Jogja and the Angklung

A man performs on an angklung on Maliboro Street in Yogyakarta.

Ever heard of an angklung?

Me neither. It’s an Indonesian musical instrument, composed of hollow bamboo tubes cut and shaped to resonate at specific tones. By hitting or shaking them back and forth, a musician can perform a simple song and with many in tandem, a group of musicians can weave rich melodies. The angklung’s sound is decidedly tropical; it’s reminiscent of reminiscent of a marimba or xylophone, with a hint of wooden pipes. As an invention of Indonesia, the angklung is now classified by UNESCO as a “Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.”

A standalone angklung.

But here in Yogyakarta, the angklung and its players are under threat. The city’s government has recently banned angklung performances from the streets and at traffic intersections, where people previously busked for a living. The government asserts that this measure is needed to clean up the streets and remove ‘vagrants’. But the angklung players aren’t fading away peacefully. They’re organizing protests and arguing they’ve got a right to a living, and by banning their performances the government of Yogyakarta is violating their human rights. We’ve seen one protest that’s shut down Jl. Maliboro (a main street of Jogja) entirely, with angklung players proudly waving signs saying “We’re artists, not vagrants!”

Performers shut down Maliboro Street as they protest the ban on streetside angklung performances.
Street performance: protesters loaded a whole band into the back of a truck to play as they march down Maliboro.

And then there are the groups choosing to ignore the ban entirely, hosting huge anglkung orchestras on Maliboro’s sidewalk once night falls. The band below was out in force nearly every night we were in Jogja, playing for huge crowds as men danced to the music.

Men dance to angklung music on Maliboro.
A streetside angklung band, with percussion and a bamboo xylophone accompaniment.

I get that Jogja wants to clean up its streets and make itself look more modern, and that a huge number of angklung players clogging the sidewalks and traffic intersections would be a pain. But the angklung players are trying to make a living and they’re a great-sounding and a unique part of Indoensia’s heritage. Having buskers out in the open means that heritage reaches more people, some of which couldn’t afford the cost of an orchestral ticket, some of which might never hear an angklung otherwise. Stoytcho and I would definitely have never heard or heard of an angklung if these guys hadn’t been playing them on the streets. So isn’t there some kind of peaceful compromise wherein both the city and angklung buskers would be happy?

The angklung performance attracts both locals and foreigners alike. Isn’t there a way to strike balance between allowing too many people to busk on angklungs an outright ban on their street performances?

Now that you’ve heard about it, hear what an angklung sounds like! Here’s some video of the guys above:

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