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Divine InspirationsMusic and Islam in Indonesias$

David Harnish and Anne Rasmussen

Print publication date: 2011

Print ISBN-13: 9780195385410

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: September 2011

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195385410.001.0001

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“Authentic” Islamic Sound? Orkes Gambus Music, the Arab Idiom, and Sonic Symbols in Indonesian Islamic Musical Arts

“Authentic” Islamic Sound? Orkes Gambus Music, the Arab Idiom, and Sonic Symbols in Indonesian Islamic Musical Arts

(p.207) 7 “Authentic” Islamic Sound? Orkes Gambus Music, the Arab Idiom, and Sonic Symbols in Indonesian Islamic Musical Arts
Divine Inspirations

Birgit Berg

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter discusses the unique and conflicting positions of Arabic music and language in Indonesia. The study was conducted among the settlements of ethnic Arabs in the Gorontalo region of Sulawesi. For these ethnic Arab communities, orkes gambus music—small ensemble music featuring Arab-derived instruments including the gambus lute—is a celebratory and ethnic tradition. Throughout most of the archipelago, however, this music is performed and consumed within Islamic settings and considered Islamic, partially because of the instrumentation, the ethnicity of the performers, and the use of Arabic, the language of the Qur'an and the Prophet. Critics, who object to the claim that Arab vernacular popular music is anything more than just that, make a sharp distinction between orkes gambus, on the one hand, and musik islami on the other. The chapter focuses on the power of sonic symbolism and aesthetics in the context of global and local religious affiliations and communities, and reveals the trends and tensions in religious expression and identity in a modern non-Arab Islamic nation.

Keywords:   Arabic music, Arabic language, Indonesia, orkes gambus music, ethnic traditions, Islamic music

Birgit Berg conducted extensive fieldwork among people in the old settlements of ethnic Arabs in the Gorontalo and Manado regions of Sulawesi, who, like many Arab Indonesians, trace their lineage to Hadramaut, Yemen. Within these communities a genre of music called gambus, also the name of the Arab lute that is central to the gambus orchestra or orkes gambus, is the key feature of ethnic celebration. In fact, no Arab-Indonesian wedding celebration is complete without an evening of orkes gambus music, when men take turns dancing into the night with their friends and family. Outside of Arab-Indonesian communities and throughout the archipelago, however, gambus is seen, heard, and used differently: as a music imbued with Islamic spirituality and performed in Islamic contexts. The use of Arabic language in song texts, Arabic script on liner notes, and Arab-derived musical instruments, melodies, and rhythms—in addition to the ethnicity of the performers themselves—are perceived by some to represent the original land of Islam. The categorization of orkes gambus as musik islami is not universally accepted, however, as many people do not interpret its visual, material, lyrical, and sonic symbols as “Islamic.” This divergence in public opinion about music reflects the continuously dynamic role of Arab culture in Indonesian history and Islamic expression. Combining historical inquiry with ethnographic fieldwork among musicians and audiences, Berg explores the position of ethnic Arab orkes gambus music in the spectrum of Islamic musical arts as well as its rejection from that category, and the ways in which aesthetic value judgments reflect larger trends and tensions in religious expression and identity in a modern non-Arab Islamic nation.

In modern Indonesian ethnic Arab communities—comprised mostly of descendants of migrants from Hadramaut, Yemen—the performance of orkes gambus music (small ensemble music featuring Arab-derived instruments, such as the gambus lute) remains a celebratory tradition that is worn as a badge of ethnic identity. This music is by no means limited to the walls of Arab quarters, but, (p.208) outside of Arab-Indonesian communities, it serves a different purpose: It is almost exclusively performed and consumed within Islamic settings. Just as the Arabic language is often incorporated into Islamic domains in Indonesia, the Arab musical aesthetic of orkes gambus music—with its Arab instruments and musical techniques—is easily enfolded within an Islamic context. Widely consumed as one form of musik islami (Islamic-themed music), orkes gambus music is frequently broadcast nationally on Islamic holidays, performed during religious events, and sold commercially under the category of religious music in record stores and street markets.

Not all Muslim Indonesians universally accept the incorporation of orkes gambus music into Islamic contexts or its categorization as musik islami. Although some consider the music to be Islamic-themed, others regard orkes gambus as entertainment music not suitable for performance within religious contexts and best left confined to boisterous Arab-Indonesian celebrations held in urban Arab quarters. Orkes gambus music uses Arab musical structures and the Arabic language, but its texts are mostly secular love poems without religious messages. Thus many Islamic religious leaders, artists, and orkes gambus musicians themselves object to its association with Islamic musical arts. As one musician proclaimed, “Where is its Islamic-ness? I myself am confused.”1 While the “Islamic-ness” of orkes gambus hinges on its use of Arab instruments, sound styles, and language, this is not enough to qualify it as Islamic according to its critics.

In this chapter, I assert that orkes gambus music illustrates the growing yet ambiguous role of Arab culture in global Islamic expression and that the adoption of ethnic Arab orkes gambus music into Islamic musical arts in Indonesia, as well as its rejection, reflect larger trends and tensions in religious expression and identity on local, national, and international levels. I will begin this discussion by introducing the gambus instrument and its variants and then describing its role within Arab-Indonesian communities in Indonesia. I will then turn the discussion to examples of orkes gambus music outside of Arab-Indonesian ethnic contexts and within the Islamic realm. It is here that I will analyze what makes this Arab ethnic music acceptable within Islamic contexts and how and why Arab music, along with other Arab cultural products, have become powerful symbols of both Islam and modernity in contemporary Indonesia.

Gambus: Regional and “Arab” Varieties

Gambus is the name of a wooden lute found in both Malaysia and Indonesia, but the term is also used generically to describe a small ensemble that incorporates (p.209) the instrument.2 Traditional forms of the gambus instrument in Indonesia have 4 to 6 pairs of strings; this varies by region and gambus style. The instrument is often assumed to be of Arab ancestry; however, there is no definitive evidence for this ancestry except for the comparisons with Arab lutes and documents noting the use of the gambus in Arab communities in Southeast Asia as early as the 19th century.

As it is commonly accepted that the gambus instrument is not indigenous to Southeast Asia, scholars have debated its origins. Jaap Kunst notes two forms of the instrument (whose name he claims derives from the East African gabbus) found in early 20th century Java: one of Hadrami ancestry and another of Hijaz ancestry (Kunst 1973, 373). Christian Poché links the gambus with the Southern Arabian qanbus, a short-necked lute with three double and one single string widely disseminated throughout Southeast Asia and Africa (Poché 1984, 168). Curt Sachs and Henry Farmer trace the names gambus and qanbus to the Turkish qopuz (see Sachs 1923, Farmer 1978), and Sachs and Tilman Seebass even suggest that the instrument exhibits Chinese and Portuguese influences (see Sachs 1923, Seebass 1988). The gambus instrument often used today closely resembles the Egyptian ‘ud,3 though various forms of the gambus instrument can be found throughout the Indonesian archipelago, making it difficult to declare a single organological history. Most scholars, however, agree that the instrument spread throughout the archipelago with the spread of Islam.

Gambus music styles can be organized into two main categories: regional gambus styles and Arab gambus styles (also called orkes gambus).4 The latter category is the main focus of discussion in this chapter; however, I will introduce both categories because a significant part of my ongoing project is to distinguish what the term gambus means within the world of Indonesian expressive arts.

Regional Gambus Genres

Regional gambus instruments and genres exist across Indonesia. Performances often incorporate the singing of pantun, a Malay verse form, and the performance of zafin (zapin) dance. During my field research, I became familiar with regional gambus music from the province of Gorontalo on the island of Sulawesi.

The Gorontalo gambus instrument resembles the gambus lutes in Java described by Jaap Kunst (i.e., a traditional gambus form, not the modern ‘ud, see Figure 7.1). In the province of Gorontalo, the most renowned gambus player (p.210)

“Authentic” Islamic Sound? Orkes Gambus Music, the Arab Idiom, and Sonic Symbols in Indonesian Islamic Musical Arts

Figure 7.1. Gorontalo gambus. (photo by author)

today is Risno Ahaya, known as the “King of Gambus” (Raja Gambus, see Figure 7.2). Blind since childhood, Risno Ahaya began practicing the gambus at the age of ten. His songs are mostly “pandungi,” or pantun, in the Gorontalo language (bahasa Gorontalo), and Pak Ahaya playfully improvises on these pantun during performance (often including references to people in his audience). Gorontalo gambus music is often accompanied by drums known as maluwasi, a group of around four small double-skinned hand-held drums that perform fast interlocking patterns. This gambus music, accompanied by dance, is known as dana-dana, a regional term for the Melayu zapin music/dance genre. Dana-dana performance in Gorontalo is rarely seen outside of cultural performances, government-sponsored programs, and competition settings, and it is often staged as part of budaya daerah (regional culture) in national cultural pageants.

