What is Angklung?

Found on a number of islands in Indonesia, notably Java, Bali and Lombok, angklung is a type of gamelan with very ancient roots. There are many theories about the origins of both the instruments and the scale, but, after nearly 19 years of living in Bali and researching Balinese gamelan, I see angklung as having agrarian, village roots that are probably older than the courts of Indonesia. In Bali, there is literary evidence about angklung as early as 1022.

Angklung instruments in Bali have either a four or five tone scale, the most popular being the more ancient four tone. Angklung scales are generally more evenly tempered than other types of ensembles and seem to be related to or based on the types of melodies you hear sung to babies and young children as lullabies.

There are two main types of angklung instruments in Bali, which are both percussive: shaken rattles and keys made of bamboo, coconut wood or bronze which are hit with mallets. I think that hundreds of years ago there were only instruments and orchestras made of more primitive and easily accessible materials, such as bamboo, palm and wood. Over time, with the introduction of bronze technology and trading, Balinese started to replace them with more sophisticated, resonant instruments made of bronze.

Angklung ensembles with angklung rattles are still popular in Sunda (in this case, all of the instruments are rattles), East Java and Lombok. Today in Bali – bar a handful of ensembles in East Bali and one in Sayan, Ubud that was created by Collin McPhee – ensembles with bamboo instruments are on the verge of extinction. By far the most common angklung orchestras are ones made up of primarily bronze instruments – these are also known as klentangan which refers to a type of instrument with four pot gongs that has an unusual instrumentation and playing technique.

© 2016 Vaughan Hatch

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