You can own a guitar, or a drum kit, or a keyboard. But what about Gamelan instruments? Who owns a Gamelan set?
While travelling through Java and Bali you will most likely hear the word Gamelan. In fact you will probably hear Gamelan music even if you don’t know what the word means. It is hard to avoid throughout Java and Bali. Even without making an effort to see traditional music you can hear it wafting through the air over rice paddies in Ubud, playing through distorted speakers in a restaurant in Java, accompanying a dance or ceremony in the royal palaces, or even just the beating of gongs as you stop at the traffic lights in any major city. The essence of Gamelan is at the core of Javanese and Balinese culture, and its effect can be felt throughout the islands of Java and Bali.
So what exactly is Gamelan?
Gamelan is a traditional musical ensemble that originates from Java and Bali. While often Gamelan is used to refer to the music that the ensemble plays, the meaning of the word is actually the name of the orchestra, or set of instruments. The word itself originates from gambel – to hit, from Javanese language. This will make a lot of sense for anyone watching a Gamelan ensemble, as the most typical action of the musicians is hitting different instruments with a hammer or mallet. The instruments are mostly made from bronze, with wooden casing. Some smaller ensembles use iron or brass metal for the instruments, as it is cheaper to make the instruments.
The majority of the instruments in a Gamelan ensemble are a mixture gongs and mettalophones (like a glockenspiel). There are also non-metallic instruments such as the kendang (drum), rebab (violin), suling (bamboo flute) and various other stringed and percussion instruments. Usually, a gamelan ensemble will also have both male and female vocalists.
Is Gamelan only confined to Java and Bali?
While there is music throughout Indonesia that uses bronze gongs, Gamelan specifically refers to the music of East and Central Java (Javanese), West Java (Sundanese) and Bali (Balinese). The ensembles range in sizes. They range from majestic royal palace ensembles of 40 people or more to small groups of 4-5, and the music is usually performed in a Pendhapa. This is an open-air pavilion protected from the elements by a tiled roof. The musician sit on the floor next to the instruments to play them. In a performance the musicians will wear traditional clothing from their respective region.
Rehearsing in an ensemble
In symphonic orchestras, musicians usually bring their own instruments for performances (apart from bulky instruments like pianos). Gamelan, on the other hand, usually exists as one independently tuned set of instruments. The musicians arrive to play and rehearse then leave again. This is in part due to the unique tuning of each Gamelan and the difficulties of moving the large instruments. This music is always performed and rehearsed as a collective. Every part of rehearsing and performing is about sharing experiences together.
It is quite expensive to purchase all the instruments required for one complete Gamelan. As a result they are often owned by small communities, educational institutions and media broadcasting stations.
As most of the instruments are made of bronze, the instruments can have a lifespan of over a hundred years. As an ensemble can outlive an owner or musician, it is felt that they are custodians of the instruments. They are merely taking care of them and playing until the next generation can take over.
Traditionally it is rare for Gamelan to perform music independently. Usually the music acts as an accompaniment for theater, dance, puppet performances and important rituals and events. One example of this is music to announce whenever a Sultan or King enters or exits a room. If there are musicians and Gamelan present they must play a specific composition for royal entrances and exits. If there is no ensemble present, it is common to use a singular gong to signal opening and closing of important events.
Characteristics of sound
The structure of the music varies considerably between West Javanese, Central Javanese, and Balinese Gamelan. The common similarities come from the sound the instruments produce. Gamelan uses a different scale system to standardized western music. These are called Pelog and Slendro. Anyone familiar with classical orchestras, pop music and any other genre may find this particular music difficult to listen to at first. The sound is unlike most western. Initially it may seem out of tune, but as you listen longer, your ears begin to assimilate the new sounds.
If you are travelling through Java or Bali, be sure to try and find a Gamelan performance to attend. Then get yourself a glass of warm Javanese tea, sit down, open you ears and eyes, and get ready to be transported to another time and place.