Performing arts of Sunda (West Java)
Video Cassette ETHNO VC 2
Accompanying texts by Martin Clayton and Simon Cook
Performing arts of Sunda (West Java)
Featuring Gamelan Galura
This booklet accompanies the Open University video, Wayang Golék: Performing arts of Sunda
(West Java) (ETHNO VC2).
The video contains two main parts:
1. A film about wayang golék (rod-puppet theatre) and the related arts of gamelan music and
masked dance in West Java, and in particular the musicians and puppeteers belonging to the
Rasta family. This part lasts around 25 minutes.
2. A sequence of demonstrations of the Sundanese gamelan piece Béndrong and of its
individual parts. The demonstrations are designed to be used in conjunction with the
teaching text which comprises the second part of this booklet (see below).
All the material used for this video was shot on location in and around Bandung, West Java in
This booklet also comprises two sections:
1. An essay on the performing arts of Sunda - music, dance and puppetry - by Simon Cook,
formerly of the Bandung International School.
2. Teaching text and activities to accompany Section 2 of the video (which begins after
approximately 25 minutes). Written by Martin Clayton, this text is adapted from the Open
University course AA302 From Composition to Performance: Musicians at Work.
Faculty of Arts
Performing Arts of Sunda (West ]ava)
The province of West Java is the home of the Sundanese people. They comprise the second
largest ethnic group in Indonesia, after the Javanese, who live mainly in the provinces of
Central and Eastern Java. Despite inhabiting the western third of the island of Java, the
Sundanese are not Javanese, any more than the Welsh are English. The culture and language of
Sunda are quite distinct from those of Java, although they are also related in many ways.
Figure 1 Parahyangan in West Java is the heartland of Sundanese culture
Parahyangan, the highland region of West Java, is the heartland of Sundanese culture. This
area stretches from the cities of Bogor and Sukabumi to the west, as far as Tasikmalaya and
Ciamis to the east. It includes Bandung, the administrative capital of West Java, at one time
cal ed "the Paris of Java". Now, with well over two million inhabitants, this once leafy city
sprawls right across a huge basin surrounded by mountain ranges, dominated by a brooding
volcano. Rapid, uncontrolled urban growth has spawned air and water pollution, congested
housing and traffic, and alternating floods and water shortages. Gempolsari, the location of
the performance on this video, which until recently was a rural backwater surrounded by
green paddy fields, is now right on the edge of a crowded city outskirt dominated by textile
factories and an orbital motorway. The closely built-up neighbourhood in Cimindi, where the
Rasta family live, has for some years been under threat of demolition, to make way for a
runway extension for Bandung airport.
Parahyangan does not include the important cities on the north coast of West Java, notably
Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia. In this vast, seething melting pot, which dwarfs Bandung, the
Sundanese people are just one of many ethnic groups from all over Indonesia. The northern
coastal cities of Cirebon and Indramayu, with their own distinctive cultural traditions, also lie
outside the Parahyangan region.
Indonesia has the largest population of Muslims in the world. Islam plays an important role in
the daily lives of Sundanese people. At the same time, there is a wide range of attitudes
towards religious observance, which does not preclude the practice of older animist beliefs.
Wayang golék, the rod-puppet tradition featured on this video, is perceived as a vehicle for the
propagation of Islamic values, despite its roots in pre-Islamic mythologies.
2. The Arts
It is unusual, though not unheard of, to find Sundanese performing arts in a concert hall or
theatre. The usual occasion for live performances is the hajat, a feast given to celebrate a family
wedding, a circumcision, or an important official event or anniversary. Traditional y, Sundanese
hajat would be held at the family home, usually spilling out into the street with awnings and
chairs for guests. Increasingly, those who can afford it are finding it more convenient to hire a
large hall for the reception. Guests queue to congratulate their hosts, then eat and socialize.
