4. Exceptionally Sundanese
From left to right: Panerus, Bonang, Goong. Photo by Teguh Permana
When I arrived in Bandung, I had to practice and learn gamelan degung, because of its iconic links with Sundanese identity and philosophy, (or at least this is what was told to us), and of course, because it was easy. While gamelan degung may be little fun to listen to or to play, and even if it’s true that my practical competence of degung is not adequate, after one year of lessons, I must admit that, such as with any other genre of the archipelago, the developments of degung are quite interesting to investigate.
Pak Ismet once told me how his first experience experimenting with gamelan instruments - which eventually led to SambaSunda’s first songs - was in 1990, when he started adapting classic rock covers, such as The Eagles’ “Hotel California” and John Lennon’s “Imagine” on a diatonic degung ensemble, which eventually resulted in a cassette release titled Degung Dedikasi. Nowadays, many youngsters may find gamelan a little old-fashioned compared to contemporary mainstream music and that interest for those traditional forms of art may be shown only for experiments conducted in between Indonesian and Western mainstream tradition.
The gamelan ensemble called degung is believed to be exceptionally Sundanese in appearance, sound, and style, due to its tuning system, name of the instruments, disposition of the set and, in the end, number of instruments and players required. Compared to many other ensembles from Central Java and Bali, which are also much more known globally, degung is quite small. Six or seven musicians are enough to perform most of the pieces. The word degung apparently is an old Sundanese term, which refers to gongs and gong ensembles. For this reason, the words degung and gong are essentially synonyms for the word gamelan. At the same time, the expression gamelan degung may be a way to point at a gamelan ensemble tuned to degung scale.
Without going too deep into tuning systems and such, the scale to which the ensemble is tuned is called pelog degung: a specific version of the classic pelog scale, a seven-pitch and non-equidistant tuning system, in which the intervals between the seven pitches are different in size (from 90 to 400). The specificity of the pelog degung comes from the fact that, instead of being a seven-tone scale, some of its intervals are more similar to the salendro scale, which has five pitches. For this reason, pelog degung fits with salendro gamelan instruments (such as Cirebonese gamelan).
It is possible that what today is called degung originally descends from much older ensembles, brought by Mataram kingdom to Pajajaran kingdom in the area of Priangan, during their conquest of the land in 1600. In this fashion, gamelan could have been used politically to assert dominance and authority over Pajajaran and its aristocrats, to whom they delegated authority over much lower-class Sundanese population. At the same time, it is fairly possible that, in the courts of Pajajaran, ensembles similar to degung were already present.
Of course, degung’s elegant connotation comes from its origins, stemming from Sundanese aristocracy. However, it is different from the courts and the customs of central Java, which degung ensembles experienced since Indonesia’s independence and progressive democratization. Valued as community property, instead of heirlooms of the royal palaces, degung became the genre in which, even with a certain aura of class, a more and more egalitarian status could be experienced, bringing together the solemn lagu klasik (classic songs) but expanding the repertory with pop and rock music international hits and progressively including almost all musical styles.
In the 1950s, the Bandung station of Radio Republik Indonesia (RRI) started broadcasting the genre, which had been little known previously. Thus, major developments took place. Musicians at RRI Bandung first added a female chorus to their degung ensemble in the 1960s, penanbih songs were accompanied by plucked string instruments and suling imitating the gamelan ensemble and, on the other side, gamelan ensembles were tuned to the scale of penanbih songs. As a result, penanbih started to be sung to a degung accompaniment, creating degung kawih to point out the focus on light vocal music (kawih).
The result itself was, nevertheless, popular. Degung kawih not only added female vocalists (pesinden) and backup vocals, female players in traditional makeup, hairstyles and outfits, a kacapi zither and rhythmics patterns from groovier and more modern styles, such as jaipong and dangdut to classic degung ensembles, but also, eventually, a kempul and a pair of six or seven key saron.