Styles & Forms | Southeast Asia | World

Southeast Asian music owes much to its neighbours. Travellers, moving south from China, mixed with traders from India and Arabia. Later arrivals added to the mix; the Philippines are Spanish-American, Vietnam is French-Chinese, and Malaysia is Arabic-Chinese-Indian-Portuguese-British. Add the latest economic invasion and it’s a wonder that any unadulterated music survives. But it does.

In Indonesia, Javanese gamelan ensembles still play court music that dates back to the eighteenth century; the tribes of Borneo are trying to preserve their folk traditions and the Buddhist orchestras of Myanmar, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia celebrate the heroes of the Hindu Ramayana, introduced to Indochina from Indonesia in the ninth century.


In a region where traditions have been casually discarded, it is noticeable that those who have been isolated have the strongest links with their classical roots. Laos and Cambodia were backwaters when the French ruled Indochina, and the pinpeat orchestras (gongs laid out in large horseshoes, xylophones, drums and woodwind) are still to the fore at festivals. However, enthusiasm is limited among the local population, and performances by orchestras or the classical ballet companies are rare.

In Thailand, which has never been colonized by a European power, the orchestra tradition (known as piphat, but influenced by Khmer and Laotian music) is stronger, and a number of ensembles are able to support themselves. The most famous is Bangkok’s Duriyapraneet, which formed in 1898, while Fong Naam are highly regarded for their fusing of classical music with jazz.

In Vietnam – isolated by its politics for much of the late-twentieth century – the classical traditions resemble the Chinese folk operas (hat cheo) and historical tales (hat boi) from which they developed. Both are in danger of losing the support of the indigenous population, although the Nhac Cung Dinh group is trying to keep alive the court music of Hué, the capital prior to the abdication of the last emperor in 1945.


Although Western pop seems to be all-conquering in the cities, the prevalence of isolated tribes has ensured the survival of many unique forms of folk music. To hear it, though, often requires a trip into the wilderness, as it may not even travel as far as the nearest city. The gamelan (orchestras that feature metal or bamboo xylophones, gongs and drums) is still synonymous with Indonesia, especially Java, Lombok and Bali. The latter island is also home to kecak, the monkey chant, in which men imitate the animals’ cries while sitting as if in a trance.

In the Philippines, there is a tradition of music in the islands of Mindanao, although much of the traditional knowledge has been lost. Only a few singers and musicians, such as Sindao Banisil, are still flying the flag. In eastern Malaysia, gong ensembles can be found throughout Sabahand Sarawak, and the sape (a cricket-bat-shaped guitar) is making a comeback of sorts. In peninsular Malaysia, the ronggeng, a Portuguese-Arabic fusion from Malacca, has ascended to the position...

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Source: The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Music, general editor Paul Du Noyer


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