The entertainment might typical y consist of jaipongan dancing or gamelan degung (described
below), kacapi kawih (a popular vocal genre accompanied by small zithers, fiddle or bamboo
flute, drums and gong), or tembang Sunda (a more prestigious vocal genre with large zithers
and bamboo flute). Despite powerful amplification, such entertainment is rarely listened to
attentively. If the celebration is a lavish one, it may also be followed by an all-night wayang
Indonesian society has seen enormous change in the fifty years since Independence. Under
former President Soeharto, economic growth brought about the emergence of a middle class,
whose members often have little involvement or interest in traditional performing arts. There
are televisions in even the humblest Indonesian homes, and they are usual y switched on.
Radios and cassette players are also ubiquitous. Only a small part of the music pouring from
these machines is Indonesian traditional music. MTV, European soccer and Mexican soap
operas loom larger in most people's lives than gamelan or wayang.
Nevertheless, traditional performing arts still have a strong minority fol owing, comparable
perhaps in size and dedication (though not in social status) to that of classical music in the
West. The Sundanese arts are responding in a dynamic way to the changing climate.
Experiment and fashion have long been vital elements of the tradition. Even among the more
conservative artists, pride in preserving the tradition intact does not preclude pride in being the
first to introduce some new element. For instance gamelan degung and tembang Sunda are
perceived as being two of the most "classical" genres, yet neither is much more than one
hundred years old, and both have changed radical y in the last fifty years.
In the Sundanese performing arts, young performers learn primarily through repeated
exposure, rather than through formal teaching. Being born into the right family, or at least
community, is almost a prerequisite for becoming a musician, dancer or puppeteer. Mass
communications have created a gulf among professional performers, between a handful of
highly paid superstars, and the rest, who struggle to make a living. This gulf is most marked
among dalang (wayang golék puppeteers). The most successful dalang, Asep Sunandar Sunarya,
may perform twenty nights or more each month, and regularly appears on television
and radio, and in the tabloid press. Most other dalang are lucky to perform more than once
every six months. Such exposure gives the superstars disproportionate influence in setting
norms and fashions.
The two most important kinds of gamelan in Sunda today are gamelan saléndro and gamelan
degung. Gamelan saléndro (featured on this video) is the ensemble used for accompanying
dance and wayang. It is tuned to saléndro, a pentatonic scale in which the intervals are
roughly equal (approximately 240 cents each). The tuning of a gamelan saléndro might be
represented approximately as:
(↑ here indicates a slightly sharper pitch; ↓ indicates a slightly flatter pitch)
Note that in Sundanese music the pitches are numbered from high to low. Exact tunings vary,
and are often demonstrably not equidistant if measured objectively. Nevertheless saléndro is
general y perceived by Sundanese musicians as consisting of equidistant (padantara) intervals.
Gamelan degung is a smaller ensemble (although individual instruments have a larger range).
It is tuned to a scale of five unequal intervals, pélog degung, approximately:
Sometimes gamelan degung is retuned to the sorog or madenda scale by removing the
pots and keys for the note 3/D, and substituting pots and keys tuned to a pitch
approximately one tone higher, 3-:
(The Sundanese equivalents of accidentals are minus and plus signs: 3- denotes a raised 3, and
5+ a lowered 5.) The sorog scale is often used in vocal music.
Gamelan degung developed in the courts of the Sundanese aristocracy, and has only
gradual y become more widely heard since the 1960s. Despite now often being used for 'pop
Sunda' (i.e. Sundanese pop music) arrangements, its aristocratic origins still confer on it a
higher status than gamelan saléndro. Degung is found only in Sunda, whereas gamelan
saléndro, on the other hand, originally came to Sunda from Central Java. Gamelan saléndro
is the ensemble general y preferred by the common people. In construction it resembles a
smal Javanese gamelan. It comprises the instruments listed in the table overleaf.
