanies the action on the screen while singers and actors help share folk tales, religious stories, and local legends. Hundreds of people will come after sunset to watch and listen to the tales told in the shadow plays.


In addition to a love of gamelan, the island of Bali has many other musical styles including a fascinating style called kecak. In the past, kecak performances were sacred events held at temples, but recently the have moved to concert stages and hotels as a result of tourism. Taken from the Hindu epic Ramayana, the dance tells the story of Prince Rama who battles the evil King Rvana with the help of monkeys.

At a kecak performance, over one hundred performers or more will often take the stage. Generally, they begin seated inside a circle facing inward. Growing softer and louder, the performers chant the word "chuk" in interlocking, polyrhythmic patterns to create a very complex sound. At various times, a leader will give calls and the performers move about, raising and waving their hands to help tell the story.

Folk Into Popular

Just scratching the surface of Indonesian folk music gives one a sense of the wonderful diversity found in this country. Folk music has helped spawn new styles of popular music as well. The thriving popular music scene includes styles such as dangdut, a Western-style pop music with an Indonesian flavor, and jaipongan, a popular dance club style from Sunda that uses traditional Sundanese instruments like gongs and drums. Popular styles are helping to bridge some of the cultural divides that exist between the many peoples of Indonesia.