Palmer Keen is a self-described 'DIY ethnomusicologist' who documents his music research on the blog, Aural Archipelago. He is based in Yogyakarta. (JG Photo/Emily Gilbert)

Hooked on Gamelan: American 'DIY Ethnomusicologist' Documents Traditional Indonesian Music

BY : EMILY GILBERT

SEPTEMBER 06, 2019

Yogyakarta. "I like to say that gamelan is the gateway drug to Indonesian music," says Palmer Keen, a self-described "DIY ethnomusicologist" from the United States, who fell in love with the traditional ensemble music of Java and Bali while in college.

When he was looking for English-teaching jobs after graduating, he said he chose Indonesia because of the music. 

"I truly knew nothing about Indonesia... I knew more about the music than I knew about the country," he said. 

He has been living in Indonesia for seven years and is fluent in Bahasa Indonesia. He has also fallen in love with music other than gamelan – such as yanger from Maluku and tarawangsa from West Java. Keen has traveled the nation, conducting ethnomusicological fieldwork, or more simply put: he has researched and recorded a lot of different groups' traditional music. 

His quest to learn as much as possible about Indonesia's musical traditions has introduced him to Dayak lute musicians in Kalimantan, lalove artisans in Sulawesi, gamelan groups in East Java and scores of others.

Keen has a few pigeon whistles, which are popular in Madurese culture, where people attach them to their pigeons. (JG Photo/Emily Gilbert)
Keen has a few pigeon whistles, which are popular in Madurese culture, where people attach them to their pigeons. (JG Photo/Emily Gilbert)

He documents his finds on his ethnomusicology blog, Aural Archipelago. It is a straight-forward study of different ethnic groups' music with many videos and audio recordings, and analyses and comparisons of the various styles and instruments.

What began as a way to share with friends and family back home the interesting encounters he had when he first arrived in the country, has turned into an intentional, curated repository of music.

But some of the music is at risk of disappearing, as younger generations are becoming increasingly less interested in continuing their traditions. 

As Indonesia rapidly modernizes, knowledge of some of its traditions may be lost. "When you're moving away from those traditional ways of life to more global, industrialized, non-agricultural, non-ritual ways of life, often then, that music ends up being left behind, too," he said.

Keen shows a few of the mouth harps from West Java in his collection. (JG Photo/Emily Gilbert)
Keen shows a few of the mouth harps from West Java in his collection. (JG Photo/Emily Gilbert)

However, some styles of traditional music have taken root among young people. Keen described a trip to Cirebon, West Java, in August to attend a gong renteng festival, which involves a type of gamelan music from West Java historically only played during ceremonies. 

"There's this kind of revival of this music in Cirebon that's happening, where young people are learning to play it and they're playing it kind of outside of that ritual context," he explained.

"For someone who's not interested in ancient gamelan, it doesn't seem really that special, but it was kind of this historic meeting where all these ancient gamelans from across the province gathered," he said of the festival. 

Some people may blame technology for the decreasing popularity of traditional music among younger people, but Keen said he does not believe the two forces – technology and tradition – necessarily oppose each other.

"People tend to see these things as being in opposition, whereas I really don't believe that," Keen said. 

"The work I do is dependent on technology, whether it's recording technology, or the internet, streaming audio on YouTube – these are all things that make the work I do possible. But they also make it easier for people [to get] in touch with the music of Indonesia or the music of their place in a way that maybe they couldn't before," he added.

But he said technology has changed how some traditional music is played. For example, it can be cheaper to hire a dangdut band, as the music requires fewer musicians because of the use of modern keyboards and synthesizers, instead of every single instrument in a traditional ensemble.

"So it's not that technology is the saving grace of music, or that technology is evil and destroying traditional music. It's not as black and white as that," he said. 

Keen said he has visited at least 27 of Indonesia's 34 provinces (he keeps count) and hopes to visit Papua someday. He is not sure when or how his work with Aural Archipelago will end, but vowed to continue as long as there is interesting music to find. 

"There's hundreds of styles of music, hundreds of expressions of music from place to place, from ethnic group to ethnic group. That's why I've been traveling for seven years and I haven't even touched maybe 1 percent of the culture and the music here," he said.

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