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Outside influences on the music of Nusa Tenggara Timur

by Douglas Myers

Part One. (Click here for Part Two)

Jaap Kunst, the man who first used the word "ethno-musicology", concluded a paper presented to the first Congress of the International Folk Music Council in September 1948 by saying:

"... I hope you will have got the impression, that Indonesian music not only deserves interest from a purely musical standpoint, but also has great value for the history of civilisation.

It is to be hoped that the musical exploration of the archipelago - so unhappily interrupted - will be continued as soon as possible, before foreign influence, so rapidly gaining ground, has destroyed the object of our studies; then there should be no cause for future generations to blame us for having allowed this most precious and perhaps richest of all musical cultures to vanish unstudied and unrecorded." 1.

This chapter gives an overvierw of the "musical cultures" of the eastern Indonesian Province of Nusa Tenggara Timur (NTT) (see Map 3(i)) and examines some of the foreign influences to be found in the music and dance forms of the area, many of which were in evidence long before Kunst made his observations. The only exception to this are songs sung in certain regions at the time of death. For this reason the performances are categorised by region rather than by genre. The chapter may also provide an insight into how these precious cultures are surviving the passing of the years, at least in the little studied area of NTT.

The Province of NTT mainly consists of islands which are Melanesian in character. The largest islands in the group are Timor (only the western part of this island), Sumba, and Flores. Within these islands many styles of music and dance can be found. There are many smaller islands which are also important for their rich cultural life. These include Sawu (Savu, Sabu) and Roti in the south and the northern chain of islands along the Banda Sea: Solor, Adonara, Lembata (Lomblen), Pantar and Alor (see Map 3(i)). In most parts of NTT, the characteristic Melanesian circle dance can be found, and some of the accompanying music is similar instrumentally to that found in neighbouring Irian Jaya and the Melenesian islands of the Pacific. Some of the folk stories told in NTT are also similar to those of the Melanesian areas of the Pacific.

This area has long been popular as a source of sandalwood and for its spices. Traders from Africa probably made contact with this area quite early: there are many legends about the arrival from Africa of the seed of the lontar tree, which is common throughout the province and is the mainstay of life on Roti. "Lontar" (Borassus flabellifera) is the local name for a member of the sago palm family. This tree gives a rich nourishing juice which can sustain life very well. Nowadays it is fed to babies in their bottles, instead of milk. The sago palm itself is also found in the area and is called pohon gewang.

The first Europeans to visit the area were the Portuguese, who established a stronghold in both Flores and Timor over 400 years ago. Indonesian influences have always been strong. Islam came to the islands in the middle of the 15th century and with it many influences from Java (Surabaya was a base for the spread of Islam to the area). There were also many liaisons between local princes and those in Java which were based on trade and protection. Sumba, was for some time under the rule of the Dewa Agung, the Balinese rulers in Klungkung. With the coming of the Dutch presence, the Portuguese retreated to East Timor and more recently, since Indonesian Independence there has been more influence from the Indonesian cultural world. The influences of Central Java are evident because many of the teachers of music and dance came from or were trained in that area. The new nation brought firstly, national radio and, later, national television, and the music scene in Jakarta had an impact on the villagers of NTT. Javanese popular music is performed here as it is in all other parts of Indonesia: various styles of dance seen on television are often included in "kreasi baru" (new creations).

Change has been as healthy a factor in the culture of Indonesia as it is elsewhere. While this book deals essentially with cultural change and response under the New Order, this chapter will also look at the changes in the culture of NTT which have come about over a longer period of time. These outside influences on the culture are often the result of a change in political liaison or, in some cases, a direct change of government from outside. They are also brought about by the various changes in religious beliefs which have swept across the area. Each religion or in the case of Christianity, sect brings with it different attitudes to the use of traditional ceremonies, and the music and dance associated with such ceremonies. In some cases, the ceremonies vanish completely; in others, they are adapted to the requirements of the new beliefs. Indonesia is a nation full of wonderful examples of such adaptations. It is possible to trace in the influence of one area on another, the compromise which has first been made in the conquered area when it accepted the influence, which it, in turn is now passing on. There is not space in this chapter to deal with such complex patterns of adaptation and continuity. The chapter will therefore discuss the types of music and dance presently performed and the influences which are more obvious in these performances. The music and the instruments of the area vary, and here some of the performances recorded in the author's fieldwork are briefly dealt with.