From Java also came the gamelan pélog, which has the same instrumentation as gamelan
saléndro, but is tuned to pélog jawar, a seven-note scale of unequal intervals. It is no longer
played very often in Sunda. Some of the top dalang currently use gamelan selap, in which the
saléndro, pélog degung and pélog jawar tunings are combined on elongated instruments
(perhaps comparable to the way a piano keyboard facilitates the playing of different diatonic
A pitched gong (c. 70 cm diameter)
A pitched gong (c. 40 cm diameter)
A set of 6 gong chimes (low pitch)
A set of 10 gong chimes (medium pitch)
A set of 10 gong chimes (high pitch)
A metallophone of one octave (low pitch)
saron I & II
A pair of metallophones of one octave
A metallophone of one octave (high pitch)
A xylophone of 3-4 octaves
Barrel drums (one large, 2 or 3 small)
A 2-stringed stick fiddle
A female singer
A male singer
A special feature of the saléndro tuning is that it can be used to accompany melodies in other
pentatonic scales. These melodies are sung, and played on the fiddle rebab. Usually the vocal
and instrumental scales have three notes in common, and these notes are stressed in the
saléndro accompaniment. For instance, saléndro pieces which feature the notes 1, 2 and 4
(approximately A, G and D) may accompany melodies in the sorog-type scale 5+ 1 2 3+ 4
(approximately B A G E D). An example of this can be heard on the video, towards the
end of the demonstration of Béndrong by the ful gamelan (c. 38'). The tempo slows, and the
singer and rebab player perform a melody called Kacang Asin ("salted peanuts") in this sorog
Saléndro pieces which feature the notes 1, 2 and 4 (approximately A, G and D) may also
accompany melodies in the pélog-type scale 5- 1 2 3- 4 (approximately C# A G F# D). The
contrast between the altered vocal pitches and the saléndro accompaniment gives the music
variety and expressive force. Saléndro is sometimes called raja surupan, "the king of tunings",
because of its potential to accommodate different Sundanese scales. This is often
cited as a reason why many people prefer saléndro to other, less flexible gamelan
Gamelan saléndro is also the usual accompaniment for Sundanese dance. Before
Independence, dancing was an important accomplishment among the aristocracy. At a social
gathering called a tayuban, they would take turns to perform alone. At the end of a dance, a
long scarf would be hung around the neck of the next dancer to perform. The sequence of
movements in these dances fol owed an improvised order. By the 1950s, dances were created
in the same style, but with prearranged choreography. This was called ibing keurseus,
"course dance" (i.e. learned through a course of lessons).
At about the same time, R. Tjetje Somantri was pioneering a more innovative style, intended
for stage performance, which used a wider vocabulary of movement. Kreasi baru or "new
creation" dances feature eye-catching costumes, and often depict colourful creatures or actions,
such as the tari Cendrawasih (bird of paradise), tari Kupu-kupu (butterfly), tari Merak (peacock
dance) and tari Tenun (weaving). The gamelan accompaniments typical y comprise novel
arrangements of quite simple pieces, interpolating catchy instrumental melodies, and employing
striking contrasts of texture and rhythm. Another kind of dance which has become popular in
the Sunda region is the masked dance topéng (as featured in the video from c. 11'), which
originated in Cirebon.
While in aristocratic circles the social dance was tayuban, among the common people it was
ketuk tilu. In the open air, ronggéng (female entertainers) sang, danced and flirted to the
accompaniment of kendang (drums), rebab (fiddle), kecrék (metal rhythm plates), goong and
three small gong chimes: the ketuk tilu. Male clients would pay the ronggéng to dance with
them. Some ronggéng were also prostitutes, and ketuk tilu has fallen into disrepute.
Occasionally it is revived in cleaned-up stage versions. Musically, the ketuk tilu repertoire is
rich and lively, and some of it is has been adapted for gamelan saléndro or degung. In the
wayang performance on this video, the music changes from Béndrong into Cikeruhan, a ketuk
tilu piece, to accompany an entry of the clowns (c. 15'). The singer Euis Rostini's gyrating,
come-get-me dance (glimpsed on this video) is not unrelated to ketuk tilu dancing.
