©Sally Arnold

A Music Lesson in West Java

Many years ago when I first started learning Indonesian, I found a set of rather curious Indonesian language cassette tapes (remember them) in a thrift shop in Sydney. They were recordings of simple stories on an odd collection of subjects: the weather in Japan, New Year’s Eve in Scotland, the life history of an Australian pop star, and the story of Pak Udjo and his angklung music school in Bandung, West Java. I listened to these tapes repeatedly until I could understand every word and turn of phrase. The last line reminding me, that if I ever had the opportunity to visit Bandung, be sure to visit Pak Udjo.

For many years our trips in Java just passed trough Bandung, we transferred from the train station to the local bus station, with no time to stop in between. I was delighted, when a change of itinerary now included an overnight stop in Bandung, along with the inclusion of a performance at Angklung Udjo.

Angklung is a bamboo musical instrument made from a series of bamboo tubes, that when shaken produce a single warm tone. It is a traditional Sundanese (the ethnic group of West Java) instrument, that is also popular all over Indonesia, and its neighbors. I refer to it as ‘the recorder of Indonesia’, in that (like the recorder), it is simple to learn, and most school kids in Indonesia will have their first music lessons on this instrument. In 2010 UNESCO added the angklung to the representative list of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

Anklung Udjo Foundation began in 1966 by the late Udjo Ngalagena and his wife Uum Sumiati, with the aim of preserving the cultural Heritage of the Sundanese. The foundation is continued today by their son. The school offers free classes for children from the surrounding villages where they can learn music, dance, singing, and public speaking. The children have the opportunity to preform in the daily cultural performance presented to tourists, earning them a little pocket money into the bargain.

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Master angklung maker at work. Bandung, Indonesia

I have now visited Anklung Udjo several times, and am always impressed. The show’s format is a little cheesy, not unlike a daytime TV variety show; but it’s such a celebration of joy, my groups can’t help but love it too. There’s the charming, sometimes funny bilingual presenter, a puppet performance, some cute dancing and singing kids, and the angklung. The performers and presenter are different each time, so a variety of children have a turn performing to an audience, but the basic show remains the same.

One of the highlights is the music lesson – Angklung instruments are distributed to the audience, and following our host and teacher, we learn to play some simple tunes together. I am glad to be lost in the musical crowd. As a child I overheard at my kindergarten concert someone commenting that I couldn’t sing in tune, and have been musically scarred since. I was once unhappily described as been ‘as musical as a door’. Back at school, we learnt the recorder but my playing was always screechy and out of tune. Music wasn’t my thing. I stuck to listening. Being handed an anlklung, amongst the masses was a great relief … How could I go wrong with just one note? I had the freedom to make music without fear.

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Angklung studio. Bandung, Indonesia

As beginners we only have to play one anklung. The professional musicians have about 50 rigged up together and pluck them expertly like a piano keyboard. One note is enough for me. This version of the angklung has been adapted from the pentatonic scale of the original to a, more pleasing to the Western ear, eight note scale. Our host / teacher / conductor is the son of the founder, and has a syrupy warm voice, not unlike the warm sound that the angklung produces. He jokes with us, as we learn some basic harmonies, directing us with a series of hand signals – each representing the note numbers on our respective angklung. We joyfully laugh as we play. Today the audience has visitors from all over Indonesia, Oman, England, Holland, Ireland, Korea, and Australia; a quiet day. The tunes become longer and more difficult we slowly master the simple action of shaking at the correct time. We play uncomplicated children’s songs, that seem familiar to all nationalities present, then some more popular Pop songs – Including ‘We are the Champions’ by Queen, as indeed, we all thought we were.

Eventually, we reluctantly return our instruments as they are collected by the children. Our host askes us “How do we feel?” “HAPPY!” is the unanimous reply. He then explains that this is his father’s legacy. The intention of his father: that by having fun, playing music together, even tough we are from different cultures and backgrounds, will bring understanding, harmony and world peace. I wholeheartedly second those sentiments. So to quote my recoded Indonesian lesson – if you ever have the opportunity to visit Bandung, be sure to visit Pak Udjo.

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