The adaptation of newer forms into the repetoire goes on and these take their place alongside the traditional forms or become the fad of the moment, only to be forgotten as time passes. Since NTT is a maritime region, outside influences have always been stronger in the villages near the sea and the older traditions are often found in the mountainous regions. Strong Melanesian influences are still found in every part of the province and seem to survive the pressure on young people to move out of the villages to pursue education in facilities from their birthplace. The ?foreign influences? which worried Kunst do not seem to have had very much impact in this area of Indonesia. If he were able to visit the area today, he would find few differences from his last visit.

The Circle Dance and its Accompanying Instruments.

The circle dance is found in most parts of NTT in various forms and with differing names. As this is the westernmost occurrence of the dance in the world it points especially to the strong cultural links with Melanesia and the Pacific where this type of circle dance is also found. Provinces to the east of NTT, Timor Timur and Irian Jaya also have the circle dance. This type of performance is a major factor in differentiating the cultures of the eastern part of Indonesia from those of other parts of Indonesia where the culture has its roots in the Malay-Javanese tradition. The author believes this dance to be the oldest form of performance still in evidence in the area. It is based mostly on pantun,2 long epic poems which usually tell the history of the arrival of the people, or the history of the Raja of the area and the battles in which his family have been involved. In some areas for example Sawu, where the circle dance is called Pedoa the pantun are performed every night for three months during the dry season and after the harvest. Most people take part in the performance dressed in their best clothes (traditional costume). A number of circles are formed which usually consist of about thirty people. It is an opportunity for the young people to dance beside the person of their choice and, more so, because it is performed in the dark, courtship rituals keep it alive for the young men and women. It is interesting to note that this dance may in fact be strengthened by the role that it still plays for the young people in today?s society. The pantun are led by a singer who stands inside the circle apart from the others. He sings a verse of the pantun which is then repeated by all the dancers. He then sings the next verse and it is also repeated. In many places, the lead singer has a pupil who may sing the verse after him, always to have it repeated by the dancers who continually move round in the circle using a different foot pattern for each locality. All in the circle link arms so that it is the foot movements which are important. As the feet move they often give rise to an accompaniment which is made from some type of percussion sounding instrument which is either attached to the legs or the feet or both. It is usual in Melanesian performance to find rattles of various kinds attached around the leg, or to the ankle or foot. These may be local nuts, or rattles made of vegetable matter. In NTT the rattles vary in the following areas.

In Sawu a small palm-leaf box is filled with dried peas and attached to the top of the foot. As the pedoa is danced, the peas rattle when the foot is moved, and when this sound is amplified by many feet performing the same movement, the percussion in the dance is most effective.

In Lamahera, small pandanus-leaf boxes (about an inch cube) are filled with seeds, and strung together to form anklets. Metal bells may also be strung together and tied around the upper part of the leg. In other parts of NTT, the vegetable and plant materials have also been replaced by bronze-age technology with small bronze rings giring worn around the ankles. In Timor bells called giring are used in a number of other dances, but not in the circle dance, bonet. These bells can be up to twenty in number and rattle as the foot is lifted and put down. An example recorded in Solor of the circle dance hanja used only the tambour called also the bawa a Melanesian type, hour-glass drum, open at one end, and beaten with sticks to accompany the singing.

The introduction of bronze into this area probably came through trade, long after it had arrived in Java and Bali. This assertion is based on the variety of gongs found in the area. Gong types exist in this area which the author has not seen in any part of Indonesia. Yet, there is no tradition of gongmaking with the exception of the modern-day gong made from oil drums. Bronze gongs are now used in many musical ensembles, but are not played in the sophisticated manner characteristic of Java and Bali, where intricate gamelan ensembles with twenty to thirty players have developed. In NTT, the gongs are normally suspended from a frame or a tree and one person plays one or at the most two gongs. Here gongs are not used in rows to produce melodic patterns as they are in many other areas of Indonesia, for example, Sumatra and Kalimantan. Gongs in NTT are used to give interlocking patterns of sound as is common all over Indonesia, but in much smaller numbers than in Bali or Java. The number of gongs used in performance varies between three and ten. They are usually combined with a tambour which is beaten with two sticks or the hands. This can be replaced by or augmented with the Muslim drum, rebana, which is like a half sphere in shape, with a hole in the base and is usually struck with the hands.

A factor which still figures prominently in the Melanesian culture of the region is bride price; the price paid by a man?s family to the family of the woman he wishes to marry. Without this payment no marriage can take place. For example, a young soldier who had been posted to the area was looking for a wife, but he could not contemplate the cost of marrying a local girl. Various places exhibit a specialised type of capital to be used as bride price. It is rarely money as this custom predates the use of currency. As such, the capital requirements are still very much tied to the barter system. In Flores, the major item used in bride price is ivory. On the islands of Pantar and Alor, bronze instruments and artifacts are used. These include gongs which can be in any condition. A cracked gong is still usable, although it is not worth as much as one in good condition. Gongs are often seen and used with their boss missing and a hole in the middle. Perhaps the boss was melted down to make giring which function as 'cents' in the bride price transaction.