Arab-Indonesian Orkes Gambus

The second major type of gambus music, Arab gambus or orkes gambus,5 is an ensemble incorporating the gambus lute (almost always the modern ‘ud) and various forms of small handheld drums (including tamtam, dumbuk, and marwas—similar to the maluwasi found in Gorontalo and also known by its plural form marawis, see Figure 7.3). Modern orkes gambus ensembles also (p.211)

“Authentic” Islamic Sound? Orkes Gambus Music, the Arab Idiom, and Sonic Symbols in Indonesian Islamic Musical Arts

Figure 7.2. Album Cover, Hagoga's Gogo Pusaka, featuring Risno Ahaya. (holding gambus)

incorporate the guitar, bass, and electric keyboard. This music is most often found within Arab-Indonesian urban communities that are made up primarily of the descendents of immigrants from Hadramaut, Yemen.

Orkes gambus ensemble music in Indonesia has three types of music and dance styles (see also Capwell 1995): zafin, sarah, and zahefe.

Zafin (also spelled zapin) is a music/dance style and is well documented in Nor's book (1993), Zapin: Folk Dance of the Malay World, which describes the development and influence of zapin dance in Malaysian arts. Although associated with Hadramaut heritage and generally accepted as dance style of Arab descent, according to Nor no evidence has been found of a Hadrami dance style related to this genre (1993, 8).6 In his 19th century essays documenting his experiences in various Arab communities in Indonesia, however, L.W.C. van den Berg notes a dance genre called zafin in (p.212)

“Authentic” Islamic Sound? Orkes Gambus Music, the Arab Idiom, and Sonic Symbols in Indonesian Islamic Musical Arts

Figure 7.3. Instruments of the orkes gambus ensemble. Here the gambus is the modern ‘ud. (photo by author)

a Batavian Arab community (Berg 1886, 91–92), suggesting, though not confirming, its links to the Hadramaut.

In his study on zapin music in Malaysia, Nor distinguishes between two types of performance: zapin Melayu (Malay zapin) and zapin Arab (Arab zapin) (Nor 1993, 1). This distinction, between a local and an Arab style, also exists in Indonesia where zafin is commonly found in regional gambus performance as well as in Arab orkes gambus performance. However, dancing is restricted to men in Arab zafin performance.

Sarah (Sharah, Syarah) music is more closely related to popular music than zafin. It usually uses a faster, freer tempo than zafin and uses modern instruments, such as guitar, bass, and keyboard. Sarah music is in triple meter, unlike zafin or zahefe music (described below). The term sharh is used in Southern Arabia to describe a dance genre with music in triple meter, and the term sharah is found in the Southern Arabian area of Tihamah, where it is also used to describe a dance style (Shawqi 1994, 179, Bakewell 1985, 104). However, descriptions of these dances, which are performed in complete synchronization and with the accompaniment of handheld drums (mirwas), do not correspond with sarah dance as it exists today in Indonesia. Although sarah dance involves a pair of dancers, it is a spontaneous improvised dance that does not incorporate small handheld drums.

Zahefe (Dehaifeh, Dehefe) music often adopts a percussive style similar to dangdut music, a form of Indonesian popular music. It usually has a faster tempo, and (p.213) is known as the modern, and currently most popular, orkes gambus style. Unlike zafin and sarah, zahefe dance involves not a pair but rather three dancers who perform in a two-against-one style of playful and teasing dance in which either the single dancer or the pair that he is facing initiate dance steps that are mirrored by the other side. As with most Arab-Indonesian performance, dancers are always men.

The texts of orkes gambus songs today are most often in Arabic.7 In modern orkes gambus performances, the use of Indonesian is limited to songs (usually using pantun lyric structure) performed along with zafin dance. Over the past decade, however, there has been an increasing tendency to abandon use of pantun/zafin genres and Indonesian lyrics altogether. Nearly all songs on modern gambus recordings are zahefe or sarah arrangements in Arabic, even though very few performers themselves are fluent in Arabic. In commercial orkes gambus recordings, these lyrics are written in Roman script, but they are also written in Arabic script.

Balasyik's Jalsah

Muhdar Alatas's Nagiinaa (1997)

Mustafa Abdullah's Boom 10 Lagu Gambus Millenium (2000)

“Authentic” Islamic Sound? Orkes Gambus Music, the Arab Idiom, and Sonic Symbols in Indonesian Islamic Musical Arts“Authentic” Islamic Sound? Orkes Gambus Music, the Arab Idiom, and Sonic Symbols in Indonesian Islamic Musical Arts“Authentic” Islamic Sound? Orkes Gambus Music, the Arab Idiom, and Sonic Symbols in Indonesian Islamic Musical Arts

Figure 7.4. Examples of orkes gambus album covers and liner notes. Note the solid body electric ‘ud, as well as dumbuk and marwas drums on the cover for Jalsah.

(p.214) (p.215) In addition to changes in language, the influences of orkes gambus songs over the decades also have changed. Whereas older orkes gambus songs were mostly sholawat praise songs to the Prophet Muhammad with a clearly religious tone, or light-hearted songs about life in the Hadramaut, today's orkes gambus performers (who are mostly young men) modernize old orkes gambus repertoire with arrangements of the latest Arab pop hits they find on recordings sold in local markets or even on the Internet. Performers transcribe the song lyrics using Roman script and then sometimes even transliterate the lyrics into Arabic script. As few performers are fluent in Arabic, the original Arab lyrics become obscured in the process.

The following is the song text excerpt and translation of “Nawwarti Ayyami” by Orkes Gambus El Bass (the Arabic transliteration appears in the liner notes). The singer uses the Egyptian dialect of Arabic; however, on the recording the transcription and pronunciation of many words are unclear. The following is the estimated translation by Mirena Christof, lecturer of Arabic language at Brown University.8

Nawwarti ayyami ragga'ti ahlami

You brightened my days, you brought back my dreams.

Ghayyarti lon wuta'wu sakel'il haya

(Arabic unclear. Words such as color, taste, life).

Allah…Allah…Allah…Ya Allah. Allah 3x

Allah…Allah…Allah…Ya Allah. Allah 3x

Allah gab ainak fa a'ini, (Habibi…)

Allah has made us see each other (my love)

Allah gama'beinak wu baini (Habibi)

Allah has brought us together (my love)

Arab-Indonesian Wedding Celebrations and Orkes Gambus

My first personal experience with orkes gambus music took place at a wedding in the city of Manado in North Sulawesi. When I first walked into the Arab community, tucked away behind the bustling Chinese district of the city, I was in awe of the grand three-story Turkish-styled mosque in front of me.9 I was invited to attend a pre-wedding celebration at the bride's house on the night before the wedding. This night, known as malam bedaka (powder night)10 in this region, is a night of prayer and celebration. Most commonly, the bride (pegantin perempuan) is dressed and adorned with henna (laka) on her hands and feet. Local community women and female relatives gather at the bride's home to read prayers (burda). They also offer the bride small blessings by placing a yellow powder (bedaka) on her palm, and then bring the remainder of this powder to the home of the groom.

While the scene at the bride's home is calm, the scene at the groom's home is quite the opposite. After the women finish reading prayers at the groom's (p.216) house, the men and invited female guests partake in an evening of music and dance known as samrah11 and handolo. With the purpose of not only roasting but also exhausting the groom, men take turns dancing in pairs to orkes gambus music well into the night. At the close of the evening, they perform the handolo ritual in which important guests and relatives of the groom are invited to paint the groom's face and body with the yellow bedaka powder from the bride's ceremony. After adorning the groom with yellow powder, they lift the groom above their heads, throw him in the air, and dance around him. Although handolo is the climax of the evening, the highlight of the evening is the entertainment provided by the orkes gambus ensemble.

Although they have assimilated into Indonesian society and many today do not speak Arabic in their daily lives, Arab-Indonesians maintain and preserve their ethnic identity through their music and dance traditions, particularly orkes gambus. When I asked one young woman why she enjoyed orkes gambus music, she replied: “because I am from the Arab quarter, so it is a tradition.”12 Even members of the younger generation describe gambus as part of Arab-Indonesian adat (custom/tradition).

