Sunday, September 27, 2009

Malaysian Claim to Gamelan May Raise Tensions With Indonesia

Tensions between Indonesia and Malaysia over the issue of cultural thievery may not be resolved any time soon, as a Malaysian Web site was recently found to be claiming the gamelan as part of its cultural heritage.

Malaysia’s official Web site for cultural heritage,, lists gamelan in its national heritage section, in third place after the boria and zapin dances.

But music expert Remy Sylado told the Jakarta Globe that the gamelan has its roots in Javanese culture and dates back to the first Saka era (circa AD 230). That would mean gamelan was already in Java long before Borobudur Temple was built in Central Java during the 8th century.

Reached by the Globe by telephone, the deputy head of mission at the Malaysian Embassy in Jakarta, Amran Mohamed Zain, refused to comment on the Web site’s claim.

Indonesian Ministry of Culture and Tourism spokesman Turman Siagian said there had been no discussion regarding the list on the Malaysian Web site, which was last updated on May 13.

“We did not know about the list, but if I am not mistaken, the zapin dance also belongs to Indonesia,” he said. “We will discuss this matter soon.”

Remy said two Dutch researchers, Jaap Kunsp and Brandt-Buys, wrote about the gamelan in a book published in 1930, “The Music of Java,” which states that the gamelan has Javanese cultural roots.

“If the Javanese gamelan developed and was exported, its cultural roots are still undeniably Javanese,” he said.

However, gamelan expert Rahayu Supanggah told the Globe that Malaysia was within its rights to claim the gamelan as part of its cultural heritage, because the Malaysian gamelan is different from the Javanese version.

Rahayu added that the gamelan was not exclusive to Java, with many tribes on other islands, including Borneo, and in other countries having their own versions.

“The Malaysian gamelan has fewer instruments than the Javanese, and thus fewer players,” he said. “A Javanese gamelan needs 25 players, while a Malaysian gamelan needs only seven or eight players.”

Repertoire, scale and instrumentation are also different, he added.

Rahayu said Indonesians and Malaysians came from the same roots and thus shared many similarities in their traditional arts.

On Sept. 17, Malaysia’s state news agency, Bernama, reported that the country would study Unesco’s listing of batik as an Indonesian cultural heritage. The report said the Malaysian government wanted to ensure that the decision would not have a bearing on traditional batik making in the country.

In response, Turman Siagian from Indonesia’s Culture Ministry said, “They may react [to the listing], but we will get the recognition anyway.”

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