Hear the Angklung, Hear the Singing Bamboo

Angklung performers with the conductor in concert

I felt so sleepy that night. But when I was playing switch channels as usual, my eyes tethered on Metro TV. Kick Andy, a program similar to Oprah Show, was broadcasting a story of angklung performers’ group. Ah, angklung. I knew this traditional music instrument by school lesson a long time ago, but never been attracted like that night. Hence, no more sleepy eyes.

Angklung is made of two bamboo tubes attached to a bamboo frame. The tubes are carved so that they have a resonant pitch when struck. The two tubes are tuned to octaves. How does it work? The base of the frame is held by a performer with one hand while his other hand shakes the instrument rapidly from side to side. This causes a rapidly repeating note to sound.

Based on Balinese mythology, angklung consist of two words; “angka” (tone) and “lung” (broken, incomplete, or gone). So, angklung could be meant as a broken or incomplete tone. Each angklung performer can play just one note. Certainly it’s incomplete! Consequently, angklung never be played by one performer.

Angklung is popular throughout Southeast Asia, but originated from Indonesia. I remember my elementary school teacher told me that Balinese and Sundanese (people in West Java) had their own angklung. But historically, Sundanese has longer period of using and developing this instrument. We strongly believe that it is them who had invented angklung.

In its development, angklung spreaded and reached almost all region in West Java, and being played to enrich the traditional ceremonial in Banten, Baduy, Sukabumi, Cirebon, etc. Angklung has its special functions related to religious and ritual matters, e.g. to honor Dewi Sri (goddess of fertility according to Indonesian’s ancient belief).

Nonetheless, it also used for the entertainment purposes. For example, angklung played along with other Sundanese traditional arts and culture as musical background. The Sundanese also used to play it to escort the soldiers and warriors before they went to a war. Later, Padjajaran Kingdom played this instrument as corps music in Bubat War.

Then this “beautiful sound of bamboo” got more international attention when in 1938 Daeng Soetigna, from Bandung (West Java), developed it as not only to play traditional pentatonic scale, but also diatonic scale. Since then, angklung was often mutually played with other western music instruments in an orchestra.

Angklung

In the same time, angklung was functioned for building the community spirit too. It was still used by the Sundanese until the colonial era. In that period, the Dutch East Indies (colonial government) did forbid people to play the angklung. By that, the popularity of this instrument decreased and it came to be played only by children at that time.

But it was the past. Nowadays, angklung is an heirloom witch attracted not only Indonesian. In the early 20th century, this musical device has adopted by Thailand and many Austronesian neighbors.

In the TV program I mentioned previously, there were young people from Philippine, New Zealand, and Japan who have been falling in love with angklung. They near the end of the show played couple of Indonesian pop songs by angklungs. It was exotic, even for me, Indonesian. It’s not due to the songs, since the songs are familiar for me. It just heard like… sounds of the other world. Uniquely distinct. [photos from Angklung Udjo]

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