The shimmering sounds of the gamelan have fascinated and delighted Western visitors to Indonesia for half a millennium. The structural complexity of the music and its sonorous and ethereal sound have inspired twentieth-century composers such as Debussy, Britten and John Cage, and in recent years there’s been an enthusiastic growth in playing in gamelan ensembles in the West.
A gamelan has been described as “one instrument played by many people”. It is essentially an ensemble of tuned percussion, consisting mainly of gongs, metallophones (similar to xylophones, but with metal instead of wooden bars) and drums; it may also include singers, bamboo flutes and spike-fiddle. In Indonesia the ensembles and their sounds are diverse, ranging from Central Java’s bronze court gamelans to the bamboo village orchestras in Bali.
The largest bronze gamelans in Indonesia are found in Central Java. Although a large gamelan is co-ordinated to an extent by the drummer, its musicians have neither a conductor nor any visual cues, as they all sit facing the same way. It is a communal form of music-making, there are no soloists or virtuosos.
Today, nearly ninety percent of Java’s population is Muslim. The traditional arts of gamelan music, dance and theatre, however, have their roots in Java’s Hindu-Buddhist past. The Islam of the Middle East had mixed with Indian Hinduism before reaching Java In the fifteenth century. The new religion also included Sufi beliefs, which acknowledged the power of music and tolerated musical and artistic expression.
European colonialism was another major influence on Javanese thought and culture, through the Dutch East India Company, established in the early seventeenth century. Under Dutch rule, the royal courts did not have much political power, but the arts flourished.
Some of the finest gamelans in Java are housed in the courts, including a number of ceremonial gamelans. The largest and loudest, known as gamelan Sekaten, are still played once a year in the palace mosques of Solo and Yogya. Within the palace walls gamelan playing is traditionally regarded as a spiritual discipline – a way of reaching enlightenment.
Gamelan music is today played by a wide range of people in Central Java. Most village halls and neighbourhoods in major towns have a gamelan for use by the local community. Schoolchildren learn basic gamelan pieces and can continue their studies in conservatories and academies of performing arts. Radio Republik Indonesia (RRI) employs professional studio musicians and broadcasts a wide range of gamelan music.
In Java, gamelan music is inseparable from the arts of poetry, dance and drama. Dances accompanied by gamelan music range from the elegant and refined palace srimpi dance to lively village dances. Dance-dramas and shadow plays (wayang kulit) are always accompanied by gamelan music.
Life is changing rapidly in Java. For much of the youth population, the gamelan represents the values of the past and is rejected in favour of Western or Indonesian pop. But gamelan tradition is alive, as music-making continues to play a role in community life.
In the twentieth century gamelan composers have become less anonymous. K. R. T. Wasitodiningrat had one of his pieces sent up with the Voyager spacecraft, but the music of Bagong Kussudiardja and Ki Nartosabdho is also well known.
Much artistic experimentation, innovation and exchange is going on in the academies, where musicians and dancers from different regions of Java, Bali and Sumatra work together, as well as with Western musicians.
The island of Java is inhabited by several ethnic groups. The Javanese live mainly in Central and East Java, while the main inhabitants of West Java, or Sunda, are the Sundanese.
It reflects an enduring classical tradition of Sundanese music while at the same time creating something fresh, modern and original. The music is centred on the kacapi, a boat-shaped zither whose mellifluous tones have been heard in Sunda (West Java) for centuries.
The instrumentation of the Sambasunda Quintetfollows the Tembang Sunda tradition, using up to three kacapis, augmented by violin and suling (bamboo flute) accompanied by a female singer. The addition of thekhendang drums – a large barrel-shaped drum played at both ends with various tones elicited by pressure of the foot and three smaller high-pitched drums known as kulenter – is a contemporary touch, and, although some of the compositions are based on standards from the Tembang Sunda repertoire, they are performed with a distinctly urban rhythmic accent. The whole is suffused with a contemporary awareness of global sounds, from the local and international pop music prevalent in Bandung, to the influences of the group’s interactions with international artists they have met and performed with at major music festivals around the world. This is most apparent in the instrumental piece ‘Paddy Pergi Ke Bandung’ (‘Paddy Goes To Bandung’), which, as the title suggests, is a playful collision of Irish and Javanese themes.
The sound of degung is perhaps the most accessible gamelan music to Western ears. Degung uses its own five-note version of the pelog scale found in Java, and its special character owes much to the additional presence of the suling (bamboo flute), which is regarded as a signature for Sundanese music.
Nowadays, gamelan Salendro is used primarily to accompany performances of wayang golek – classical dance – as well as the more recent social dance jaipongan. Although it has a lowly, unaristocratic status, it can display a technical brilliance and virtuosity rarely heard in Central Java.
Although related, tembang Sunda is, strictly speaking, not a gamelan genre at all. It was developed at the Kabupaten (Regent’s court) of Cianjur during the colonial era, and consists of sung poetry accompanied by one or two kecapi (zithers) together with a suling or a rebab.
Gamelan music from the island of Madura is, in some respects, closer to the traditions of mainland Central Java. Of particular note is the topeng dalang, in which the great Indian epics of the Mahabharata and Ramayana, as well as the Javanese story of Panji, are recounted.
The Osinger of Banyuwangi represent yet another branch of East Javanese music and dance. Angklung (bamboo xylophone) is played by young boys through amateur organizations, while Gandrung is performed by professional musicians at all-night social events, and consists of a small group of instrumentalists together with a female singer-dancer (the gandrung).
The kecak was adopted in the twentieth century from an ancient trance dance into a drama using the Hindu Ramayana story. The chorus represents the monkey army helping King Rama rescue his queen, Sinta, from Rahwana, the ogre-king.
The Balinese practise their own religion, a unique blend of Hinduism and traditional Balinese beliefs. Important island-wide festivals, such as Galungan, call for ten days of prayer, music and dance. Most villages boast several gamelans owned by the local music club. The members, all men, meet there in the evenings to rehearse. They are almost all amateurs, earning their living as farmers, craftsmen or civil servants.
When the Dutch took control of Bali in the early twentieth century the island’s courts all but disappeared. This had an enormous impact on the musical life of the island. New gamelans were made for the latest style: kebyar – a word that means “like the bursting open of a flower”.
Another popular ensemble is the joged Bumbung (“bumbung” means bamboo). This style was born in the 1950s in west Bali and was based on the joged, an old flirtatious dance where the female dancers invite men from the audience to take turns dancing with them.