Rhythm in the non-Western world

Rhythm in the non-Western world 150 150 Affordable Capstone Projects Written from Scratch

Rhythm in the non-Western world: An example from Southeast Asia


Just as concepts of melody vary from culture to culture, rhythmic organizations also differ. A contrasting approach to rhythmic organization can be found in Bali, Indonesia, an island famous for its physical beauty, bronze gamelan orchestras, and interlocking rhythms. [STWEB 2: supplement 5] These interlocking patterns can be heard in Kecak (pronounced ké-chak), a composition for narrator and men’s chorus.


Drawing from the Hindu epic the Ramayana (Rama’s Journey), the narrator of Kecak tells of Lord Rama’s battle with the demon Ravana. As he recites, perhaps with characters acting out various roles along the way, a men’s chorus takes on the role of the monkey army, which chatters away with great energy. To achieve this effect, the men divide into groups and shout out monkey-like sounds (“cak”) in interlocking rhythms. Each pattern includes short spaces for breathing; the adjacent pattern fills in the empty space of the preceding one. The Balinese call this interlocking technique kotekan, a foundation of Balinese music making. Kotekan may be performed vocally (as in Kecak) or more commonly, between the instruments of the gamelan

A standard kotekan pattern for three groups of kecak performers is diagrammed below. Give it a try. Form a trio (or a duet using patterns 1 and 2). Reading from left to right, sing the patterns while clapping the steady beat. For familiarity, first have everyone sing each of the lines together. Then, divide the parts so that each person (or group) sings a different line. You will notice that all the patterns have the same exact sequences of sounds and silences, but because each pattern fits differently against the underlying pulse, each feels different. When the patterns are performed together, every temporal subdivision is filled with a sound. (This is also the case when patterns one and two or patterns two and three are performed together; see Figure 2.7)


FIGURE 2.7 Kotekan patterns





Ravana and Love’s Remorse

Deception and infidelity are common themes in songs of love. Only rarely does a protagonist admit personal failure for a relationship gone wrong. We encountered the Hindu epic The Ramayana as part of our study of Balinese kecak. Now we return to The Ramayana’s chief villain, Ravana, the nearly invincible demon king who kidnapped Sita, King Rama’s wife. In that tale there is little to recommend Ravana; who is arrogant and cruel. Other Hindu myths, however, present him in a more positive light, sometimes even as a heroic figure of great intelligence and moral fortitude. In all myths, however, Ravana is tagged with the fatal flaw of hubris.

A repentant Ravana is featured in the Sundanese love song “Ceurik Rahwana” (“The Tears of Ravana,” pronounced “Cheu-rik Ra-wa-na,”). The demon lays dying, Rama’s spear driven through his heart. With his last breaths Ravana finally realizes the folly of his pride. He seeks not revenge against Rama, but forgiveness from Banondari, the still beloved wife he has betrayed.

“Ceurik Rahwana” is drawn from the vocal music genre tembang Sunda, which developed in the 19th-century Sundanese court of Cianjur (Chi-an-jur). Though little known even in greater Indonesia, the music remains prized among upper-class urban Sundanese who value the way the genre subtly mines the emotions of melancholy and loneliness. When performed in traditional fashion, songs feature a vocal soloist accompanied by two or three instruments: the kacapi indung (a large plucked zither), the suling (a bamboo flute), and possibly a kacapi rincik (a small plucked zither).


Listening guide: “Ceurik Rahwana”


“Ceurik Rahwana” is in the rarancagan style, which is characterized by its emotional texts and impassioned delivery style, particularly by cacagan (a pulsing and jagged vocal vibrato). This particular song consists of a five-verse dialog between Ravana and Banondari. The lyrics are supported by a motoric ostinato produced by the kacapi indung. The singers deliver the lyrics within a narrow melodic range in syllabic chant-like phrases. Vocal lines are accompanied heterophonically by the suling. Singers use subtle pitch inflections to enhance the sense of extreme emotion.



0:00     Running scalar patterns in the kacapi indung introduce the tones that identify sorog as the song’s pentatonic tuning system. Because the Sundanese conceive of scale as building downward from high to low, we too will organize the tones in that fashion. In this recording, the Sundanese solfege syllables da-mi-na-ti-la (high to low) correspond to the Western syllables fa-mi-re-te-la. [STWEB: Chapter 2: More on Melody and Scale]



0:11     Kacapi indung sounds a central motive (mi–na-mi… …la–ti–na–da-mi–la–da-la-da-mi  ).


0:12     Suling enters


0:16     Verse 1



Banondari anu lucu, boho kakang anu geulis (geunig, duh anu geulis)

[Banondari who is beautiful. My lovely wife. (Oh, who is lovely.)]


kadieu sakeudeung geuwat, akang rek mere pepeling (aduh geulis, mere pepeling)
[Here, just a second. I wish to give a message (Oh lovely one, I give a message.)]


geura sambat indung bapa, samemeh akang pinasti
[Go summon mother and father before I perish.]


As the verse begins, the vocalist focuses the phrase on “mi,” which forms the melodic center for the entire first line. With the second line, the vocalist begins higher (on “la”) but gradually drifts back down to “mi.” The third line shifts to “da,” then relaxes down a half step to “mi” before a downward resolution on “la.” Each succeeding verse follows the same melodic framework.

1:04     Verse 2


Aduh engkang buah kalabu sembaheun lahir jeung batin (geuning, lahir jeung batin)
[Oh beloved fruit of my heart, dedicated body and soul. (Oh, body and soul.)]


Aya naon pengeresa tara-tara ti sasari (aduh geuning, ti sasari)
[How should one feel from now on? (Oh, from now on.)]


nyauran ragrag cisoca, abdi mah saredih teuing
[Calling, streaming down tears, I am devastated.]

1:54     Verse 3


Aduh Enung anu ayu nu geulis pupujan ati (guelis, puypuhan ati)

[Oh Darling who is so delicate, who is so lovely, praiseworthy heart.]


Akang tangtu ngababatang, samemeh akang pinasti (aduh geulis, akang pinasti)

[I am fated to die. But before I perish. (Oh my lovely, I perish.)]


Arek menta dihampura, lahir tumeka ing batin.

[Let it be that I ask to be forgiven, body as well as soul.]


2:42     Verse 4


Duh engkang panutan kalbu, teu kiat abdi wawarti (geunign, abdi wawarti)

[Oh object of my heart. I am not strong, I warn you. (I warn you.)]


Ulah sok ngumbar amarah antukna kaluli-luli (aduh, geuning, kaluli-luli)

[Don’t so follow anger, resulting in forgetting. (Oh, forgetting all.)]


Nu matak mawa cilaka, kaduhung ngajadi bukti.

[Which apparently leads to catastrophe, regret becomes proof.]


3:31     Verse 5


Kaduhung kakang kaduhung, kataji nu lain-lain (geulis, nu lain-lain)

[Regret, I regret, I was drawn by an extraordinary other. (Yes, Lovely, by an extraordinary



Kaiwat goda rancana, kagembang ku Sintawati (aduh geulis, ku Sintawati)

[Ensnared and seduced by tempation, enchanted by Sita. (Oh Lovely, by Sita.)]


Geuning kieu karasan, malindes malik ka diri.

[This is how it feels when the suffering {that one inflicts on others} returns to oneself.]



  • Can you think of other songs in which reconciliation is sought before death?
  • Should Banondari forgive Ravana? Why or why not? Explain.