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Tembang Sunda

Tembang Sunda is a genre of Sundanese vocal music accompanied by a core ensemble of two kacapi (zither) and a suling (bamboo flute). Tembang means song or poem and Sunda is a geographical, historical, and cultural construct which signifies home for the Sundanese people of Indonesia. The music and poetry of tembang Sunda are closely associated with the Priangan (literally the abode of the gods), the highland plateau that transverses the central and southern parts of Sunda. The natural beauty of Priangan, a lush agricultural region surrounded by mountains and volcanoes, is reflected in many songs of the tembang Sunda.

Below are some samples of Tembang Sunda Cianjuran (in Real Audio format):


Budak Ceurik
Budak Leungit
Sekar Manis
Salaka Domas
Taman Endah
Mega Beureum


Tembang Sunda Repertoire

Tembang Sunda originated in the mid-nineteenth century in the regency (kabupaten) of Cianjur. In order to emphasize its origin, the genre is often called Cianjuran (in the style of Cianjur). During the Dutch colonial period, regencies were administrative and cultural centers where aristocratic performing arts flourished under the patronage of the regents (Bupati). It is believed that R. A. Koesoemaningrat – popularly known as Dalem Pancaniti, the regent of Cianjur (1834-1863), ordered poets to compose new songs based on the songs of Pantun Sunda. Pantun Sunda is a genre of Sundanese oral narative performance in which a solo storyteller recounts the glory of past kingdoms and the exploits of heroic figures. Throughout the narrative, the performer interjects songs accompanied by a kacapi. The regent’s poets borrowed instrumental and vocal melodic patterns, poetic themes, and even certain lyric phrases from the songs of Pantun Sunda. Songs of this type, called papantunan (in the style of pantun), are sung in a free rhytmic declamatory style.

Later, composers, introduced new song types including rarancagan , which follow the conventions of traditional Sundanese poetic meters (pupuh). Pupuh specify the number of lines in each verse as well as the ending syllables of each line. The most recent addition to the genre are the fixed-meter songs called panambih (literally addition). The panambih repertoire includes adaptations of songs from other genres of Sundanese music. For example, many panambih have been adapted from songs accompanied by Sundanese gamelan – an ensemble dominated by gongs and metallophones. Newly composed panambih have been introduced since the 1950s and provide a rich forum for new compositions by present-day composers.


The Instruments

The accompanying ensemble consists of the kacapi indung (a large eighteen-string zither), one or two kacapi rincik (a smaller fifteen-string zither), suling (bamboo flute), and occasionally a rebab (two-string bowed lute). The kacapi indung is a long box with the underside left uncovered to allow the sound out. The sides of the kacapi indung taper inward from top to bottom, which gives the instrument a boat-like shape; in fact, it is sometimes called a boat kacapi (kacapi parahu). The instrument is ornamented on each side of the box with carved shapes that curl inward (gelung), and varnished with a rather shiny black finish. Each of the eighteen strings is affixed to a small screw or peg on the top right hand side of the box. The string then passes over a pyramidal bridge and through small holes on the top of the box. The other end of each string is wrapped around a horizontal tuning peg which passes through holes on the front of the instrument, and into the hollow box. The player tunes by adjusting the tension of the tuning pegs and fine tunes by moving the bridges.

There are two basic accompaniment styles for kacapi indung. The first style, used for accompanying unmetered songs (mamaos), involves two different ways of striking the strings. The right index finger plucks the strings with an outward flicking motion while the left index finger strikes the strings in a downward motion. This technique may be used to create long, often rapid, melodic passages or runs as the fingers move up and down the strings in conjunction with the vocal melody.

The second kacapi accompaniment style is used to accompany panambih. In this style, the player uses a claw technique in both hands (right hand thumb and index finger, left hand thumb and midle finger). The two hands play stereotypical patterns based on fixed positions. The right hand plays patterns in the upper register of the instrument which are characterized by the alteration of pitches. The left hand plays patterns in the lower register of the instrument which emphasize the main structural tone. Both hands move together from one position to another, in accordance with the structural and tonal outline of the composition.

The kacapi rincik is smaller and less ornamented than the kacapi indung. Each of the fifteen strings is affixed to a tuning screw on the top of the box. The string then passes over a bridge and through small holes on the top of the box. On the underside of the top soundboard, each string is affixed. The player tunes by adjusting the tension of the tuning screws. The playing technique for kacapi rincik is similar to the accompaniment style used for mamaos. In recent times, ensembles have begun using a second kacapi rincik that adds rhythmic emphasis and creates a richer ensemble texture.

The suling, an end-blown bamboo flute, is the latest addition to the ensemble. The top of the suling is made by leaving one node of the bamboo intact. A small notch is cut into the node on one edge. The node is then surrounded by a thin ring of rattan, creating an air passage for the player. The button of the suling is left open. The suling has six holes and, depending on the fingering, can be used to play pieces in several different tuning systems. The suling trails or echoes the vocal melody, and plays the main melody of the piece in instrumental sections called gelenyu. The suling player may also cue the singer at certain points in the melody. A related instrumental genre, called kacapi-suling, features the improvisations and virtuosity of the suling player accompanied by two kacapi.


Performance Practice

Tembang Sunda is best suited to intimate gatherings of fellow artists, friends, and aficionados. Most of the gatherings take place in the evening and sometimes last until early the next morning. These occasions provide the opportunity to express one’s feelings in song away from the din and rustle of everyday life. Tembang Sunda may also be played in conjunction with hajat – ceremonial feasts to celebrate a wedding, boy circumcision, or other lifecycle event. Additional performance contexts include concerts, music contests (pasanggiri), radio and television broadcasts (siaran), and larger public gatherings (panglawungan).

In contemporary performance practice, different types of songs are strung together in medley beginning with unmetered songs (mamaos) and ending with fixed-meter songs (panambih). Mamaos may be sung by male or female singers who usually alternate verses in performance. Mamaos are accompanied by the kacapi indung and the suling. Panambih are sung exclusively by female singers. The accompanying ensemble for panambih include kacapi indung, suling, and one or two kacapi rincik (small zither).

In a typical evening of tembang Sunda, three tuning systems are employed; pelog, sorog, and salendro. A tuning system is characterized by the intervals that comprise it; however, the pitches are not fixed or absolute. Each tuning systemhas its own repertory of songs and, to some extent, its own mood. However, songs often include tones and entire passages borrowed from other tuning systems. An evening of tembang Sunda always begins with pelog. The pitches of the pelog tuning are approximately equivalent to the following Western pitches: f,e,c,bb,a3. At a certain point in a performance, the ensemble shifts to sorog. The kacapi players tune their instruments to sorog by tightening one of the string in each octave, raising the pitch approximately a major second. The approximate Western pitches for sorog are as follows: f,e,d,bb,a. Songs in the sorog tuning system are thought to express a heightened emotional quality and these songs are best sung around midnight. A separate repertory of songs in the salendro tuning system has been adapted for tembang sunda. Salendro is associated with a more lively and light-hearted mood, and are usually sung in the morning hours when people ready to return home from rice field.