Soundtrack to Southeast Asia

Explore the wealth of musical customs that still prevail in modern Asia

Explore the wealth of musical customs that still prevail in modern Asia

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For travellers with an ear for music, an astounding variety of traditional genres are waiting to be discovered and enjoyed in the Southeast Asia region.

Every country boasts a rich tapestry of musical history that has given rise to a wide assortment of styles. There is also an incredible array of traditional instruments still being played, some of which date back over a thousand years.

The unique range of musical influences expressed across Southeast Asia is impressive indeed. Thanks to the close proximity of many countries in the region to one another and the vast ethnic and linguistic diversity this brings, an array of styles can be found and heard in much of the Asian music that survives today.

With so much variety, it’s impossible to make a definitive list, but a few examples from specific countries in the region provide a suitable sampler.

Thailand Tunes

Thai classical music emerged in its present form from the court ensembles and repertoires that evolved within the royal courts of Thailand some 800 years ago.

Traditional Thai classical style is based on the oral tradition of performance, passed down from generation to generation, although modern Thai classical composers now write down their compositions and many have found fame through their work.

Classical Thai music is polyphonic, born from the layering of multiple individual sounds, instruments and voices, and each part improvises within the accepted parameters laid out along basic lines of harmony, or melody, referred to as paths. The tempo is generally steady using simple patterns and regular punctuation. There are three primary types of classical ensembles, the Piphat, Khrueang sai and Mahori; although they differ in significant ways, all three follow the same basic instrumentation.

There are many traditional Thai instruments used in this type of music, far too many to list here, but some of the main ones you still find being played include ‘Ching’ hand cymbals (small, thick cymbals, joined by a cord) used to set the background tempo, while the ‘khrap’ (a bundle of bamboo or hardwood sticks) create the primary beat references. Several kinds of small drums, or ‘klong’, are also used in these ensembles, outlining the basic rhythmic structure, which is punctuated by the striking of a ‘mong’; an embossed hanging gong.

With performances common in hotels, restaurants and even night markets, travellers may get a chance to hear Thai classical music performance during a trip to the Kingdom. Those that want to learn about the tradition will find that most Thai musicians are more than happy to talk about their craft.

Indonesian Gongs

Gamelan, is traditional ensemble music from the Java and Bali regions of Indonesia, made up mostly of percussive instruments. It forms an important part of Southeast Asia’s gong-chime musical culture and can be heard as background in most major tourist areas.

The word Gamelan, derives from the low Javanese word ‘gamel’; a type of mallet used to strike percussive instruments. There are many varieties of Gamelan. In fact, no two ensembles are the same, and different regions, cultural contexts and collections of instruments, all form their own styles.

The Gamelan is made up of a range of traditional Indonesian instruments, primarily metallophones; a group of instruments formed by a series of tuned metal bars that are struck to make sounds. Indonesian traditional metallophones are numerous, yet most Gamelans will include a ‘gendér’ (made up of ten to fourteen metal bars of different notes) and a ‘saron’ (which has seven bronze bars placed over a resonating frame). The ‘Kendhang’ (a double-headed hand-played drum), which has played a role in Indonesian music for centuries, is also essential for the tempo and rhythm of Gamelan compositions.

The Gamelan is still regularly performed today around the Indonesian archipelago, often accompanying rituals and ceremonies. It is still considered culturally important, so much so that there is a Javanese saying ‘It is not official until the gong is hung’, whilst in Bali, almost all religious rituals include Gamelan performance.

Vietnamese Percussion

Traditional Vietnamese instruments are also varied and numerous but can be grouped into three basic categories, stringed, wind and percussion instruments. The latter group includes drums, of various sizes, struck with a stick or beater, an assortment of xylophone style instruments, gongs, clappers and ‘Song Loan’; a wooden block with a hollow centre containing a ball, played by the foot forcing the ball to beat the sides of the block.

Vietnamese folk music also comes in many different styles and variations, depending on the occasion or instruments used. Much of this folk music still plays an important part in Vietnamese life today, so it’s easy to seek out and enjoy distinctive compositions, many of which have evolved with the changing times.

Chèo is a popular form of satirical musical theatre in Vietnam, often including dance, and was traditionally performed in outdoor public spaces by peasants. Its origins date back as far as the 12th century when the original ensembles consisted of a fiddle, flute and drum, and actors performed with sparse costumes and no props or scenery. Back then it was about creating a story through music, singing and dancing alone, but more modern interpretations are more elaborate; often performed by professionals in dedicated venues.

A Few Hand-picked Venues

There are endless types of musical entertainment to be enjoyed in the Southeast Asia region. In fact, almost every province has its own distinctive sound and it is therefore worth doing some research to find out where you can listen to local music in a particular area. Below are a few hand-picked venues and events to include in a musical journey.

  • If you want to hear a Gamelan, then Radio Republik Indonesia, which is the state radio network, has regular performances and recordings played on their channels, for example the Pura Pakualaman Gamelan performs live every Minggu Pon (a day in the 35-day cycle of the Javanese calendar). In major Indonesian towns and cities, the RRI employ professional musicians and actors to broadcast a wide selection of Gamelan music and dramas. For more information check out their website:
  • If you find yourself in Vietnam, you do not want to miss a Water Puppet performance. The genre takes its musical influence from the Chèo style of traditional folk music, and combines it with puppet theatre, where the stage is the surface of a body of water. This enchanting form of entertainment brings traditional folk tales and traditions to life. Regular performances take place in major cities, but in Hanoi, the Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre offers particularly impressive shows.
  • It is becoming increasingly difficult to find full performances of Thai Classical Music other than those presented for tourists, especially with the growing popularity of Thai pop music and western music. If you want to see a live performance, then one of the best remaining venues is the Sala Chalermkrung Royal Theatre in Bangkok, which offers regular shows that combine traditional music and dance. For more information, and to view a full schedule, check out their website:
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