On Pantar and Alor, the moko (see Plate 1) is also used as a part of the bride price. The moko is a bronze hour shaped drum of the Dong Son3 type, which, for commercial reasons, has been hoarded by families on these two islands for centuries. It can be used as a musical instrument in place of a gong; but the moko does not have a very resonant sound and is mostly beaten with the hand, so it is not very effective as an instrument. However, as bride price, its value is very high indeed. One interesting example of the use of the moko was recorded on the island of Pantar. The occasion was an upacara sunut, (circumcision ceremony), when for three nights pantun were sung from sunset to sunrise while the six people who had been circumcised were sleeping in the midst of the entire extended family (about 200 people) who took it in turns to sing in two groups. The pantun was very long and told of the history of the group?s coming into the area and their fight to gain control of the land. It was accompanied by a rhythm which could be clapped. As it was an all-night exercise, people were sitting down and using whatever was around to tap out the accompanying rhythm. When the author arrived, people were banging tin trays, jerrycans, plates, buckets, and anything else which was readily available. When asked whether the moko might be used in such a performance, they obligingly produced one and proceeded to play it along with the rest of the "instruments".

The bronze gongs were probably imported into NTT. The area has the widest variety of gong types the author has ever seen. While there are many bronze sets still in use; these days, new sets of gongs are generally made from iron ("tong"). Gong tong are frequently made from empty 200 litre drums which are used to transport bitumenand other liquids between the islands. The iron gongs have a good sound and are reasonably cheap. They are manufactured in Waingapu, the capital of East Sumba, and in Maumere, the capital of Flores. The author has not found any evidence of bronzesmiths working in the area nor heard any stories of their presence in the past.

Another instrument quite common in the area is the gambus. This instrument may be of Portuguese extraction, but it is also possible that the instrument originated in the Middle East. It is found especially in Flores and on the islands of Solor, Adonara, and Lamahera. It is a longish plucked lute which comes in a three-string or three double-stringed variety, and is used to accompany many forms of dancing and singing but especially the dana dani. Quite often it is aalso used to accompany the pantun. The gambus is usually played while the performer is singing and often has a drum accompaniment of either the tamboura or rebana. It is made from a single piece of wood. The opening in the instrument for the resonator is covered either with a piece of skin or thin wood. The instrument is, therefore, a rare lute of the Indonesian type in that it is from only one piece of wood; but its playing style and stringing are more Western than Indonesian. 4

A dance performance which may have a foreign influence is found in many parts of NTT: this dance is performed by crossing two or more pairs of bamboo poles and hitting each pair together in a rhythm. Dancers must move their legs into the clicking poles and out again without getting them caught. On Adonara this dance is called gaweau, in Sumba it is called dodokali and on Pantar it is called dodaka. The dance is very famous in the Philippines. The author has also recorded examples of it in Kalimantan, but with an accompanying musical group. It is not known from whence it originated, but it could be an example of a form which has come from Indonesia?s northern neighbour, the Philippines, or vice versa.

Another possible influence from the outside can be detected on both Roti and Sumba. On Roti the dance performance called foti is accompanied by a male singer who uses a descending vocal pattern and a voice production which is strikingly similar to that used in eastern Arnhem land in northern Australia. The vocal performance is accompanied by a characteristic drone-type accompaniment on the gongs. In Arnhem land a drone accompaniment is played by the didjeridoo. While much research would be needed to establish anything definite, the first impressions of the music were that it was similar to Aboriginal Australian music. A second type of music, a lament the author had recorded in West Sumba, could also be included in this comparison. After hearing again the similarity to Aboriginal music from the Arnhem land area the author played the recording to an Aboriginal songman and asked him where he thought the music came from. His answer was 'the Yirrkala mob' (Yirrkala is a town in eastern Arnhem Land). The high-pitched chanting of the women?s chorus in West Sumba is also very reminiscent of styles of Aboriginal corroboree. Both Sumba and Roti are geographically close to Australia. Thus, the possibility of contact is not unrealistic. Furthermore the fishermen of Roti have been sailing down the west coast of Australia for hundreds of years. 5

NTT, like its neighboring province Maluku (6), seems to be a melting pot of many races and cultures. Observing the people in the port cities, one can see Micronesian, Austronesian, Melanesian, and Indonesian characteristics in the smiling faces gathered there. It is therefore not surprising to find Melanesian elements in the music. However, several performances contained something unexpected: the use of the whistle as a marker in the dance. The whistle is commonly used in the Pacific to indicate the end of a measure in dancing. The author has always associated this feature with the heavy occupation of the area by troops during the Second World War, it being adopted after studying the habits of various sergeant-majors and was therefore surprised to find the whistle being used as an indicator in the dana dani dance at a village on the island of Lamahera and in Timor. At the dana dani performance, a plastic bucket was substituted for the tambour and was quite effective.


