12 September 2015

Catholic Liturgical Music in Indonesia



By Karel Steenbrink
Professor Emeritus in Intercultural Theology at Utrecht University, The Netherlands.



There are no reliable and complete figures about Catholics joining church choirs, but a rough estimate tells us that no activity attracts more participants than singing in choirs. An average large town parish will count some 10-15 choirs, related to the base communities that form the organizational structure of the parish.

Not all choirs are excellent, not all conductors have had a good training and many organ players have problems in adjusting to the space in the great parish church when their choir has its turn to sing. In the large churches in major towns Mass had to be said 5-8 times in a weekend after the 1970s and for most of these services choirs are available. There is no national structure for this activity and we therefore can only sketch some variants here.

Until Vatican II or the early 1960s, Mass was said in Latin and many songs were also in Latin, besides a number of hymns that were used during Mass and also during the evening adoration of the host, called Benediction (in Indonesia often called Salve after the hymn to Mary that was often sung at the end of this devotion). This latter ceremony was never officially abolished but like making confession quickly went into oblivion in the liturgical renewal of the period following Vatican II.

So, Eucharist became more or less the single important community event in parish churches and at Saturday and Sunday it became custom to have a choir leading the community singing during Mass. Lomba paduan suara or competitions of choirs (when possible accompanied with a display of recent and new texts and musical compositions) became from the 1990s a regular part of festive Catholic meetings.

Already in the 1980s for radio and television programmes singing, besides drama had taken over the role of the spoken address by one person. Like the Protestant churches (and in contrast to the Muslim public performance in the media) the Catholics became a singing and performing group.

There is no uniform hymnal for Indonesia. This is related to the long procedure to obtain Vatican approval of the translations. In 1977 a provisional TPE, Tata Perayaan Ekaristi or Order of the Eucharistic Prayer was accepted, after many different texts had been used. Only from Sunday 29 May 2005 was a more or less permanent text available. The hymnals that included these prayers were therefore also for some time experimental only.

In 1970 the Archdiocese of Ende published Syukur kepada Bapa as an Indonesian prayer book, with liturgical and devotional songs and hymns, nearly all translated from European examples.

The Centre for Liturgical Music of Yogyakarta (PML, Pusat Musik Liturgi) published in 1980 Madah Bakti, where most hymns were original in text and many also taken from melodies of Indonesian regions. These hymns on local melodies were about 25% or 150 of the 1980 edition of 600 numbered items.

In the 2000 edition they increased to 270 out of 838 songs. They are called lagu inkulturasi or inculturated hymns. They were created during seminar sessions in regions of Indonesia as different as the Baliem Valley, Kalimantan, Nias, Flores and others. They were, of course, not just copies of traditional music: the texts were mostly Indonesian. They were presented by PML, in most cases with a four-part mixed-chorus arrangement and accompaniment suited for the very popular Yamaha electronic organ.

In the presentation by the choir Vocalista Sonora of PML and sold on tapes, sometimes traditional instruments were used, but most churches who practised these songs would do it with the same technique and style as they apply for all kind of other church hymns.

There have been many debates about the right musical practice for the giant country of Indonesia with its many differences. Traditional songs with a clear religious or even magical connotation could not be used. The same has been the case with songs that were related to flirtation or even sexual activities. Many traditional melodies also were somewhat changed: often extended in order to suit the common practice in churches.

The German musicologist and theologian Thomas Hartman gave a balanced judgment about the process in an interview in 2006:

"Nias shows one of the highest activities of inculturation compared to many areas of the world. But this is mainly due to the efforts of individuals like Fr. Johannes Hammerle or Fr. Hadrian Hess. There is a danger, and that is cultural indifference or falsification. Only people with a strong cultural knowledge of an area should really be the ones conducting intercultural creations on such a high level.

