Can You Shake It? The Angklung of Southeast Asia
Angklung is a popular bamboo musical instrument in Southeast Asia. It is the easiest instrument to play: you just shake it. It is now widely used in music education. In this article, you will be informed about the background, usage, and playing methods of this instrument.
A. Bamboo in Asia
Bamboo is a type of plant of the grass family. There are about 75 genera and approximately 1000 species in the world. Asia, especially Southeast Asia and the Far East, has the major concentration of bamboo production. In fact, the word "bamboo" came from a Malay term, "bambu", which originally described the crackling sound of burning bamboo: "bam"! "bu"!
Bamboo seems to grow everywhere in these regions. It is one of the most important materials in many Asian peoples’ daily lives. It is also a symbol of good luck and an essential part in their spiritual lives.
1. Material Culture
Bamboo is strong but light and elastic. Throughout the ages, it has been used for a great variety of purposes. It is used as building material for houses, fences, bridges, irrigation pipes, bulletin boards, tables, chairs, and beds. It is also used as a carrying pole, a walking stick, chopsticks, water containers, cups, pencil holders, bow and arrows, etc. Split bamboo is used for weaving nets, hats, baskets, and umbrellas. Finally, bamboo shoots and bamboo seeds can be eaten.
Bamboo pulp fibers were used to make paper. In ancient times, bamboo slips were used for carving characters. In art, bamboo is used for handicrafts. In the realm of music, many musical instruments were and still are made of bamboo.
In fact, in Chinese writing, many musical instruments’ names are crowned with the character, "bamboo" (zhu), an indication of the material from which they were made.
2. Spiritual Culture
Bamboo grows rapidly. It is seen as embodying the force of growth and fertility in many Asian societies. The Dusun people of north Borneo Island (Kalimantan, Indonesia) pay homage to a sacred bamboo to assure fertility and also believe that yellow bamboo can ward off evil spirits. In Taiwan, myth tells how bamboo was brought to earth by a man from heaven. In India, myth tells how King Rama’s wife, Sita, had an extra finger on one hand, which she cut off and planted. From it grew a bamboo plant, which in its sections contained all kinds of grain, which became available to human kind through a hole in the bamboo, chewed there by a pig. (Wessing 1998: 51).
3. Aesthetics, Philosophy, and the Arts
Bamboo is regarded as a symbol of virtue and good character in most Far Eastern cultures. The Chinese scholar Su Shi (Su Dongpo, 11th century) of the Song Dynasty wrote:
"Meals can be without meat, but living cannot be without bamboo.
The lack of meat makes one thin; the lack of bamboo makes one vulgar.
A. thin person can become fat, but a vulgar person cannot be cured."
(translated by K. H. Han)
Bamboo occupies an important role in the literati life in China, Korea, Japan, and Vietnam. Composing poems on bamboo or painting bamboo became a fashion among scholars. Because bamboo is strong and upright, it is used as a metaphor for a virtuous person. Some Chinese boys are given the name, "Zhujun" which is translated as "bamboo gentleman".
The anthropologist Robbins Burling characterized Southeast Asia as the bamboo culture (1965: 29). It seems that most parts of Asia can be labeled as the area of bamboo culture.
B. Bamboo in Southeast Asian Music
Since bamboo is such an important material in Asian people’s lives, it is not surprising to find numerous bamboo musical instruments. As far as Southeast Asia is concerned, bamboo is used for three out of four categories of musical instruments, namely, aerophones (winds), chordophones (strings), and idiophones (percussion without membrane).
Numerous bamboo flutes exist in Southeast Asia. The most famous are probably the Indonesian ring flute, suling, and the Thai recorder, khlui, both end-blown. Among the tribal people in the Philippines and Malaysia, the nose flute, a magical instrument, is common. Bamboo panpipes are found among the tribal people in the Philippines while bamboo mouth organs (with wooden or gourd chambers) are common among the hill tribes in mainland Southeast Asia. Lowland people in Thailand and Laos are famous for their long bamboo mouth organ, the khaen. Indonesians even invented a bamboo "gong": blowing a smaller bamboo tube which is placed inside a bigger one.
Bamboo strips are detached out of the body but remain attached at both ends. Small bridges are then inserted between the strips and the body. The player plucks the strips (strings) like playing a zither. This type of instrument is called idiochord and is found among the tribal people in the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, and along the Burma-Thailand border. The more famous sassandu of Timor, now using metal strings, probably began with bamboo strips.
There are more bamboo idiophones in Southeast Asia than anywhere else in the world. Bamboo tubes can be struck against each other, struck by sticks or mallets, stamped against hard objects, or shaken. Half-cut bamboo tongues in jew’s harps (mouth harps) are plucked.
Stamping bamboo tubes are common among the Akha people in Thailand and the Kalinga people in the Philippines, and to a lesser extent, in some part of Sabah, Malaysia.
Bamboo tubes of various sizes are arranged in gradual order to form a musical scale. The Sundanese calung ensemble is a good example. But more common is the single-unit xylophone type. It is found everywhere in Southeast Asia, for instance, Vietnamese t’rung, Sundanese Calung (single-unit), Javanese gambang, and Balinese grantang. In fact, the entire ensemble can be made of bamboo xylophones in Bali (Gamelan Jogog) and Banyumas, Central Java. The bars of some Thai renad xylophones are also made of bamboo.