Since 1980 the dominant social and stage dance has been jaipongan. This was created by
Gugum Gumbira. He blended elements of ketuk tilu and the martial art penca silat, together
with the red-hot jaipong style of the drummer Suwanda. It uses gamelan saléndro, although
this is often inaudible behind the relentlessly dynamic drumming. The music was promoted
through Gugum Gumbira's own Jugala cassette label, and during the 1980s became all the
rage. Elements of jaipongan drumming have been absorbed into wayang, and even gamelan
In all forms of Sundanese dance, the most important musical instrument is the kendang. The
drummer plays rhythmic patterns which should exactly match the dancer's movements. In
dances which have not been choreographed beforehand, this is no easy task, and a good
dance drummer is highly prized. The kendang accompanies the dance of wayang puppets in
exactly the same way.
The dalang Atik Rasta is himself an accomplished dance drummer, as we see in the video of
masked dance. Drummers without drums handy often vocalize the dance rhythms with
imitative syllables. Atik Rasta (with his father singing the rebab part in the background) drums
verbally while demonstrating the refined dance movements of the wayang puppet Arjuna
(13'35"), and again when his son Tia is dancing the more dynamic flying knight, Gatotkaca
Wayang golék purwa, the type of rod puppetry shown on this video, is found only in Sunda. Its
stories and form derived from wayang kulit purwa, the flat leather shadow puppetry popular in
Central Java. Its precursor in West Java was wayang golék cepak, rod puppetry based on
Islamic and indigenous Indonesian stories, which it began to oust in the early 20th century. The
stories of wayang kulit purwa and wayang golék purwa are loosely based on the Indian
Ramayana and Mahabharata epics, which came to Java with Hinduism some one thousand
years ago. They are spiced with many colourful indigeneous characters not found in India.
Some flat leather wayang kulit puppets are still used in wayang golék, notably the kayon or
gunungan, a pear-shaped stylized tree filled with animals, decorated with flames on one side.
This is a prop used to represent virtually anything, for instance a forest (kayu = 'wood'),
mountain (= 'gunung'), wall, building, fire, flood, wind, or dust cloud. It is also used to signal
the end of a scene.
Wayang is an expensive undertaking, and performances are sponsored by a wealthy individual
or institution, who thereby acquire considerable prestige. It is staged as part of the celebrations
of a marriage, circumcision, a momentous occasion or anniversary. Performances normally
happen out of doors, begin in the evening, and continue into the small hours. Seats and food
may be provided for invited guests, while the general public is free to mill around and watch.
The crowd also attracts cigarette hawkers, food sellers, purveyors of home remedies, gamblers,
and every conceivable form of pedal, horse and motor-driven public transport.
The dalang (puppeteer) sits cross-legged at the front of a square, covered stage of shoulder
height. Two soft banana tree trunks are placed across a stand in front of him, into which the
spike at the bottom of the central rod of the puppets can be stuck. To his left is the large
wooden chest, in which the puppets were carried to the performance. He cues the gamelan
saléndro at his back by knocking on the chest with a heavy round piece of wood, the campala.
Hanging loosely together on the side of the chest are several metal plates, the kecrek, which he
causes to crash loudly with his foot at appropriate moments during fight scenes.
The dalang has sole responsibility for manipulating the puppets, providing the dialogue and
narration (including long passages in archaic language), singing the kakawen (mood songs),
improvising jokes and slapstick, and directing the ensemble by giving percussive and verbal
cues. For some eight hours he has no opportunity to stretch his legs or relieve himself. The
only chance the dalang has to rest is during the lagu selingan, songs sung at the request of
members of the public. The titles requested are written on a piece of paper, enclosing some
money, and handed to the female singer during the performance.
The kendang player provides the main musical link between the dalang and the gamelan. As
wel as playing dance patterns, he adds sound effects during fights, signals transitions, or
adjusts the tempo to match the movement or action. Certain pieces (notably Karatagan and
the lagu perang, or battle music) contain phrases of indeterminate length: they last until the
kendang plays a pattern to cue the goong.
