The Republic of Indonesia is the largest archipelago in the world, comprising more than 17,500 islands. Around 6,000 of those islands are inhabited by the nearly 242,000,000 people who represent approximately 300 ethnic groups. Because of this profound diversity, the notion of a single, unified "Indonesian culture" is problematic, and it is difficult to make meaningful generalizations about the nation's music. Instead of using one lens, then, to explore the vibrant world of music in Indonesia, one must glance at the complex relationships between religion, language, technology, ethnicity, history and culture.
The relationship between religion, spiritual practice and music in Indonesia is a very important one. The spread of Islam throughout Indonesia, beginning in the 15th century, brought the religion's music to the archipelago. Today, 88 percent of Indonesians proclaim the faith, and much contemporary music-making is connected to or mixed with elements of Islamic music. Music is also intertwined in the spiritual practice of the four other official religions of Indonesia: Christianity (divided into Catholicism and Protestantism), Hinduism and Buddhism. There remain much more than mere remnants of animist beliefs and practices in many areas of Indonesia, although the national government does not recognize any of these forms as a declarable religion. The form of Islam found in Java, particularly, is tinged with Hindu-influenced and animist systems, and the experience of music is deeply involved in these nonorthodox practices.
Certain kinds of instruments, including gongs, flutes, percussion instruments and lutes, are found throughout the archipelago, unconfined by regional boundaries. The use of such natural materials as bamboo and wood in the fashioning and construction of these and other instruments is widespread, as is the appearance of bronze gongs, pots andespecially in Java and Balibars. Vocal music plays an intensely significant role throughout the regions of Indonesia, and it takes various formslong historical narratives, courting and love songs, devotional praise melodies and children's songsin different areas of the country. Many musical ensembles in Indonesia are made up of series of pot gongs (also called gong-chimes), accompanied by drums and traditional gongs. These ensembles can be found throughout the archipelago, from Sumatra to Flores. While cross-regional similarities clearly exist in both instrumental and vocal music, it is essential to remember that diversity of style, form, context and cosmology is the hallmark of the various strains of music found in this vast archipelago.
Indonesia's expansiveness is fragmented by the seas, straits and oceans that separate one island from another, and there has been little acceptance of or appreciation for the music of one region by members of another area, partially as a result of this segmentation. Inside an individual region, though, a given musical or dance form may continue to flourish, despite the lack of attention it receives in surrounding areas. The European cultural influence on music in Indonesia is an essential one to note. The style of "national" music is based on European musical idioms, in part because attempts to establish the music of any particular ethnic group in Indonesia as "national" have been unsuccessful. Patriotic songs, then, including Indonesia's national anthem "Indonesia Raya" ("Great Indonesia"), Christian church hymns and popular music all employ European music concepts. There are also many musical hybrids, like the popular kroncong, that combine elements from the European music tradition with regional styles and musical ideas.
In the 1990s, Smithsonian Folkways released a 20-volume series of recordings of the music of Indonesia. Produced in collaboration with the Indonesian Society for the Performing Arts (Masyarakat Seni Pertunjukan Indonesia, or MSPI) and recorded, compiled, edited, and annotated by musicologist Philip Yampolsky, this series presents a remarkably diverse array of well-recorded musical offerings. This resource provides the opportunity to sample many of the lesser-known musical genres and traditions of Indonesian music. Music in modern Indonesia is constantly changing: urban popular music continues to grow in popularity and new musical forms, genres and ideas develop. At the same time, individuals and communities continue to participate in traditions of music-making that have long been important parts of their social, political and religious lives. Bethany J. Collier