Many conflicts arise; for example out of the work of the Pusat Musik Liturgi – Yogyakarta, who try with good intention to do intercultural work for the entire Indonesian country. In Nias, with the efforts of these individual missionaries, who have advanced to anthropologists and ethnologists, the Church can now even contribute to a certain extend to a conservation program of Nias culture. It would need neutral local Niassan experts, however, to supervise the correctness of such programs and efforts."


The edition of Madah Bakti of 1980 was accomplished in cooperation with the national committee for liturgy. This committee, however, decided in 1987 to start a revision of the hymnal Madah Bakti, and during the process a mostly new hymnal was written, and published in 1993, Puji Syukur, where quite a few hymns of European origin and some others were included, in cooperation with the Protestant foundation YAMUGER (Yayasan Musik Gereja).

Most lagu inkulturasi had disappeared in this new hymnal. Other hymns from Madah Bakti were included here, but sometimes with slightly different wordings. The reactions towards Puji Syukur were mixed: although it was a publication of the national council of bishops, many parishes and even dioceses did not use it, but continued to use Madah Bakti, or local products. Some critics even suggested that Puji Syukur was a ‘Jakarta creation’ and ‘dropped from above’.

In the 1990s photocopying had become very cheap and popular and in many places local committees produced weekly leaflets in photocopy with the liturgical texts and hymns. This has continued the variety of music among the Catholics of Indonesia. As already discussed in chapter 2, the Jesuit Anton Soesanto was a major composer for Puji Syukur.

For Madah Bakti the Javanese Paul Widyawan (conductor of the choir of the catechetical school of Yogyakarta, Vocalista Sonora) and the German-born Karl-Edmund Prier have since the early 1970s made many compositions. They were assisted by people from Flores like Alex and Marcel Beding, the Javanese J. Wahyasudibya, working in Manggarai/Flores, and various teams from the ‘Outer Islands’.

In the 1980s, notwithstanding the use of the new hymnal Madah Bakti, the liturgical style of music used in churches remained uncertain. In various choirs gospel music that was close to pop or even rock music became popular, especially among young singers. On 9-10 February 1991 a more or less ‘national’ conference was held on the topic in Yogyakarta at the Centre for Liturgical Music, PML, with participants from Palembang and many places in Java. Here it was decided that there should be some kind of solemn liturgical style.

Music from various regions could be used and also modern melodies, but without a beat as is quite often used in more Evangelical or Pentecostal Churches. The participants tried to write a definition for liturgical music, but could not reach a consensus between the extremes of (too) modern pop music and a traditional rather dull style of European hymns.

In several places in Java, especially the Pugeran Church in Yogyakarta and the Church of Cigugur in West Java, gamelan is used for liturgical songs in Javanese style. This, however, has not found broad acceptance.

In Yogyakarta church services in Javanese are only at an unpopular very early hour or 6.00 AM: youngsters do not like this traditional style, culturally Javanese but considered somewhat outdated. Besides, young people came later to Mass than the older and traditional people. Below we will discuss the new and quite exceptional popularity for the Javanese style of liturgy in Ganjuran.

In 1991 the old pre-independence hymnal of the Southeastern Islands was published again as Yubilate and republished in a revised version in 2002. It contained 582 hymns and prayers. Many hymns were from the 1970s Flores hymnal Syukur kepada Bapa. There are special hymnals for Sikkanese, already since the pre-independence period (Cantate/Lalang SeuI, republished in 1998 as Kantate, Ngaji Kantar Sara Sikka).

Since 1980s various edition of a Lionese hymnal, Jala da Gheta Surga were published. Bishop Willem van Bekkum stimulated the compositions in Manggarai that are collected as Sere Sarani. In Timor a hymnal in Tetum has been composed, Dakado, while the songs written by Protestant missionary Piet Middelkoop also are loved by the Catholics in Timor. In Sumba there is the hymnal Ama Ma Zemme. This is only a short list to mention some of the more widespread texts and musical compositions that indicate the ongoing process in the linguistic very fragmented territories of Southeast Indonesia.

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