“Authentic” Islamic Sound? Orkes Gambus Music, the Arab Idiom, and Sonic Symbols in Indonesian Islamic Musical Arts

Figure 7.5. Zahefe dance, samrah/handolo evening. (Arab quarter, Bolangitang, North Sulawesi). (photo by author)

(p.217) Until recently, cultural anthropologists and historians had not studied the history and traditions of Arab-Indonesians in great detail.13 Even today most scholars of these minority communities rely on L.W.C. van den Berg's 19th-century study of Hadrami Arab communities in Dutch colonial Indonesia (Le Hadhramout et les Colonies Arabes dans L'archipel Indien), as there have been no recent comprehensive ethnographic studies of these communities since. Hadramis were famous traders and proselytizers of Islam throughout Africa, India, and Southeast Asia for centuries; however, most Hadramis who migrated left Yemen in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This period marked intense European imperialism in Yemen and improved transportation and communication, including the steamship and the telegraph. These elements, as well as tales of wealth and fortune to be found outside of Hadramaut, proved to be a driving force in Hadrami emigration.

For much of colonial history, the Dutch colonial government ostracized both Arab-Indonesians and Chinese-Indonesians. Unlike Chinese-Indonesians, however, Arab-Indonesians for the most part had been accepted into indigenous Indonesian societies, because, as only Hadrami men immigrated to Indonesia, they married with local women. Furthermore, Hadrami immigrants and traders were accepted because, like many indigenous Indonesians, they were Muslims. Many of them also played important roles as teachers and proselytizers of Islam within the region. As Natalie Mobini-Kesheh describes,

Islam served a double purpose for the Hadramis. Not only did the shared religion provide many common ideas and customs … but also where their social and cultural practices differed from those of locals, these differences were often perceived by indigenous Muslims in a positive light (Mobini-Kesheh 1999, 24).

Religion and intermarriage thus helped Arabs integrate into Indonesian society.

Opinions of Arab-Indonesians in the archipelago in general fluctuated between two extremes, however. On the one hand, Arab-Indonesians were seen positively as pious teachers of Islam. Even today many Arab-Indonesians play prominent roles in local and national Islamic organizations and institutions. On the other hand, Arab-Indonesians were and continue to be associated with their role as merchants and in this light they are viewed negatively as greedy and rough. (One Javanese man, for example, described to me in disgust how Arab-Indonesians eat with their hands.) This acceptance and rejection of Arab-Indonesians is similar to the acceptance and rejection of orkes gambus music that will be explored later in this chapter.

(p.218) In North Sulawesi, where I conducted most of my fieldwork, Arab families live in ethnic communities known as “kampung Arab.” These communities are often former ethnic ghettos found across Indonesia that were administered by the Dutch during colonization.14 During my research, I discovered that these urban Arab communities are interconnected. Members of the Arab community in Manado have close family members in Arab communities in Gorontalo and Sangihe-Talaud in North Sulawesi, and they have relatives even as far as Surabaya, Semarang, and Jakarta. Women in Arab communities often marry with other Arab-Indonesians and many then move to different cities, strengthening the ties between various urban Arab quarters. In North Sulawesi, these ties become evident during wedding celebrations in different areas, as Arab-Indonesians from one community will attend weddings in other regions. Arab-Indonesians in North Sulawesi also maintain traditions that distinguish them from non-Arab Muslims in the area, such as the performance of orkes gambus music and dance in Arab-Indonesian wedding celebrations.

One of the top modern orkes gambus performers in Indonesia today is the singer Nizar Ali Al-Haddad, whom I visited in Surabaya, East Java, in 2006. Nizar, as he is known by his fans, is part of the East Java orkes gambus scene. Born in Sumenep, Madura, in 1971, he notes a significant change in orkes gambus reception at the end of the 1990s when orkes gambus began to be performed outside of the wedding parties in the Arab quarter of Surabaya. Nizar describes that before 1999 people outside of Arab communities often referred to orkes gambus as qasidah (a term that denotes a popular Islamic music genre in Indonesia) because they were unfamiliar with orkes gambus. However, orkes gambus music then began to take on a new style, a faster dangdut-like style (zahefe). This style, he states, was more compatible with Indonesian taste leading to an increase in the popularity of this music outside of Arab communities.

Famous orkes gambus musicians from the past include Segaf Assegaf and Syech Albar; however, Nizar and his frequent partner Mustafa Abdullah represent the new generation of orkes gambus modern. Modern orkes gambus musicians often seek musical inspiration from the Arab world. Nizar himself looks for new music on the Internet or asks his friends returning from the Middle East to bring him new popular music recordings. Nizar then arranges these songs for the orkes gambus ensemble. As he describes it, Indonesian ears prefer the dominant percussive structures in zahefe and sarah styles, rather than the original arrangements of the Arab pop hits. Nizar does not see orkes gambus music as a static traditional genre. His goal is to modernize gambus music through the introduction of new music from the Middle East and through the use of digital sound and technology; in fact, he arranged many of his latest songs on his home computer.

(p.219) Nizar himself has been the focus of controversy among Arab-Indonesian communities in East Java. He pushed the boundaries of orkes gambus performance style and was one of the first orkes gambus singers to perform while standing. In traditional orkes gambus performance, known as jalsa in East Java, all performers (as well as all male party guests) sit on the ground around the dance carpet. Men stand only when it is their turn to dance. When Nizar first began to stand during his performances, many proponents of traditional orkes gambus objected to the drastic performance style change in which the vocalist becomes the focus of the performance rather than the dances performed by guests. Nizar also began to dance in place while singing, which some traditional orkes gambus fans found obscene.

Although perhaps not well known outside of Arab-Indonesian communities, Nizar and his peer Mustafa Abdullah are well known throughout Arab-Indonesian networks in Eastern Indonesia, where I conducted my fieldwork. In these communities, orkes gambus performers from East Java are superstars who once in a great while travel to and perform in Arab communities on the outer Indonesian islands. I first met Nizar when he performed at a wedding in the city of Gorontalo. He was hired by the governor of Gorontalo, Fadel Muhammad (who is an Arab-Indonesian himself), to perform at the samrah evening the night before the traditional Arab-Indonesian wedding of the governor's nephew. Such performances by East Javanese orkes gambus performers in outer island communities are rare due to the great costs in hiring them.

Orkes Gambus Outside Arab Communities: Orkes Gambus in Islamic Expression

Although orkes gambus music is a staple part of Arab-Indonesian tradition, Muslims across Indonesia who are not of Arab descent also perform and consume orkes gambus music. However, in these cases, the music is almost always performed within Islamic contexts.

In North Sulawesi, for example, orkes gambus music is part of community religious life in many Muslim communities. Often, youth organizations of mosques (known as remaja masjid) form orkes gambus groups or practice and perform orkes gambus dance genres (including zafin, sarah, and zahefe dance styles) to popular orkes gambus recordings. Orkes gambus is also performed at programs that celebrate the beginning of the fasting month Ramadan and at various Halal bi Halal programs to celebrate the end of the month of Ramadan. I witnessed orkes gambus performed at several inter-religious dialogues, (p.220)

“Authentic” Islamic Sound? Orkes Gambus Music, the Arab Idiom, and Sonic Symbols in Indonesian Islamic Musical Arts“Authentic” Islamic Sound? Orkes Gambus Music, the Arab Idiom, and Sonic Symbols in Indonesian Islamic Musical Arts

Figure 7.6. Examples of album covers. (a) Nizar Ali's Nizar Ali, (b) Orkes Gambus El Mira's Album Gambus Ahlan Wasahlan, featuring Mustafa Abdullah and Nizar Ali.

including a program at the governor's residence in North Sulawesi with the theme “Stabilize Harmony and Solidarity among Religious Groups”15 in which religious representatives from several religions were invited to speak and perform as a means to promote religious understanding and tolerance. During this program, speeches and prayers by Christian, Catholic, and Islamic community leaders were interspersed with performances of Handel's (p.221) Hallelujah chorus by a local church choir and Arab popular love songs performed by a orkes gambus group from the local Arab community. Along with Quranic recitation, orkes gambus was incorporated as part of the Islamic portion of the program.

On national television, orkes gambus music is often shown on the TVRI national television station during the holy month of Ramadan as part of special hiburan, or entertainment, shows. In these programs, musicians are almost always dressed in Islamic clothing (busana Muslim). Performances are also aired regularly on Fridays following several Islamic talk shows, such as the show Mutiara Jumat (“Friday Pearl”), a women's Islamic discussion group. On this program, orkes gambus is introduced along with nasyid (a genre discussed later in this chapter) as musik rohani (spiritual music) and performances of both genres typically close the show.

