Indonesian President Sukarno banned rock ‘n’ roll in 1961. He wanted the country, less than two decades independent of Dutch imperial rule, to remove outside cultural influences.
Sukarno had a particular hatred for The Beatles, ordering their albums to be burned along with literature, films, and other music from the West. He had Indonesian bands, such as Koes Plus, jailed for playing American-style rock.
While the move by Sukarno was certainly restrictive on his people, it was exactly what Sundanese composer and entrepreneur Dr. Gugum Gumbira Tirasondjaja needed to revive and reinvent one Java’s traditional art forms.
In 1974, Gugum debuted his creation, jaipongan. The combination of music and dance was an updated version of ketuk tilu, a type of social dance in which small gongs, spike fiddles, and barrel drums provided the background for ronggeng. Ronggeng were female singers and dancer who often doubled as prostitutes at the events.
Gugum’s jaipongan incorporated gamelan orchestras, increased the tempo, and swapped ronggeng for pesindhèn, who functioned solely as singers. Male singers were occasionally used as well.
Although it has an unusual and somewhat unfamiliar edge to it for Western listeners, this take on the traditional artform certainly has some pop appeal.
Itoh Masyitoh’s “Naon Margina”, a collaboration with Group Rineka Swara, was released in 1980 via Indonesian label Dian Records. This is just about all of the available information on the record, making it one of the most well-publicized jaipongan records on the Internet.
This record oozes experimental pop appeal. Even if it is something entirely different, it’s hard not to make comparisons with familiar pieces of art when presented something so alien.
The absolutely frenetic gamelan drum work, hard panning pitched percussion runs, and piercing vocals on here make it sound like one of Björk and Arca’s collaborations, filtered through the lens of early 1980s Indonesian culture.
Every performance on this record feels essential.
The gamelan drums are the driving force here. Never settling for a second, they give the record a sense of movement. The constantly shifting patterns give an improvisational feel that keeps the listener on his or her toes. The metallophones, conversely, provide a trancelike atmosphere as they run up and down scalar patterns in wonderful stereo. They ground it a bit. And of course, the vocals.
Itoh’s vocals often sound childlike, in tone but certainly not in skill. Every vocal bend, raw dynamic climax, and alternating fast and slow melody ties the sense of exigency in this album up together masterfully.
Look no further than the record’s titular opening track for a display of how earnest folk-pop can create an otherworldly emanation of urgency.
Throughout West Java and Jakarta, jaipongan was interpreted in many different ways.
While certainly still of the same genre, Putra Pandawa’s “Tuturut Munding” feels vastly different.
The drums take a more traditional tempo. If the gamelan orchestra on “Naon Margina” makes the record feel like a sprint, “Tuturut Munding” takes a much more relaxed walking pace.
The record is less texturally rich, offering a more lo-fi soundscape. While this may seem like a negative criticism, it works well here.
These songs are haunting and ominous because of the different instrumentation and recording. The low quality of the recording contributes to the feeling of distance from the music to the listener. The more subdued nature of the instrumentation leaves more space for the vocals to creep in.
On tracks like “Abdi Ngiring” the vocals, once in their highest dynamic range, completely overtake and possess the rest of the music. It’s the kind of intimacy that holds you close, whether you want it or not.
The jaipongan hype reached a peak in the 1980s, when Western influences had become more welcomed in Indonesia. Break-pong, a subgenre in which the performance music was mixed with hip-hop, saw popularity throughout the country. Jaipongan spread out of Asia into Europe and the United States, where dance troupes and musical ensembles still perform.
The genre, despite a failed attempt to ban jaipongan for being “too erotic,” it retains a large underground audience in its homeland.