The Sundanese people are the second largest ethnic group in Indonesia, after the Javanese, who come from the provinces of Central and Eastern Java. Despite inhabiting the western third of the island of Java, the Sundanese are not Javanese, any more than the Welsh are English. The culture and language of Sunda are quite distinct from those of Java, although they are certainly related.
Sundanese culture combines very diverse elements. While more overtly Muslim than the Javanese, many Sundanese maintain customs and beliefs rooted in older religions. Sundanese language and manners range from highly refined and formalized, to downright vulgar and ribald. Such contrasts are reflected in the performing arts, ranging from the exquisite melancholy of courtly poetry sung in tembang Sunda, to rhythmic farts squeezed from the armpits of ngajibrut street entertainers. Concerts are rare: ceremonies and celebrations are the most frequent occasions for musical performance. Music, dance and theatre can be for ritual, entertainment or both.
The Sundanese performing arts comprise a dynamic oral tradition in which experiment has always been a vital factor. The most conservative musicians pride themselves on the innovations they have introduced, as well as on preserving intact the tradition they have inherited, without apparent contradiction. Some of the most “classical” genres, such as gamelan degung and tembang Sunda are little more than a century old, and have changed fundamentally in the last fifty years. To remain in work, performers must follow artistic fashion. Mass communications create new megastars among singers, wayang puppeteers, and entertainers, and give the fashions they set a new potency. The ubiquity of sound amplification (sometimes even used in domestic rehearsals) has transformed vocal technique, and brought soloists to the foreground of the ensemble.
Many genres give the performers considerable freedom to improvise. Even when melodies and instrumental figuration are fairly standardized, fine musicians cultivate their own subtle but distinctive variations. While the composers of the older repertoire remain anonymous contributors to a group ethic, in more recent years individual composers have gained a high profile. Music is leaving the public domain to become the intellectual property of individuals, who expect recognition and commercial reward. The situation is further complicated when “new” pieces are based on old repertoire, as often happens.
The Sundanese performing arts are an oral tradition. Young performers learn primarily through osmosis – being around when it happens – rather than through formal teaching. The best way to learn a Sundanese performing art is to be born into a family (or at least a community) of performers. At the same time, a growing number of young Sundanese musicians learn new repertoire from commercial cassette recordings, or from recordings they themselves have made with cheap “Walkman” recorders.
Text adapted from Cook, Simon. 2001. “Sunda” in New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (2nd edition).