The gamelan players provide a running commentary on the action, heckle the clowns and
bad guys, laugh at the jokes and answer rhetorical questions. They enliven their playing with
the rhythmic, interlocking hoots and catcalls called senggak. They may also sing improvised
phrases (alok) while the female singers are resting.
Wayang golék works at many levels: pure entertainment, low-brow humour, promotion of
commercial products, propagating government family planning programmes, social satire,
creative etymology, philosophical, mystical or religious teaching, communing with the past,
narrative, benediction or even exorcism. Different members of an audience might focus on
quite different elements: music, movement, fights, jokes, slap-stick, sexy singers, archaic
language, vocal prowess, word-play, dramatic tension, gimmicks (such as puppets which
puff smoke or vomit noodles), a social gathering, a fun place to eat and drink. Wayang is as
diffuse and rich as life itself.
Buurman, Peter. 1988. Wayang golék: the entrancing world of classical West Javanese puppet theatre.
Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Cook, Simon. 1992. Guide to Sundanese music. Bandung.
Cook, Simon. 1993. "Parallel versions of tembang Sunda melodies in different tunings", in
Foley, Kathy. 1979. The Sundanese wayang golék: the rod puppet theatre of West Java Ph.D.
dissertation, University of Hawaii.
Fryer, Ruth M. 1989. Sundanese theory and practice in the performance of gamelan in Bandung, West
Java. Ph.D. dissertation, Queen's University, Belfast.
Hugh-Jones, Jonathan. 1982. "Karawitan Sunda: tradition newly writ; a survey of Sundanese
music since Independence", Recorded Sound 82: 19-34.
Manuel, Peter and Randall E. Baier. 1986. "Jaipongan: indigenous popular music of West
Java", Asian Music 18(1):91-110.
van Zanten, Wim. 1989. Sundanese music in the Cianjuran style: anthropological and musicological aspects
of tembang Sunda. Dordrecht: Foris.
Weintraub, Andrew. 1997. Constructing the popular: superstars, performance and cultural authority in
Sundanese wayang golék purwa of West Java, Indonesia. Ph.D dissertation, University of
Teaching text and activities to accompany Section 2 of the video
Gamelan is the name given to a number of related musical ensembles in Indonesia. These
ensembles comprise various types of instruments, the majority made of metal and most
struck with beaters. There are several gamelan traditions, of which three are particularly wel -
known. These three are, moving from east to west, the Balinese, Javanese and Sundanese
Most gamelan music is performed without the aid of notation, yet involves the co-
ordination of many parts, which interlock and overlap in a variety of ways. An obvious
question is, therefore, how can the members of the group keep together and produce
coherent music, without either playing from notation or memorizing impossibly large
amounts of music?
The demonstration part of the video (Section 2, beginning at approximately 25'), together
with the text and activities below, should answer that question. This section features a type of
Sundanese ensemble called gamelan saléndro. As Simon Cook explains above (p.5), this
music is based on a pentatonic scale, also called saléndro. The Sundanese use various
methods to describe this scale, the simplest of which is a numerical system in which each
note of the scale is assigned a number from 1 to 5; the Sundanese assign the numbers to a
descending scale, so that pitch 1 is higher than pitch 2 and so on. Pitches in the higher octave
are indicated by a dot beneath the number, and those in the lower octave by a dot above. The
scale is roughly equidistant, with pitch 1 approximately equivalent to A in the Western scale. I
have written out the scale in Example 1 in staff notation, although in fact you may find it
easier to simply follow the number notations than to 'translate' everything to and from
Section 2 of the video, headed 'Demonstrations', takes you through a few of the simpler
instrumental parts for the piece Béndrong. You may need to replay the relevant sections of
the video several times to complete each Activity. As we work through the various
instrumental parts you will gradually see how the structure of the piece works, with
overlapping instrumental parts working together to build up the overall sound.