The Indonesian archipelago, which is made up of thousands of islands spread over thousands miles off the coast of the Malay Peninsula, is one of the most populated and diverse nations on earth. This heterogeneous society has experienced tremendous change over the last half of the twentieth century as it emerged as a post-colonial sovereign nation after World War II in a rapidly modernizing world. Indonesian popular music stands as an example of how society in Indonesia has changed dramatically in the face of urbanization and the cultural convergence of Asian and Western ideas. The evolution of modern popular Indonesian music during the Soeharto Presidency shows a society in which music has served as a conduit of societal change.
Several important developments set the stage for the explosion of Indonesian pop music in the 1970s which helped create a common Indonesian identity. Music had always been an important part of traditional life in Indonesia, and the regional music of Sumatra, Java, and Bali among others was always popular within their own local context. However, for the most part, regional music never had a widespread popularity over the vast reaches of the archipelago (Wallach 34). Traditional, regional music of Indonesia was communal in nature and focused around gamelan ensembles, which would play a variety of traditional styles emphasizing the musical group as a whole and not the isolated performers themselves (Manuel 206). Orkes Melayu was an orchestrated brand of popular music which was popularly played throughout the region, but there was no unifying musical style which the working class Muslim majority could rally around at the national level. This began to change in the 1960s as the first Indonesian president – Sukarno – was overthrown in a turbulent and bloody coup d’état which brought General Soeharto to the reins of power – a position he would command for more than thirty years. Soeharto was more pro-Western than Sukarno who had tried to minimize the influence and spread of Western culture which he considered to be nothing but a “disease” (Wallach 15). Soeharto’s more open stance towards the West led to an influx of Western musical styles which would have an effect on not only Indonesia’s music scene but also Indonesian society.
Another important change was beginning to take place right around the same time. The technological development of the cassette tape would have a vast impact on Indonesia. Cassette tape was inexpensive, relatively easy to make, and very easy to distribute. The Indonesian masses who were once very limited in their musical choices suddenly had a vast array of styles and genres – both Western and indigenous – to choose from. This technological development was an important step which made the production of working class styles of music on a commercial level a viable possibility (Wallach 15). These new musical styles which would reach out to the vast majority of the population would help galvanize the masses into a common Indonesian identity. The widespread use of cassettes helped music to penetrate across local and regional barriers. This is significant because when a country becomes more homogenized in the music in which it listens to and in the culture and societal norms which they commonly share through that music, it creates an environment with shared experiences and a common pride which is more nationalistic. In an archipelago with such a wide span as Indonesia, music became one link which helped bridge the cultural divide amongst thousands of islands.
One of the first styles of music which benefited from the cassette tape was Western-influenced Indonesian music called kroncong, a Malay-Indonesian genre which combines Western instruments and characteristics with certain indigenous ones (Manuel 209). What is striking about kroncong is that, to the Western ear, there is much that is familiar at first listen. The violin has a comfortable feel to it, and the constant strumming of a ukulele-like instrument keeps pace with the floating flute. But the production and the use of the Indonesian language gives it its distinct Indonesian flavor which, with the widespread use of cassette tapes in the 1960s, helped to make kroncong a popular genre (Manuel 208). Manuel states that the urbanization of Indonesia along with the adoption of Indonesian as its lingua franca helped pave the way for kroncong to have mass appeal to many different strata of society (208). Indonesian urbanization would have brought many diverse people groups into contact with each other – often times for the first time. As more people spoke Indonesian as a means of communicating across social and ethnic barriers, a certain categorical commonality arises and people begin to see each other not in terms of ethnicity but in terms of nationality. To have a popular musical style like kroncong would have been an important development since music can bring individuals together with shared experiences and common understandings.