An accident of history led to the division of this island between two European conquerors: the Dutch and the Portuguese. However the island was not divided according to the local cultural and language barriers which existed. It is, therefore, interesting to note that the language and many of the cultural characteristics of the easternmost section of Timor in NTT, based around the town of Ayambua in Kabupaten Belu, are carried across the border into Timor Timur, the neighbouring and newest province of Indonesia. The local language of the Belu area, Bahasa Tetun, is the most commonly used language in the western part of Timor Timur. The circle dance of Belu, tebe-tebe, is also performed in the neighbouring province where it uses the same general name; although it sometimes has its own local names, and differs in that in some areas it is accompanied by a drum. Likurai, a dance using a small drum placed under the armpit of women performers and which is said to have originated in the Atambua area, is found alos in Timor Timur, but here it is called bakadudu. To the south of Atambua, this performance has also been recorded, but it is called luk lait.

Kupang, the provincial capital, is located on this island. It is therefore difficult to find the culture of the Timorese in the area. Kupang as an administrative centre has many government employees who come from all over NTT. While these people tend to live together in kampung (suburbs), the Timorese are spread out and it is, therefore, necessary to go inland to the villages in order to locate the Timorese traditions. Here the circle dance is also found; it is called bonet in the south and tebe-tebe in the north. The dance is slightly different from those in other areas in that it, like oha in Solor, does not have any accompanying instruments or body percussion. Pantun are the basis of the singing text, but within the circle seven to nine people are chosen as the leaders and they are spaced amongst the other performers. These singers take it in turns to lead the singing of the pantun. Other forms of performances are benet, bilut, bso'ot, and lagu merin.

The dance bidu which shows the Timorese weaving process and is danced by girls, is accompanied by more western-style instruments called bijola (like a guitar with four strings) and heo, in the local language, or fiol in Indonesian. The latter instrument is an adaptation of a Western violin. Dance signals were given by a whistle (the second time the author has encountered this in NTT) called a suling. It is said that the use of this instrument dates back to the time of Indonesian Independence. This would coincide with the coming of Allied troops to the area which could substantiate the theory that the Allied sergeants, using a whistle to signal troops, passed on this practice while there. There is also the use of an earlier suling-type instrument which is made from cow or buffalo horn which is also referred to as a suling (flute). Each suling owner plays a special pattern of sound by opening and closing the hole at the bottom of the horn while blowing across the top of the instrument. His girlfriend or his animals can identify him by the particular pattern he uses. This is not unlike the use of Chimbu flutes in the highlands of Papua New Guinea.

The bijola is also commonly known as the juke. Instruments exist which are similar in size, design, and name to the juke or jungga found in Sumba but they differ in that they have four strings, instead of three, and are often used for a chordal accompaniment. The modern bijola is often made in the shape of a guitar, and has an obvious influence from the early Portuguese settlers. There are still instruments made from a single piece of wood which perform the same purpose. Although the author did not see these instruments being used melodically in performance melodies were played to him on them after the performances concluded. It is usual for the bijola or juke to be accompanied by the fiol and this instrument, which in nearly all cases, was an adaptation of the Western violin takes on the melody line. The tuning of the fiol is also the same as for a Western violin; but the bow is similar to an Indonesian rhebab bow and uses horse hair and is tightened by the player's hand. An earlier version of this instrument suggests that bowed stringed instruments may have been in use before the coming of the Portuguese. This instrument still had four strings, but was more like a rhebab with a rectangular sounding box. The sounding box is tucked under the chin of the player so that it is held in a similar position to that of a Western violin when played. The use of two bijola and one fiol is common as an accompaniment to dancing. In one area, these instruments were not available and the performance went ahead with normal six-string guitars being used in their place. Apart from this later style of instrument, which still provided chordal accompaniment, the other main change was that the melody instead of being presented on the fiol was presented in sung form by the dancers. There is a strong tradition of folk singing in NTT which is possibly associated with the Christian Church. It is, therefore, not surprising to see the addition of a sung folk melody which is 'provincial' rather than 'local' in a dance accompaniment. It is an important example of the type of cultural change which comes about through the influence of 'outside factors' and especially appeals to the young people.