Commercially, orkes gambus music is sold under the category of Islamic/religious music. I found this to be the case both in street stalls selling this music and in major music store chains, such as Disc Tarra, that I visited in several cities throughout Sulawesi and Java. It is even sold (along with other Islamic popular music) at music and book stalls in front of mosques.

Although often performed and marketed in Islamic contexts, orkes gambus' role as an Islamic genre remains ambiguous. Descriptions of orkes gambus from interviews and discussions illustrate the difficulty of defining orkes gambus music within the Islamic musical arts realm. Some terms used to describe orkes gambus music that I have come across during my research include

  • Nuansa Islam = The feel of Islam; Islamic nuance

  • Musik/Irama Rohani = Spiritual music; the rhythm of spirituality

  • Bernafaskan Islam = Of Islamic character (lit: music that “breathes Islam”)

These terms identify orkes gambus as part of the realm of Islamic arts in Indonesia. Many Indonesians, however, do not identify orkes gambus music as Islamic at all; rather, they think of orkes gambus as mere entertainment music and object to any association of the music with religion. Some do not like such associations because the music is too fast, loud, and boisterous to be serious Islamic music. Some do not like it because they are not comfortable with the secular Arabic lyrics of modern orkes gambus repertoire. These lyrics are mysterious to many, as only Indonesians who have studied modern Arabic language can understand them. Others simply state that orkes gambus music is not their style, is just plain silly (humoris), or is “Arab ethnic music” (musik etnis Arab). As I mentioned before, Arab-Indonesians—often associated with this music—in general are viewed within opposing frameworks, either as exemplary Muslims or as greedy/rough (p.222) merchants. Orkes gambus music is also viewed within two frameworks: either as Islamic-themed music or as ethnic/entertainment music.

Orkes Gambus' Ambiguous Role in Islamic Musical Arts

“Islamic music” (musik Islam) has always been a contested term. It is, as Margaret Sarkissian describes, a “thorny issue in most Islamic societies” (Sarkissian 2005, 124). Some Muslim leaders believe music to be haram, or prohibited, and others only require it to be compatible with Islamic values and proper behavior. The term musik Islam can imply music that was actually performed during the time of the Prophet Muhammad and that is mentioned in the Qur'an or in the Hadith texts, something of which there are few examples. Anne Rasmussen, in her work on Quranic recitation and Islamic music in Indonesia, adopts the Indonesian idiom “seni musik Islam” (Islamic musical arts) to describe a range of Islamic genres (see Rasmussen 2001, 2005). Several of my informants noted that they also prefer to refer to such music (and other Islamic popular music genres) as “musik islami” (music with an Islamic quality) or as a part of “budaya Islam” (Islamic culture). Orkes gambus, therefore, is vaguely defined. It is not completely Islamic, yet at the same time it is inseparable from Islamic expression.

One way to clarify orkes gambus' ambiguous role in Indonesian Islamic musical arts is to compare it with other forms of popular Islamic arts in Indonesia. Two of today's most popular Islamic musical arts in Indonesia are nasyid and lagu-lagu sholawat (or sholawat songs). Popular Islamic musical arts in Indonesia are by no means limited to these genres; however, it is useful to compare these genres in order to illustrate how orkes gambus can be similar, yet drastically different, from generally accepted forms of popular Islamic musical arts in Indonesia.


Nasyid is group vocal music, often a cappella but sometimes performed with accompaniment. The term nasyid can be traced to the Arabic word annasyid (to lecture or reverberations) and means “(singer of a) religions song” (Barendregt and van Zanten 2002, 78). The genre, initially popularized in neighboring Malaysia, has become one of the most popular contemporary Islamic arts in Indonesia over the past decade. Adjie Esa Poetra's 2004 book Revolusi Nasyid (Nasyid Revolution) describes three main forms of nasyid: 1) nasyid Melayu that uses percussion, 2) nasyid acapella that is similar to R&B styles, and 3) nasyid that (p.223) uses hymne (or hymns) about jihad themes (themes that promote Islam) (Poetra 2004, v). These three forms of nasyid can use both Western and Middle Eastern music styles. The texts of popular nasyid songs are mostly in the Indonesian or Malaysian language, although, as Sarkissan notes (2005, 132), they are sometimes “peppered with specialized Islamic [Arabic] vocabulary.”

The famous Indonesian Islamic preacher AA Gym, who himself composes nasyid, described nasyid as “one way of approaching dakwah” (salah satu titik sentuh dakwah) (Poetra 2004, xiii). Dakwah means “to teach about Islam,” and it is a powerful and legitimizing word in Islamic communities, as performing dakwah and teaching about Islam are considered to be acts in reverence to God. Dakwah plays a fundamental role in nasyid culture through lyrics that promote proper behavior and the fulfillment of religious doctrine. As Patricia Matusky and Tan Sooi Beng describe, nasyid serves to “inculcate good values, morals and habits, and stress the importance of religion and allegiance to nation” (2004, 263). The following is the song text.

Jagalah hati jangan kau kotori

Protect your heart, don't contaminate it

Jagalah hati lentera hidup ini

Protect your heart, lighthouse of this life

Jagalah hati jangan kau nodai

Protect your heart, don't defile it

Jagalah hati cahaya illahi

Protect your heart, light of God

Beyond the clear religious message found in its texts, nasyid also gains legitimacy as a form of Islamic musical arts because of a reference to a poetic recitation/hymn form by a similar name found in historic Islamic texts, suggesting that nasyid was an acceptable practice in the early years of Islam (Ibid, 262), even if the style has changed dramatically since that time (see Figure 7.7).

The following is the song text excerpt and translation of “Jagalah Hati,” Indonesian nasyid written by A.A. Gym.

Lagu-lagu Sholawat (Sholawat Songs): Cinta Rasul

Sholawat are praise songs to the Prophet Muhammad in the Arabic language. The Arabic texts are the same throughout the Muslim world; however, when sholawat texts are set to music, the melodies and accompaniment can differ dramatically from region to region. The most commercially popular recording artist of sholawat in Indonesia today is Haddad Alwi, who over recent years recorded the Cinta Rasul (“Love for the Messenger”) sholawat series, a series of cassettes, now compact discs of popular sholawat set to music and often marketed to children. The sholawat recordings of Haddad Alwi, although not in the Indonesian language, contain Arabic sholawat that are quite familiar to Indonesian Muslim ears such as “Yaa Nabi Salam Alaika” (“Prophet [Muhammad], peace be upon you”). These (p.224)

“Authentic” Islamic Sound? Orkes Gambus Music, the Arab Idiom, and Sonic Symbols in Indonesian Islamic Musical Arts

Figure 7.7. Nasyid album cover example, The Fikr's Cinta (2004).

sholawat texts are commonly sung during various Islamic ceremonies in Indonesia and are therefore well known among the general population.

Haddad Alwi rejects the term musik Islam because to him the term implies that there is a type of music that is not Islamic, something he highly disagrees with. Born in the city of Surakarta, Central Java, he describes himself not as a singer of Islamic music but rather as a pelantun sholawat, or a sholawat reciter. Ustaz Alwi, as he is often known, claims that music is universal. He does not feel that the Arab musical idiom reflects religious affiliation, and he incorporates various styles into his sholawat recordings. His ultimate goal is dakwah, not music. Music only supports his dakwah mission. He will use piano music or traditional local music if he feels a listener will be drawn to it; he does not feel that he must use Arab music.

The following is the sholawat text excerpt and translation of “Yaa Nabi Salam ‘Alaika,” as performed by Haddad Alwi. The Arabic transliteration is as found on a karaoke recording. (p.225)

“Authentic” Islamic Sound? Orkes Gambus Music, the Arab Idiom, and Sonic Symbols in Indonesian Islamic Musical Arts

Figure 7.8. Haddad Alwi's Ziarah Rasul (2004).

  • Yaa Nabi salam ‘alaika
  • Yaa Rasul salam ‘alaika
  • Yaa Habiib salam ‘alaika.
  • Sholawattullah ‘alaika
  • Prophet, peace be upon you.
  • Messenger, peace be upon you.
  • Beloved, peace be upon you.
  • The blessings of Allah be upon you

Both nasyid and sholawat recordings have been referred to as musik dakwah Islami. In the case of nasyid and lagu-lagu sholawat, the music itself does not rely on the use of maqam (the Arab system of melodic modes) or Arab-derived instruments, like the ‘ud. The texts and religious message, or dakwah, are what make nasyid and lagu-lagu sholawat powerful and important in popular Islamic music expression in Indonesia. Although Arab-sounding melodies are used to enhance the affect of sholawat performances, the texts live independently of the melodies. Sholawat recitation (without musical intonation) is a common Islamic religious practice.

