Reception of music in cross-cultural perspective
Reception of music in cross-cultural perspective

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Reception of music in cross-cultural perspective

2.2 A wayang golék performance

The video section which you will shortly be watching was filmed at a wayang golék performance in September 1996, which took place in the village of Gempolsari, near Bandung in West Java (see Figure 1). The event was arranged to celebrate the 51st anniversary of Indonesian independence. (This anniversary actually falls on 27 August, but celebrations normally continue for several weeks thereafter.) Events like this occur quite frequently around Bandung, usually in celebration of a special event (if not Independence Day, then a wedding or circumcision ceremony perhaps), and are sponsored by an individual or organisation. The audience, as in the case of the event which we filmed, is not normally charged for admission.

Figure 1
Figure 1

This wayang golék performance, like most, lasted all night – starting at approximately 8 p.m.; there was no break in the performance until it concluded at approximately 4 a.m. The story enacted in this performance, called Jabang Tutuk, combines stories from the Indian epic Mahabharata with local characters and mythology. It is told through a variety of characters, including Gods – such as the hero of this tale, the winged God Gatotkaca – Kings, courtiers and soldiers, as well as clowns and ogres.

The following terms will be useful in understanding the video. (You don't need to remember all the terms introduced in this section, but these three are particularly useful.)

wayang golék purwathe full name for the type of puppet show illustrated (Purwa, literally ‘origin, beginning’, indicates that the stories deal with the origins of the world and of aspects of Sundanese culture.)
dalang puppeteer, in this case Pa Atik Rasta. Apart from animating the puppets the dalang also sings, speaks the dialogue, produces sound effects such as bangs and cymbal clashes, and directs the gamelan ensemble.
raméan important Sundanese aesthetic concept – see below.

The first sequence of the video sets the scene for the performance: we observe the final preparations on and around the stage, which has been erected especially for this performance. The rest of the video introduces, through a series of excerpts from the performance, some of the different aspects of the event. We see the gamelan musicians on stage; the dalang (puppeteer) manipulating a variety of puppets; the singers (one of whom, Ewis Rostini, stands up for an impromptu sequence of songs requested by audience members); speakers, including local government officials, who interrupt the performance from time to time in its early stages to make speeches and to lead (Muslim) prayers; the audience; and other distractions around the performance area. Captions and extracts from interviews help us to interpret what is going on in the performance.

Activity 1

Watch the video clips below. As you do so try to make a note of the following points:

  1. How does the audience react to the performance?

  2. What, according to those interviewed on the video, do the Sundanese look for in a wayang performance – what aesthetic values do they express?

  3. What is perceived by the speakers to have changed in wayang performance in recent times, and why?

Download this video clip.Video player: Part One
Part One
Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).
Download this video clip.Video player: Part Two
Part Two
Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).


Briefly, my answers to the questions I posed above would be as follows.

  1. Shots of the audience illustrated a variety of reactions, from intense concentration on the performance to a much more relaxed mode, with people chatting amongst themselves or paying more attention to other points of interest such as food and cigarette stalls.

  2. We are told that the event should be ramé. The implications of this aesthetic value seem to be that there need not be a single focus of attention; people are happiest in a lively, bustling atmosphere with multiple points of interest (the puppets, the instrumental music, the singers, the food stalls, each other).

  3. At least three types of change are mentioned: changes in the expectations of the audience (especially in their decreasing willingness to watch the puppets and listen to the words); in the introduction of amplification; and in the growing importance of female singers.

A typical wayang golék performance, then, is a lively and diffuse aggregate of music, song and puppet theatre (which itself ranges from serious drama to dance, comic-interludes and fight scenes). All these elements take place on a raised stage, placed in such a way that audience members are ranged around the front and sides. The event goes on all night, and throughout that time the audience is free to move around, watching the puppets, the singers or the musicians or taking time out to enjoy a snack or a cigarette with friends.

Ideally there should be lots going on, a lively and bustling atmosphere – it should be ramé. Ramé (also spelt ramai) and related ideas provide an important aesthetic influence on Indonesian performing and decorative arts in general:

The Javanese predilection for ramé is well known. Ramé translates as busy, noisy, congested, tangled – but in a positive sense. […] Busyness is clearly an important element in Javanese gamelan music, with some instruments delegated the responsibility of filling in the texture so that there is constant sound. The sparse or slow-playing of some instruments is always balanced by the busy activity of [these instalments]. Javanese textiles, particularly batik, are characterised by a high degree of ‘busy’ detail; for the most part, the greater the detail, the more highly valued the cloth.

(Sutton, 1996, p. 258)

Not surprisingly, we can find many interpretations of such events. At one level the wayang is public entertainment for the village, marking a particular celebration. Yet the event is also intended to have another level of meaning and significance, for instance through the moral teaching expressed through the mythological stories. The dalang (puppeteer) is a highly respected member of the community, partly because of the special knowledge to which he has access. The following description refers to the Javanese wayang kulit (shadow puppet) tradition, but also applies to the art we are studying.

While the dhalang is the supreme entertainer, he is also much more. Wayang's ties with ritual are not as strong as they once were, but many performances today are given in conjunction with ritual events, such as marriage and circumcision. The dhalang is a spiritual teacher, revered by the general populace. Moreover, he is considered to be ampub – endowed with supernatural powers – in tune with the cosmic realm, the realm of the ancestors, and the everyday world, bringing them together in his demanding all-night performances.

(Sutton, 1984, p. 127)

The event, then, has significance on a number of levels from simple entertainment to esoteric ritual – it is received on a number of levels and that reception depends to a great extent on aesthetic values specific to this particular culture. This is aptly summarised by Kathy Foley, in her study of Sundanese wayang golék.

The word the Sundanese commonly apply to wayang golék is hiburan, ‘entertainment’. When a performance ceases to be entertaining, it loses its potential to instruct and influence. The primary criterion that villages use for judging a performance is whether or not it is ramai […] When a performance is not ramai, people soon drift home to sleep. The word will pass that the dalang was mediocre. The family that hired him will gain little status, and he will probably not be invited to play in that area again. A wayang must first be entertaining.

The art, therefore, is receptive to the demands of its audience, and the audience has brought new demands. ‘People want to laugh more.’ ‘Audiences prefer new stories.’ ‘Audiences want to see lots of fighting.’ These observations are made by dalang about their audiences.


Dalang continue to include spiritual teaching, political philosophy, and social criticism in amounts they feel the audience will accept: ‘You give information to the people. But you can't force it. You have to keep it indirect, not direct.’

Although the wayang changes in superficial ways, its core, it is felt, remains the same. […] The wayang world is wide: if this is a time when ogres and clowns can speak most clearly to the issues, the wayang can shift its focus to them without violating the form. If a new song or dance catches the fancy of the audiences, the dalang, pasinden [singers] and troupe will incorporate it, without sacrificing the traditional elements. […]

This balance of the traditional and modern continues to captivate the rural Sundanese, and a ramai performance is one of the highlights of the year. Performances are events that gather together the community, bringing joy and a feeling of unity. As the pasinden sings:

  • Culture and art

  • Aren't for nothing

  • It is important to use entertainment

  • To draw people together, to make them brothers

(Foley, 1979, from pp. 261–6)

As I said earlier, it is not necessary for you to remember all the terminology introduced in this section. (The most important terms are wayang, dalang and ramé.) More important are the issues raised about:

  • the reception of performance events;

  • the influence of reception on musical change;

  • and the influence of technology (in this case amplification) on both.

These themes will be developed further in the next section, which primarily concerns the impact of social and technological change on music and its reception.


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