Given the enormous cultural and ethnic mix that makes up Indonesia, it’s hardly surprising that the range of traditional music and dance across the archipelago is so vast.
Best known are the highly stylized and mannered classical dance performances in Java and Bali, accompanied by the gamelan orchestra. Every step is minutely orchestrated, and the merest wink of an eye or arch of an eyebrow has significance. Ubud on Bali and Yogyakarta on Java are the centres for these dances. Yogya is also the main place to catch a performance of wayang kulit, shadow puppet plays.
A gamelan is an ensemble of tuned percussion, consisting mainly of gongs, metallophones and drums, made of bronze, iron, brass, wood or bamboo, with wooden frames, which are often intricately carved and painted. The full ensemble also includes vocalists – a male chorus and female solo singers – and is led by the drummer in the centre. A large gamelan may be played by as many as thirty musicians, and is a communal form of music-making – there are no soloists or virtuosos.
Sundanese (West Javanese) degung is arguably the most accessible gamelan music for Western ears. Its musical structures are clear and well defined, and it is played by a small ensemble, but includes the usual range of gongs and metallophones found in all gamelan.