Is orkes gambus music also dakwah music? In general the answer is “no.” It is not described as proselytizing music with the goal of educating about Islam, but (p.226) rather it is most often described ambiguously as “music with a religious feel” as I mentioned before. The issue of Arabic lyrics places orkes gambus music in a strange position. Often people, including the performers themselves, do not understand the lyrics of modern orkes gambus songs at all and this can become problematic when orkes gambus songs are secular love songs with no function or role in teaching about Islam. Nizar Ali claims:

… in general, people here don't understand Arabic … So I say ‘habibi habibi,’ which actually means ‘my dear, my dear’ … they think it is a religious praise. … [Nizar sings] ‘Allah, Allah, Allah, Allah … Ya Allah’ … Children say ‘that song sounds Islamic’ … ‘it's not Islamic’ I say to them … non-Muslims also say ‘Allah.’”16 (See the previous “Nawwarti Ayyami” text by Orkes Gambus El Bass, 75–76.)

Although his music is marketed to Muslim audiences as well as Arab-Indonesian audiences, Nizar rejects orkes gambus' association with Islamic culture because of its secular (non-dakwah) texts.

Many Indonesian Muslims who consume orkes gambus music hold an ambivalent attitude toward orkes gambus lyrics, which today are often secular, not sacred. In regard to lyrics, Charles Capwell (1995) notes in his article on gambus music that the Arabic texts of orkes gambus songs have a nostalgic quality, reminding Muslims of their Arabic religious lessons as children. And, indeed, in Indonesia the Arabic language is identified with Islam; sounding and reading the Arabic of the Qur'an is, after all, fundamental to Islamic worship for all Muslims. Often the meaning of Arabic lyrics in orkes gambus songs is overlooked or ignored in favor of the positive Islamic aura that the Arabic language provides. Sarkissian describes a similar phenomenon with Arabic language in nasyid songs in Malaysia: “The use of Arabic is equally calculated: it makes songs special and more ‘religious’. Arabic script used in liner notes makes songs seem even more esoteric, since not all Muslim Malaysians—let alone non-Muslim Malaysians—can read Arabic” (2005, 133). In the case of nasyid, Arabic conveys an Islamic message. This is not always the case with orkes gambus, however, and it is precisely this ambivalence towards orkes gambus lyrics that explains why the music is not clearly labeled Islamic. As Haddad Alwi notes, “Indonesians are confused with gambus. Arabic language doesn't mean it's Islamic. Islam isn't only Arab.”17

Orkes Gambus' Appeal as an Islamic Arts Genre

One attraction of orkes gambus music as an Islamic musical art in Indonesia is its use of Arab sounding melodies, which are familiar to Indonesian ears from (p.227) Quranic recitation. In her article on Arab aesthetics and Indonesian musical arts, Rasmussen (2005, 66) notes that “the Arab sound” carries with it a certain “prestige.” Arab sound offers the aura of “real” Islam. Many of today's popular Islamic musical artists (including Opick, Debu, Jefri Al-Buchori, nasyid groups, and Haddad Alwi, among others) frequently adopt Arab music elements and instruments; however, the use of the “Arab sound” within popular Islamic arts in Indonesia remains a creative option. This is not the case with orkes gambus music, which is associated with the realm of Islamic arts specifically because of its Arab sound.

When clarifying orkes gambus' placement within Islamic arts, it is important to note that the gambus instrument has been ascribed Islamic symbolism over the centuries in cultures throughout Indonesia. In the province of Gorontalo, the gambus and its genres are considered part of both regional culture and Islamic culture. Beyond the fact that the gambus instrument is assumed to have Arab antecedents, strengthening its ties to Islam, one of the main reasons for this connection is the innate relationship between religion and custom (adat) in Gorontalo culture. As Fahra Daulima (Gorontalo cultural activist and preservationist) described to me, “custom is rooted in Islamic teachings, Islamic teachings are rooted in the Qur'an” (adat bersendi Shari'a, Shari'a bersendi Al Qur'an). Ms. (Ibu) Daulima went on to draw a picture of three concentric circles. The core was Shari'a (Islamic law), surrounding Shari'a was akhlak (behavior), and the final circle was adat (custom). She described, “you see, in every Islamic culture, Islam reflects on custom, and it can also be seen in behavior.”18 According to Ibu Daulima, all Gorontalo arts, including local gambus and dana-dana forms, described as Gorontalo custom (adat) are considered to be Islamic because these forms abide by rules of proper Islamic behavior that are based on Islamic law.19

In a similar manner, some performers of orkes gambus music have described the music to me as acceptable within Islamic culture because it is halal. In Islam, the term halal denotes things that are permitted, even things that are good. This term is a powerful index of appropriate and acceptable behavior in Indonesian Islam. Describing orkes gambus as halal means that orkes gambus follows the rules, so to say. This halal-ness often relates to the manner in which the music is displayed—Islamic clothing (busana Muslim) is often worn, aurat or indecent areas of the body are covered, and men and women are often separated. Musicians are almost always male; female singers are sometimes permitted, but they are either well-respected older female singers in busana Muslim or they are a group of back up-singers also dressed in busana Muslim and segregated to the side of the orkes gambus group. Although many orkes gambus music texts may be secular Arab love/pop songs, oftentimes the secular nature of the song texts can also be overlooked in favor of the halal manner in which the music is displayed.

(p.228) Historically, the dance genre zafin that is often performed with orkes gambus has taken on similar religious associations. As Nor notes:

Zapin's religious role is more historical. It was formerly a part of religious celebrations associated with the Maulud Nabi (Prophet Muhammad's birthday), Hari Raya Puasa (celebrated at the end of the Ramadan fasting month), Hari Raya Haji (celebrating the month of sacrifice), and Maal Hijrah (Islamic New Year). These are now high-lighted by recitations from the holy Qur'an or the singing of religious hymns from the Kitab Berzanji and, in the past, by the performance of zapin. Zapin was the only Malay dance tradition which was allowed to be performed in and near mosques (Nor 1993, 10).

Contemporary orkes gambus performance has also come to be associated with religious celebrations over time. Again, this is mostly due to the polite nature of the art. As Nor notes with zapin:

Contemporary zapin is also esteemed as a manifestation of Islamic influence on indigenous culture. The avoidance of body contact in the dance, the absence of overtly sensuous gestures, and the highly repetitive and symmetrical nature of the dance sequences conform to the abstract quality of Islamic art (Nor 1993, 88).

As noted above, some of the appeal of orkes gambus music as an Islamic genre is the politeness of the art and its compatibility with Islamic codes of behavior. This is especially the case with Arab orkes gambus music, as not only Arab zafin, but also sarah and zahefe dances prohibit men and women from dancing together. Only men are allowed to dance.

Not to go unmentioned is the important role of Arab-Indonesians in orkes gambus reception. Orkes gambus' association with halal-ness is strengthened by its association with Arab-Indonesian ethnic communities. As Rasmussen notes: “For the most part their performances are not religious but because the music and the people who play it have their origin in the Arab world, their music is understood to reinforce Islam” (2005, 80). Arab-Indonesians were known as teachers and proselytizers of Islam for centuries. To this day they hold important roles in Islamic communities in Indonesia and are often described as “soleh” (pious). In addition, early Arab-Indonesian gambus performers incorporated a number of sholawat religious texts, solidifying the association of Arab-Indonesian music performances with Islamic expression. Nizar describes, (p.229)

They were already familiar with song “A” for example, from the era of Segaf Assegaf. Of course (Segaf's) Islamic poems praised Muhammad, poems that were of undeniable religious character. Then when the same style of sound (gambus) surfaced again, this time introduced by me, they thought I was an Islamic singer, but that's not true.20

Many Arab-Indonesian orkes gambus musicians themselves, such as Nizar, deny their adopted role as religious singers and symbols. However, their association (as Arabs) with Islam nevertheless remains strong.

Arab Aesthetics, Islamic Authenticity, and Musical Modernity

As technology and transportation have increased over the past century, contact with Mecca and with Arab culture has sharply risen. For many Indonesian Muslims, Mecca is the one area of the world with which they most closely identify; it is the spiritual homeland of Islam toward which all Muslims pray. With a rise in pilgrimages to Mecca, Indonesians have shown increased identification with and nostalgia for Arab culture, which has grown into a marker of Islamic authenticity. As Rasmussen (2005, 85) notes: “Arab music … is a powerful index of the original place and time of Islam that ‘outranks’ Indonesian genres in its efficacy to express authentic spirituality.” Arab music remains a strong symbol of the geographic center of Islam.