The mouth harp (or jew’s harp; jaw’s harp) is a common courting instrument among tribal peoples all over Southeast Asia. The tongue of the instrument is half cut from a piece of bamboo. Some people consider this an aerophone, but most still consider it an idiophone.
Finally, bamboo is essential in some folk dances in the Philippines. Instead of wood, the castanets in the Philippines are made of bamboo. The dancers of the famous Tinikling dance hop in and out of two long bamboo poles -- which serve as dance tools as well as give rhythm.
C. Angklung, the Bamboo Shaker
The most indigenous Southeast Asian bamboo idiophone is the angklung, the bamboo shaker. An angklung is a pair (or more) of bamboo tubes mounted on a bamboo frame. The tubes are in different lengths and are cut halves at the upper two-thirds. The lower end of each tube is closed by a node. Two prongs extend out and fit loosely into a corresponding slot of the horizontal bass tube.
The structure of an angklung
The two tubes are tuned an octave apart (three tubes can be two octaves or can form a chord). When shaken, the concussion of the tubes against the base produces a pitch. Since each instrument makes only one pitch, it takes many single angklungs to make a complete melody.
Even though angklung can be found in many parts of Southeast Asia, it is generally believed that it originated on the island of Java. There are many reports about the 'funny' manner of angklung performance in Sunda, West Java by European travelers in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Traditional angklung music is also used in East Java, Central Java and other islands, but Sunda is the most representative area.
1. Traditional Angklung Music in Sunda
The villagers in Java believe in a rice field goddess, Sri Dewi, who oversees the benefit of the fields and the people. When she is properly served with rituals there will be a bumper harvest and peace in the region.
On the other hand, there may be drought, epidemics, and even wars. Javanese villagers used to make rituals to her by performing angklung music. This traditional style, which is usually performed outdoors, uses angklung tuned to an untempered pentatonic scale (5-pitches) and plays ostinato melody (cyclic).
This is still practiced in villages in Sunda. Traditional angklung music is accompanied by drums, gongs, metal plates, and an optional double-reed oboe (tarompet). A lion mask dancer is added in some forms. Shouts and action are part of the performance. In some forms, performers fall into trance.
However, traditional angklung music like what is described can also be used for entertainment. Other traditional angklung music is performed indoors. Dance improvisation is common in all forms. Some of the names for traditional angklung music in Sunda are Reak, Buncis, Ogel, etc. (Baier 1985-6).
2. Modern Angklung Music in Southeast Asia
By the beginning of the twentieth century, traditional angklung music gradually disappeared in the cities due to its vulgar nature. In the 1930s, Daeng Sutigna, a Western educated teacher in the Dutch school in Sunda, cooperated with an instrument maker and introduced the newly tuned angklung instruments to a boy scout troop. This gave birth to modern angkung music (Perris 1971: 404). Before long, many schools established angklung clubs as part of their extra-curriculum activities. By now, one can find this new style of angklung band almost everywhere in Southeast Asia.
The new angklungs are tuned to the Western tempered diatonic scale. They play familiar Western folksongs or contemporary local popular songs. The new angklung music is characterized by the use of all seven pitches of the tempered diatonic scale (some even use accidentals). (Photo 4) Western triadic harmony is easily utilized. Instead of gongs and drums, a string bass and a drum-set can be found in some ensembles. In some cases, a bamboo xylophone called Gambang arumba is added. More often than not a conductor is used in performance. In short, it is like a Western bell-choir. It is this style that can be easily introduced in schools, church, and social clubs.
How to Play the Angklung?
Hold the instrument loosely with one hand and grab one edge of the bottom tube of the frame. Shake it rapidly sideways. You make a pitch! That is all.
In some cases, one person can play more than one instrument by holding one in each hand or by hanging one on one’s forearm while holding another.
Each angklung plays only one pitch of the scale. When there are five, you can play a pentatonic scale; when there are seven or more, you can play most simple folksongs. For instance, to play "Mary Had a Little Lamb", you need only four angklungs (four pitches). Nowadays, angklung sets can be purchased in the U.S. and colleges and schools are using them in classes and social activities.
How to Use the Cipher Notation?
There are several notational systems. One easy one is the cipher system. Each pitch of the scale is represented by a number. In the key of C, which is most common in angklung instruments, C (do) = 1, D (re) = 2, E (mi) = 3, F (fa) = 4, G (sol) = 5, A (la) = 6, B (ti) = 7. When a pitch is an octave higher than the middle range, a dot is placed above the number; when a pitch is an octave lower, a dot is placed beneath it. Two dots denote two octaves higher or lower. But in general, very few folksongs have too high or too low pitches.
Rhythm is represented by a combination of pitch numbers, lines, and dots (using a quarter note as a unit in 2/4, ¾, and 4/4 times):
- Single number = quarter note.
- Single number with a line after it = a half note.
- Two numbers with a line above = 2 eighths notes.
- Four numbers with 2 lines above = 4 sixteenth notes.
- A number with a dot after followed by a number with a line above = dotted quarter + an eighth.
- A number with a line above and a dot after followed by a number with 2 lines above = dotted eighth + a sixteenth.
- A number followed by a line and a dot = a half and a quarter (3 beats).
- 0 = rest.
- Vertical lines = bar lines.
- Slur above numbers = tied-over notes (syncopation).
- When there are two or more lines, players perform both lines simultaneously. The result is harmony.
- Fermata, da capo, repeat, and other signs are the same as staff notation.