Also common in Timor is the use of gongs. Most groups encountered used five gongs: two pairs suspended and played by one player, and a single gong. These are accompanied by a tambour . One group used nine gongs (three sets of pairs and three singles), but explained that this was 'the old way' and that nowadays they also normally use five gongs. The gongs are always played exclusively by women, an unusual occurrence in Indonesia where men often dominate gong playing. The women play because the gongs are used especially for the performance of war-dances which are performed both before and after an encounter, and because the men are busy performing the dances. An interesting aspect of this performance was the playing of the tambour. The instrument has to follow the predominant note being sounded by the gongs (which could be any one of the five [nine] notes available) and, therefore, has to move from note to note quickly as the predominant gong note changes. In order to change the note on the drum, the skin of the drum must be tightened or loosened, resulting in a glissando effect. It also means that the player must exert much strength while simultaneously playing the drum with two hands at a rapid pace. In order to facilitate this pace the drum is placed horizontally with its playing face about one foot above the ground, and three women take it in turns to play. One sits above the drum, and the others on either side. Listening to the performance, it is difficult to tell where one player hands over to the next. The gongs used in Timor are generally a mixture of bronze and iron and sound very good. Most are at least 'six generations' old.


On this island there are five styles of music which use a number of gongs ( generally up to ten) and a tambour -type drum which is usually played with sticks. The styles are lelendok, taibinuk, foti, kakamusu and teorendak. While the tambour is a variation on the normal hourglass drum which is found throughout Melanesia the gongs were introduced from Java or Bali. There is no tradition of making gongs in this area. The gongs are of both bronze and iron but those of iron are predominant at the moment. The music played on the gongs can be performed also on the sasando. The use of the sasando in this capacity is not found in any other part of NTT and the idea of a stringed instrument producing all the gong parts is also quite rare in Indonesia as a whole. That the two types of performances have existed side by side for a long period of time is also an interesting feature. The gongs are suited to a spacious ceremonial area when there is a large audience. In the presentation of the HUS ceremony which was once always performed at the beginning of the rainy season, but is now becoming quite rare up to four or five gong groups may be spread around the area and each playing its own music with its own dancers. The sasando is obviously more suited to the family atmosphere of the home and can be used for small intimate performances.

The sasando has become the symbol of NTT. It is also used as a national symbol on occasion. A statue of a sasando being played has been erected in Kupang. They are manufactured and sold in many sizes to tourists, but today the playing of this instrument is dying out.

The sasando originated on Roti and combines an Indonesian instrument of the Balinese guntang type with a lontar-leaf goods-carrying basket. Guntang-type instruments are found throughout the Indonesian archipelago. They consist of a bamboo tube with two membranes still attached which has, in its original form been sliced so that the skin of the bamboo can be raised above the tube by the use of a small bamboo pin which acts as a bridge. The Balinese guntang uses only one string and has a slit-gong-type hole cut underneath the raised string to allow the bamboo tube to become its own resonator. Examples of instruments which are much more like the sasando in that they use a number of strings can be found in the Bima region of Nusa Tenggara Barat (NTB) and around Dili in Timot Timur. In the Dili area, the instrument is called lakadou, but is not used to play the melody line, as is the sasando. The sasando raises a number of these strings and then uses a lontar-leaf basket as the resonator. The bamboo tube is suspended across the middle of the lontar-leaf basket. In the last few years, changes in the making of sasando include the addition of steel strings and wooden bridges with small tuning pegs attached to the top of the instrument. The instrument is naturally very soft, but this has been adapted for public performance by one player who made an electric sasando which is fashioned round a larger bamboo and uses guitar pick-ups and strings. It functions very well through a 100-watt Fender amplifier.

While the first five styles of dance mentioned all show influences from outside NTT, the sixth, kebalai is an example of the Melanesian circle dance. This dance, like the pedoa of Sawu, is performed each night for three months during the dry season and after the harvest. The circle dance here differs from that on other islands in that the singing is about topical events. Anyone who wishes to take the lead and add their own jokes or information can come in at the appropriate time and sing their verse which will then be echoed by the dancers. Usually three of or four main singers emerge, competing to entertain the dancers.

Click here for Part Two

Footnotes follow in Part Two

If you would like to ADD some information on any area or pass on a message to the author please contact gobali@dps.centrin.net.id

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