In fact, over the past decades, trends of “Arabization” in Indonesian Islamic culture may be seen in language use, clothing, and even in architecture. Words such as ustaz (teacher), madrasa (school), and sholat (worship), which have strict Islamic connotations in Indonesia (as well as in other non-Arab countries), have no such singularly Islamic affiliation in the Arab world where they are used amongst all religious groups. Use of the headscarf (known as jilbab in Indonesia), which is “not really Islamic … but is instead Arab,” is more common now than a few decades ago (Brenner 1996, 674). And modern buildings, even the famous Istiqlal Mosque in the national capital, Jakarta, exhibit Middle Eastern arch and dome forms, forms that Hugh O'Neil (1993, 162) describes as “alien ‘pan-Islamic’ forms” in Southeast Asia.

As easily as the Arab sound may be interpreted as Islamic, so too, the “sound of the West” may be interpreted to be non-Islamic. An example of this association comes from an interview with the Malaysian nasyid group Raihan published in an Indonesian Islamic journal, Khasanah Sabili. The text is as follows:

Khasanah Sabili:

What is Raihan's opinion of Islamic poems that are set to melodies that sound non-Islamic?

(p.230) Nazrey Johani (member of nasyid group Raihan):

Actually it's not a problem, but we must not do too many adaptations from those sources. This is because a Muslim must create something pure. The way he performs his ablutions, worships, then prays to Allah in order to create a song—that's where it comes from. Of course it isn't wrong for us to adopt some Western sounds, but don't do too much of that. For the Islamic community that wants to promote Islam, it must be authentic. (Khasanah Sabili 13(IX), 12)21

Nazray Johani goes on to state that nasyid is open to everyone and can incorporate all types of sound. However, the question and answer illustrate the important role of sonic symbolism in Islamic arts in Indonesia, and shows how important musical aesthetics are in the definition of appropriate and authentic Islamic expression. Musical sound itself is a marker of religious and cultural identity; in this case, Western musical aesthetics are identified as non-Islamic sound.

The interview excerpt also suggests that artists choose specific sounds in order to affiliate and solidify their identity as part of the Islamic umma (community). Rasmussen (2005, 66) describes how Arab Islamic singing can be seen as the “global or international musical system of Islam.” The adoption of the Arab sound can represent an affiliation with the global Islamic world in opposition to the global Western world. Orkes gambus music—as an Arab-associated genre—and orkes gambus' Arabic lyrics have become, for many, another aspect of pan-Islamic identity and affiliation with the Arab world (as a predominantly Muslim region) and Islam.

The use of culture to mark religious, cultural, and political affiliation is not new, of course. Kees van Dijk (2002, 58) describes a “selective adaptation” of culture in the early 20th Century Dutch Indies, where one who wore a Turkish fez was clearly signifying that they were loyal to the Turks and not the Dutch. Selective adaptation occurs in music as well. Global accessibility to Arab culture over the past decades has led to the adoption of global media, such as Arab popular music recordings, that are filtered into Indonesia and adapted into modern orkes gambus music as symbols of a global, rather than local, identity and alliance.

With Indo pop groups pounding out hits that sound similar to Coldplay and U2, identifying with the Arab sound is also a means of connecting with the global world and modernizing without assimilating modern, commercial Western culture. In her work on Javanese women and veiling practices, Brenner (1996) remarks that the use of Arab-styled clothing challenges Western models of modernity. She states: “By identifying with the international Islamic community, Indonesian activists validate their sense of being part of the modern world without the need to adapt a Westernized way of life” (Brenner 1996, 678). (p.231) Arab sounds can function in the way that fashion does by offering an alternative to Western models of artistic and popular modernity.

Of course, the acceptance of the Arab sound is not universal across Indonesia. Orkes gambus and things Arab can be rejected as foreign elements that unfairly challenge local culture. In the Gorontalo region, for example, local artists become offended when their local dana-dana art is referred to as zamrah (another spelling of samrah), a term most frequently used to denote Arab-Indonesian orkes gambus. As Farha Daulima described to me, the assumption of Muslims in general is that the center of Islamic culture is the Arab world. However, she goes on to say

… but if we copy Arab culture, I'm not saying it is wrong, but it would be best if we take Arab culture and fill it with Gorontalo nuances. … It depends on how we negotiate between Arab culture and our culture. It's not necessary that we use songs in Arabic … local artists aren't focused on copying Arab culture but are focused on modifying arts to have an Islamic feel but not always using Arabic language. Pantun here don't use Arabic. Unless we are reading from the Qur'an or reading zikir; then, we use Arabic.22

Local Islamic expressive arts are forced to negotiate with not only the strong weight of national culture in Indonesia, but also with the strong influence of the Arab idiom and international Islamic modernity.

“Purifikasi/Arabisasi Islam” and “Pribumisasi Islam”

The simultaneous acceptance and rejection of Arab culture in Indonesian Islamic expressive arts cannot be separated from recent debates among Islamic scholars and leaders in Indonesia over what has been labeled “pribumisasi Islam” (indigenized Islam) versus “purifikasi/Arabisasi Islam” (purification/Arabization of Islam).

Indonesian Islam is by no means simple to define. Islamic practices across the archipelago vary, and there are many different regional types and forms of Islamic religious practice, many with local syncretic components. Some common syncretic religious practices include tahlilan and salawatan, religious ceremonies that involve the reading of praises (puji-pujian) to Muhammad and the burning of dupa (incense, considered a relic of pre-Islamic Hinduism in Indonesia). In 20th-century Indonesia, a rise in Hajj pilgrimages and thus increased contact with Saudi Arabian Islam led to the spread of new aliran (or sects) of Islam in Indonesia and thus influenced Indonesian Islam. One such aliran was Wahhabism, a Saudi Arabian form of Islamic practice that focuses on a strict adherence to the Qur'an (p.232) and the Sunna (the actions and behavior of the Prophet Mohammad during his lifetime, which are considered exemplary) particularly when modeling proper Islamic behavior and practice. Under such strict adherence to these core Islamic texts, syncretic practices (including tahlilan and salawatan) would not be allowed, as they are not mentioned in the Qur'an and they did not take place during the life of the Prophet Muhammad. In 20th-century Indonesia, Islamic organizations, such as Muhammadiyah, that were influenced by Wahhabist trends, rejected these practices, claiming that these indigenous-influenced practices went too far from the examples set in the Qur'an and Sunna.23

In reaction to this “purifikasi Islam” (purification of Islam),24 a term used to describe it by its critics, some Islamic thinkers promoted a counter-movement labeled “pribumisasi Islam” (indigenization of Islam). The term was even used by the former president of the Indonesian Republic, Abdurrahman Wahid, head of the Islamic organization Nahdlatul Ulama (NU). Under pribumisasi Islam, local Islamic practices from different regions in Indonesia are promoted in an effort to unite Muslims in the nation-state. As Abdul Mun'im describes, under pribumisasi Islam,

All local Islamic forms can show their Islamic-ness in a manner compatible with their customs. In this case, Islamic-ness is united with Indonesian-ness, not only from the point of view of custom and tradition, but also in terms of political thought and aspiration that are oriented toward the nation, not Islamic-ness (Munim 2003, 4).

Under such a system, local Islamic traditions gain respect and legitimacy, rather than being labeled “sesat, musryik, atau bid'ah” (“misled, polytheist, or heresy”) (Munim 2003, 7). Proponents of pribumisasi Islam often justify their position by drawing examples from the highly respected and admired wali sanga of Indonesia, who are considered the first men to bring Islam to the island of Java. Often mythologized, their graves remain holy Islamic sites in Indonesia today.25 During their proselytization of Java, it is said that the wali sanga used Javanese culture, such as wayang kulit and the gamelan, to promote their teachings (see Rahmat 2003, 10–11). M. Imdadun Rahmat, in his defense of pribumisasi Islam uses the example of the wali sanga to justify the use of local culture in Islamic expression: “The Wali Songo [wali sanga] were successful in combining local values with an Islam that is characteristically Indonesian” (Rahmat 2003, 10).

