Not Your Average Pop Music: The Fusion of Indonesian Tradition and Western Modernity

“Pop” music is known as music of the masses, but it takes different forms in every culture. With the common thread of Western influence, it is interesting to see what other cultures create. In Indonesia, these creations take multiple forms. The videos below demonstrate different aspects of Indonesian pop music that involved the incorporation of social, political and religious ideas as well as the integration of tradition and modernity. Both videos allow the viewer to see and hear the fusion of East and West. Play the videos first without watching it and then play it again to see the instruments that are being used to make this music. The interesting combinations of sounds and genres can be noticed through both the audio and video.

The impact of Western culture on the creation of pop music began simply with the introduction of Western instruments to this part of the world. The Europeans brought with them “their string and brass instruments along with European vocal styles” (McGraw). These introductions were important to the growth of Indonesian pop, but the generation that brought about the more contemporary incorporation of Western culture and influence to Indonesian music came with the style of dangdut that is demonstrated in this video below. Dangdut appropriately falls into the category of pop music for the masses because

“Dangdut grew out of poor, urban Indonesian culture and sung of the hopes, loves and destitution of the country’s lower classes” (McGraw).

The artist highlighted in this video and in the textbook is Rhoma Irama. His motivation to create this fusion music was fueled by an initial interest in Western rock, so he wanted to be able to provide an Indonesian sound that also suited the musical tastes of the younger and more modern generation.  This performance shows the combination of rock instruments and traditional instruments and how they are incorporated to make a more Eastern sound.

With this analysis of this aspect of Indonesian culture I wanted to point out that there are interestingly different styles of Indonesian pop music. This video shows an aspect of Indonesian pop music with a performance by the Krakatau group. In the text Titon mentions, “Krakatau involves a careful synthesis of Sundanese gamelan and fusion jazz” (347). In many of the videos of Krakatau performances the vocals are not present, but the addition of vocals in this video accentuates more of the Sundanese  themes as opposed to the jazz themes. The singer uses the same dynamics and whispering techniques that many jazz musicians and singers use, but the language in which she is singing as well as the tones she uses infuses the Sundanese aspect of the music.

Globalization is very apparent through both of these videos. However, as we have spoken about in class it gets difficult to trace back the origin of many different sounds, styles, and instruments because we do not know if things developed simultaneously in different countries or if they were introduced through merchants. While these videos show apparent differences and influences they may be harder to recognize through just sound. For example, Irama’s use of Indian and Malaysian influence could easily be lost in the future. Not only are the sounds of these performances very interesting in understanding the evolution of Indonesian music, but watching them also shows the performances are very different in scale and social setting from the traditional gamelan music. They are used for very different purposes. The physical juxtaposition of the different instruments in these videos looked peculiar to me at first, but the sound and harmony they create together makes a very pleasing sound. Even though the Krakatau group uses the gamelan the music they produce would not be used at festivals or rituals like in the Javanese culture or in processions like in the Bali culture.

McGraw, Andrew. “Indonesian Pop Music.” National Geographic. Web. <;.

Sutton, R. Anderson. “Asia/Music of Indonesia.” Worlds of Music: an Introduction to the Music of the World’s Peoples. By Jeff Todd Titon. Belmont, CA: Schirmer Cengage Learning, 2009. 345-52. Print.


2 thoughts on “Not Your Average Pop Music: The Fusion of Indonesian Tradition and Western Modernity

  1. These two videos were absolutely fascinating specimens of globalization and blending musical cultures at work. I particularly enjoyed the first video, which was the song Romantika, by the famous Indonesian pop artist Rhoma Irma. As the author of the post points out, this style of music brings together western rock-n-roll instruments and indigenous instruments with wonderful ingenuity. But western “rock” instruments were not the only foreign instruments I see in the video. On stage are a mandolin and a saxophone player. The mandolin is a western instrument that is more prevalent in western folk and classical styles of music, and the saxophone is seen in jazz and western classical most often. These two instruments are played in a pop-rock style here in the video, but I thought it was interesting that Rhoma Irma delved deeper into western musical instrumentation beyond the basic rock-n-roll guitar-bass-drum-keyboard lineup seen in rock-n-roll and pop-rock.
    The author of the post also mentions that this fusion style music, dangdut, is a product of the lower classes, and reflects their struggles and emotions acutely. I find this interesting because western rock-n-roll , at its roots and throughout its history, has frequently centered on these same topics. Also, both dangdut and rock are seemingly youth-oriented musics, and subsequently have young and vibrant music cultures.
    Just as rock-n-roll has grown enormously into hundreds of sub-categories, I am left wondering about the musical progression of dangdut, and how varied and different all of the music that falls under the category of dangdut really is.

    -Nathan Kistner

  2. This post really stuck out to me, mainly because I was exposed to a lot of Indonesian music when I lived in Southeast Asia. When I visited Jakarta and Bali, I definitely noticed a lot more pop music than anything else that we have learned about in class. In the streets of Indonesia, one notices Dangdut blasting from local vendors’ radios, or in small shops that line the streets.
    I particularly enjoyed the examples that the author posted, mainly because of the different styles and instruments that were used. I was intrigued by the blending of western music with traditional Indonesian music, especially with the use of such western instruments like the saxaphone and electric guitar– I had never thought about how globalization played a huge part in the music culture in Indonesia, especially after the recent economic and political struggles in the nation after the Asian financial crisis and resignation of military leader Suharto. However, as the author mentions, the genre of Dangdut rose out of the class struggle, representing the hope and pride of a nascent democracy.The one question that I am left with, however, is whether there is indeed a pattern of new genres and adversity in newly developing countries. I feel that adversity seems to cultivate the arts, and this situation seems to fall perfectly with that hypothesis. Does the overall theme and lyrics of Dangdut songs reflect this?

    Cindy Zu

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