In their rejection of the purifikasi Islam, critics often cite that by demanding that Indonesian Islam adhere to the pure form of Islam found in the Sunna texts, in essence they are demanding that Indonesians adopt Arab culture and traditions. Rahmat confirms that, “As opposed to Wahhabism or the movement to (p.233) purify Islam that hopes to plant local Arab traditions in Indonesian soil, indigenous Islam makes a serious effort to translate the core teachings of Islam into local Indonesian cultures (2003, 19). Pribumisasi Islam proponents argue that by demanding a purification of Islam that relies on the adoption of Arab Islamic traditions and practices, purists claim that whatever is not Arab is not Islamic.26 The process of purifikasi Islam, therefore, is also referred to as “Arabisasi.”27

These critics of an Arabization of Islam in Indonesia offer many examples of how the purist/Wahhabi influence has already crept into Indonesian Islamic culture. Munim describes the phenomenon of women wearing a jilbab (Islamic head scarf). According to Munim (2003, 6), girls went from wearing traditional regional Islamic headscarf styles (often called kerudung) to wearing monotone Arab-styled headscarves, which removed all expressive characteristics of the regional Islamic headscarf style.28 Munim also offers examples of two separate Islamic events in Indonesia, a national zikir program, and an NU-sponsored prayer reading, called Istighotsah. In the zikir event, the participants wearing a jubah (an Arab-style head covering) indicated the Arab orientation (orientasi Arab) of the event and implied a rejection of regional clothing styles.29 At the Istighotsah event, participants wore local Islamic clothing styles, which Munim interprets as an implication of pluralism, one of the core national themes of the Indonesian Republic:

They pray … for the safety of the nation. Their style of clothing mirrors the diversity of cultures in Indonesia. All may appear together at once. Although the cultural expressions that appear are different, they are thought of as already fulfilling the aspirations of Islam. Pluralism is not only compatible with Islamic culture but also tolerance with local culture and customs of other non-Islamic communities, as the consequence from understanding nationality, national solidarity becomes high, until every citizen of the nation has the same right and duty without consideration of ethnicity, religion and political ideology (Munim 2003, 3–4).

The use of Arab symbols in Indonesian Islamic expression, therefore, is not something that has gone unnoticed in Indonesian Islamic circles. These critics of pure, or Arab, forms of Islam, and the symbols used to express affiliation with Arab culture, seek to promote Indonesian Islam as a legitimate and important part of the history of Islam, rather than emphasizing only that Arab Islam was an important part of the history of Indonesia. Munim (2003, 7) declares that Indonesian cultural heritage is an element of Islamic cultural heritage as a whole and is therefore undeniably legitimate.30 As such debates of the role of foreign cultural elements in (p.234) Indonesian Islamic expression continue, the prominence and prestige of Arab symbols (such as Arab music) in Indonesian Islamic arts is likely to change.31

Critiques of the heavy influence of Arab culture on non-Arab Islamic societies are not confined to Indonesia, and the use of Arab culture in Islamic practice is a point of tension in other non-Arab Islamic cultures. In an Internet article titled “Stop ‘Arabising’ Malay culture,” the author offers a comment by Malaysian Arts, Culture and Heritage Minister Datuk Seri Dr Rais Yatim. Minister Yatim notes:

The Malays are not Arabs. Therefore, it is important that we do not “Arabise” the Malay culture to the extent that everything that the Arabs do, we must do. … That's not to say I hold contra-views against the Arab culture. In fact, the Arab world has many aspects that have benefited and enriched the world in terms of medicine, art, poetry and so on. … But the community should not be influenced to the extent that they are blinded into thinking that all that is Arabic is good for them (Wong 2004).

Minister Yatim goes on to defend Malaysian traditions such as wayang kulit that had been criticized as non-Islamic. He notes: “We just, in chorus, say ‘Aha, perhaps so’ but we never fight back to say that this is a deep-rooted tradition of the Malays since time immemorial. ‘Put to us which (Islamic) tenet is being violated.’ Nobody says that” (Wong 2004). The minister further promises to “put on the map again what was lost,” referring to traditional arts (Wong 2004).

The discourse on Islamic culture in other non-Arab Muslim nations also reflects a tendency to reject modern Islamic fundamentalism in defense of cultural specificity. In an Internet posting “Islam and Bangladesh: A Non-Arab Muslim majority country,” Barun ur Rashid notes: “The purpose of this paper is to show by an empirical analysis that the overwhelming majority of Bangladeshi Muslims are tolerant with people of other faiths because of the deeply held secular values, culture and traditions of the land” (Rashid 2005). In forming his argument, Rashid uses cultural examples to stress that Bangladeshi Muslims have not wholeheartedly adopted Arab culture in place of their own. He states:

While we recite the Quranic verses in Arabic, we understand the meaning of the verses through our mother language. … Music and dance by girls are perceived as respectable profession calling in Bangladesh. Although Bengali Muslims are steadfast in their faith, some of the social practices they perform are influenced by local culture (Rashid 2005).

Rashid asserts that Bengali Muslims remain pious Muslims through their local-based faith.

(p.235) Conclusion

Orkes gambus music has been portrayed to me as an art form of Muslim Arabs in Indonesia that has been adopted as an art form for Indonesian Muslims in general. To some Indonesian Muslims, it is considered a form of popular Islamic expression. To other Indonesian Muslims, it is merely entertainment music. Orkes gambus is not an art form that has a clearly defined influence on Indonesian Islamic life or practice, but rather it remains a vague, casual, and even flexible symbol in Indonesian Islamic culture open to diverse Muslims to accept or reject on their own terms.

Although many argue that orkes gambus has no place in Indonesian Islamic arts, for the time being it is still a member of the club. The future of orkes gambus is not certain, however. While it remains a solid element in Arab-Indonesian community celebration, new forms of the music are emerging outside of Arab communities. One such form is hajir marawis, which draws on the styles of orkes gambus styles but with different instrumentation and the religious texts of sholawat. Perhaps the problematic position of orkes gambus in Indonesian Islamic arts is becoming resolved by the adoption of new genres that more closely reflect the traditional sholawat forms of orkes gambus as performed by the late Segaf Assegaf.

Orkes gambus music, when accepted into the Islamic realm, remains a powerful symbol of the religious prestige ascribed to Arab culture in Indonesian Islamic arts. However, the fact that it is also rejected by many illustrates a struggle within Indonesian Islam to legitimate and distinguish itself culturally in the international Islamic community. As the largest nation of Muslims in the world, Indonesia today stands ready to play a major role in the changing face of international Islamic artistic expression.


I would like to thank Nizar Ali, Haddad Alwi, Farha Daulima, Risno Ahaya, Caroline Boswell, Daniel Kameo, Mahmoud El-Hamrawi, Mirena Christof, Douglas Brown, Marc Perlman, Anne Rasmussen, Jeff Titon and the Malabar family for their help with this project.

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Schuyler, Philip. 1990. “Music and Tradition in Yemen.” Asian Music 22 (1): 51–71.

Seebass, Tilman. 1988. Presence and Absence of Portuguese Musical Elements in Indonesia: An Essay on the Mechanisms of Musical Acculturation. Durham: Asian/Pacific Studies Institute, Duke University.

Shawqi, Yusuf. 1994. Dictionary of Traditional Music in Oman. English edition revised and expanded by Dieter Christensen. Wilhelmshaven: Florian Noetzel Verlag.

Taringan, D., Lovin Bherlyan dan Nurmah. 2002. Kami Bernyanyi Dengan Hati. Khazanah Sabili IX (13): 10–12.

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Nizar Ali. May 4, 2006. Surabaya, Indonesia.

Haddad Alwi. October 26, 2005. Manado, Indonesia.

Farha Daulima. July 25, 2005. Gorontalo, Indonesia.

Risno Ahaya. March 6, 2005. Gorontalo, Indonesia.


(1.) Nizar Ali, interview (Surabaya, May 4, 2006). Please see my dissertation (Berg 2007) for the original language of all quotations.

(2.) The term gambus is also used as a general term to denote a plucked instrument. The Indonesian language bible uses the term in its translation of Psalm 108, 2, “Bangunlah, hai (p.236) gambus dan kecapi, aku mau membangunkan fajar.” Alkitab (Jakarta: Lembaga Alkitab Indonesia, 1990), 672. The English version of this psalm is: “Awake, harp and lyre! I will awaken the dawn.” The Holy Bible, New International Version (New York: American Bible Society, 1978), 691. This phrase is also used in Psalm 57: 8.

(3.) Charles Capwell (1995, 81) suggests that these traditional gambus instruments were replaced by the Egyptian ‘ud around the time Egyptian film was widely disseminated throughout Southeast Asia. Poché notes that in recent decades the Yemeni qanbus has had to compete with the strong influence of the ‘ud in Yemen (Poché 1984, 169). Phillip Schuyler also notes that the Yemeni lute, the turbi, has also been replaced by the Egyptian ‘ud in recent years (Schuyler 1990, 60). Egyptianization, therefore, struck the Arab world as well as Southeast Asia.

(4.) These distinctions are similar to zapin genres in Malaysia as discussed by Nor (1993, 1): zapin melayu and zapin arab.

(5.) Orkes gambus is also sometimes simply called gambus, causing it to be confused with regional gambus music genres.

(6.) There is a dance genre called zafin found in Oman and noted by Yusuf Shawqi (1994), however its description does not correspond with the zafin dance/music genre in Southeast Asia. Rasmussen, who has witnessed zafin (also zapin, jepin) dancing among performing gambus groups in Jakarta, has seen similar dance styles involving a pair of men, dancing side by side with graceful moves up and back and dramatic jumps to the ground among Yemeni communities in Detroit (Rasmussen, personal communication).

(7.) Charles Capwell (1995) noted that, in the 1990s during his research on gambus, most lyrics were in the Indonesian language. It is indeed the opposite today; almost all orkes gambus songs are in Arabic. In recent years, however, some orkes gambus groups in Madura have been transliterating popular Arabic language orkes gambus songs in to the Madurese language. An example of this is the recent recording titled “Aeng Mata” (“Tears”) by the group O.G.M. El-Mira Sani. The letters O.G.M. stand for Orkes Gambus Madura. The use of local language is a new trend, and I have only witnessed it with the Madurese language.

(8.) I was informed that the Arabic transcription of this song incorrectly divides Arabic words, and in performance the Arabic is not pronounced correctly, suggesting that the performers were not fluent in the Egyptian dialect of Arabic used in this song. An Egyptian friend (Mahmoud El-Hamrawi), who listened to a number of orkes gambus songs with me, stated that the Arabic is pronounced with a Gulf/Yemeni accent.

(9.) This mosque was renovated in 1993. The original mosque was a traditional Javanese-style tiered model. The head of the Arab community in Manado informed me that the choice of a Turkish style for the new mosque was made after looking at a book of Middle Eastern architecture, and that it was not the result of any relationships between members of the Arab community and Turkish citizens or descendents in Indonesia.

(10.) Malam bedaka has been described to me as a unique tradition of North Sulawesi Arabs. There is a similar tradition known as malam pacar (henna night) in the Arab communities of East Java. This term should not be confused with the ethnic Javanese tradition, malam bidadari, which incorporates ceremonial bathing, etc.; this is not part of malam pacar traditions.

(11.) This is also known as samar in certain Arab Indonesian communities. The word derives from the same Arabic root “ﺴﻤر” which, among its meanings, is a night of conversation and entertainment.

(12.) Survey entry, October 2005.

(13.) Recent historical and anthropological findings on Arab-Indonesian communities include studies by Engseng Ho, edited volumes by Ulrike Freitag and William Clarence Smith, and books by Azyumardi Azra, Huub de Jonge, and Natalie Mobini-Keshesh, among others. Michael Gilsenan of New York University has also been conducting work on the subject of Hadrami Arab descendents in Southeast Asia.

(14.) Arabs, along with Chinese and Indian descendents, were labeled “Vreemde Oosterlingen” (“Foreign Easterners”) under Dutch colonial law and were required to live in ethnic ghettos known as wijkenstelsel administered by ethnic captains (kapiten). Ghetto citizens were required to apply for travel permits if they wanted to travel outside of metropolitan areas. Although the ghetto system was abolished in the early 20th century, Dutch laws categorizing Arab-Indonesians as “Foreign Easterners” (such as the Indische Staatsregeling 163) remained in effect even up to and during the New Order era following Indonesian independence. Huub de Jonge, in his study of these ethnic quarter systems (1997, 99), notes that the Dutch established ethnic quarters in the cities of Manado and Gorontalo in 1894. The Arab community of Manado was given the name “Kampoeng Arab” under Dutch colonization and was known under that official name after Dutch rule came to an end. It was only during the Suharto era that the name was changed to “Kampung Istiqlal” in an attempt to wipe away the ethnic association of the original name. In Manado, the name of the Chinese community, “Kampung Cina,” was changed to “Kelurahan Calaca” during the New Order as well, removing its ethnic connotations.

(15.) The Indonesian title of the program was “Mantapkan Kerukunan dan Solidaritas antar Umat Beragama.”

(16.) Nizar Ali, interview (Surabaya, May 4, 2006).

(17.) Haddad Alwi, interview (Manado, October 26, 2005).

(18.) Farha Daulima, interview (Gorontalo, July 25, 2005).

(19.) In recent years, in fact, the province of Gorontalo, for which Ibu Daulima works, has been promoting itself as the center of Islam in Eastern Indonesia. In a seminar titled “National Seminar for the Development of Islamic Culture in Eastern Indonesia,” the governor of Gorontalo, Fadel Muhammad, commented “in this era of local autonomy we aim to make Gorontalo the base of Islamic Culture in Eastern Indonesia.” The labeling of gambus and dana-dana regional arts as Islamic culture therefore is also part of this larger government-sponsored program to promote the newly independent province within the Indonesian Republic. H. Nani Tultoli et al eds, Gorontalo 2003: Seminar Nasional Pengembangan Kebudayaan Islam Kawasan Timur Indonesia (Gorontalo: Pusat Penelitian dan Pengkajian, 2004), XI.

(20.) “Nizar Ali, interview (Surabaya, May 4, 2006).

(21.) D. Taringan et al., “Ngobrol Bareng Raihan: Kami Bernyanyi dengan Hati” (Khasanah Sabili 13(IX)), 12.

(22.) Farha Daulima, interview (Gorontalo, July 25, 2005). Zikir (or dhikr) are devotional prayers to God and are in the Arabic language.

(23.) Some mosques do not use the bedug barrel drum in heavily Muhammadiyah (or nowadays heavily “modernist”) influenced areas. In an interview, Delmus Salim, professor at the State Institute of Islamic Studies in Manado, told me that in his home city of Padang, for instance, bedugs are rarely used. The choice to use or not use the bedug is influenced by who is the imam and if that person allows bedugs. The argument against the use of bedugs is based in the fact that they were used in pre-Islamic times with different sounds for different situations (if someone died, if someone was born, etc.). This pre-Islamic association of the bedug made it susceptible to criticism by Muhammadiyah.

(24.) “Purification or perfection of Islamic teaching especially that which was aggressively fought for by the Wahabi movement was fervently against any appreciation of local customs and traditions.” (Munim 2003, 6).

(25.) I was fortunate to visit the cemetery of the wali sanga known as Sunan Ampel in Surabaya. His grave is located in what is now the Arab quarter of the city. While I was there, there was a large parade and several days of prayers marking the birthday of Sunan Ampel. Many local Javanese Muslims sat and prayed in front of Sunan Ampel's grave, one form of Islamic sycretic practice in Indonesia that is highly criticized by “purifikasi Islam” proponents, as such practice of grave worship exhibits pre-Islamic influence.

(26.) “It's the same case with traditional arts. Standards of custom are already dominated by Islamic standards from the Arab world. At the same time, what isn't Arab is not thought of as Islamic.” (Munim 2003, 6)

(27.) Rahmat notes that “Arabization, or the process of identifying oneself with Middle Eastern culture, has already torn us from the roots of our own culture.” (Rahmat 2003, 9).

He also notes that “Purification of Islam, that rejects all local flavor from Islam, in the end a process of Javanization and Melayuization has changed into the process of Arabization.” (Munim 2003, 5).

(28.) Munim notes, “The jilbab phenomenon is everywhere … monotone, tidy and simple, only covering the aurat (in the manner of Arab Islam) and almost without any appreciation for the aesthetic dimension of clothing that is expressed through the use of local Islamic clothing.” (Munim 2003, 6)

(29.) Munim remarks “Wearing the jubah, (Arab clothing) indicates that one is oriented toward Arab-ness.” (Munim 2003, 3).

(30.) “This also assumes that the legacy of Indonesian culture legitimately is part of the legacy of Islamic culture. Indonesian historical experience, from pre-Islam to the time of Islam, needs to be integrated into Islamic history itself.” (Munim 2003, 7).

(31.) In fact, new genres of Southeast Asian popular Islamic arts, such as nasyid, help define regional Islamic identities. Artists such as Raihan unite Southeast Asian Muslim audiences, offering what Barendregt describes as “a unique regional transculturalism” and “a style of communication that has attached with its consumption a growing transnational consciousness” (Barendregt 2006, 172). The growing popularity of nasyid in Indonesia clearly challenges trends in Arabization and reliance on Arab idioms to express Islamic-ness. However, at the same time, the genre avoids any reference to locality, by (p.239) avoiding the use of any local Islamic art references, beyond the occasional use of rebana drums. This Southeast Asian transnational music, therefore, lies in an undefined space between “Arabisasi” and “pribumisasi.”