The first time I heard gamelan music, I had no idea what it was. I thought it was electronica. It literally sounded like aliens. I was very confused, and very entranced. Then gradually I heard some more, and it was totally mindblowingly enchanting. I hope all of you get to hear one of these ensembles live some time, because the overtones really really knock you out. They build up a cloud of resonant sound that is hovering, shimmering all around you, which is the context of every note that gets played. And within this soundfield, stuff gets repeated, switched around, slowed down, sped up; it creates a context for surprises. And it lulls your conscious mind while stimulating your spirit. And that’s why the music is so amazingly ethereal and out-of-body.
A gamelan is a musical ensemble from Indonesia, typically from the islands of Bali or Java, featuring a variety of instruments such as metallophones, xylophones, drums and gongs; bamboo flutes, bowed and plucked strings. Vocalists may also be included.
The term refers more to the set of instruments than to the players of those instruments. A gamelan is a set of instruments as a distinct entity, built and tuned to stay together — instruments from different gamelan are generally not interchangeable.
The word gamelan comes from the Javanese word gamels, meaning “to strike or hammer”, and the suffix an, which makes the root a collective noun.
Gamelan is a term for various types of orchestra played in Indonesia. It is the main element of the Indonesian traditional music. Each gamelan is slightly different from the other; however, they all have the same organization, which based on different instrumental groups with specific orchestral functions. The instruments in a gamelan are composed of sets of tuned bronze gongs, gong-chimes, metallophones, drums, one or more flute, bowed and plucked string instruments, and sometimes singers. In some village gamelan, bronze is sometimes replaced by iron, wood, or bamboo. The most popular gamelan can be found in Java, and Bali.
In Indonesian traditional thinking, the gamelan is sacred and is believed to have supernatural power. Both musician and non-musicians are humble and respectful to the gamelan. Incense and flowers are often offered to the gamelan. It is believed that each instrument in the gamelan is guided by spirits. Thus, the musician have to take off their shoes when they play the gamelan. It is also forbidden to step over any instrument in a gamelan, because it might offend the spirit by doing so. Some gamelan are believed to have so much powers that playing them may exert power over nature. Others may be touched only by persons who are ritually qualified. In Javanese gamelan, the most important instrument is the Gong Ageng. The Javanese musicians believe that Gong Ageng is the main spirit of the entire gamelan.
Gamelan is a way of linking individuals in social groups. Gamelan music is performed as a group effort, and so there is no place for an individual showoff. Traditionally, gamelan is only played at certain occasions such as ritual ceremonies, special community celebrations, shadow puppet shows, and for the royal family. Gamelan is also used to accompany dances in court, temple, and village rituals. Besides providing music for social functional ceremonies, gamelan also provides a livelihood for many professional musicians, and for specialized craftsmen who manufacture gamelan.
Today, although gamelan music is still used for ritual ceremonies and the royal family, it is also performed as concert music at social and cultural gatherings to welcome guests and audiences. Gamelan is also used to accompany many kinds of both traditional and modern dances, drama, theatrical and puppetry. In modern days, gamelan can be kept in places such as courts, temples, museums, schools, or even private homes.
Balinese Gamelan music is very similar to Javanese Gamelan music. The music is in cycle too, however, it is usually faster. One of the characteristic of Balinese gamelan music is that, it has a lot of sudden changes in tempo and dynamics. Like the Javanese gamelan, the instruments in Balinese gamelan includes metallophones and gongs. However, there are more metallophones than gongs in Balinese gamelan. The metal keys in Balinese metallophones are ticker than those of Javanese. These Balinese metallophones produce very bright sound. Another characteristic of Balinese Gamelan music is the used of cymbals. These cymbals create fast rattling sound that usually cannot be found in Javanese Gamelan music.
Kecak (pronounced , alternate spellings: Ketjak and Ketjack) a form of Balinese music drama, originated in the 1930s and is performed primarily by men. Also known as the Ramayana Monkey Chant, the piece, performed by a circle of 100 or more performers wearing checked cloth around their waists, percussively chanting “cak” and throwing up their arms, depicts a battle from the Ramayana where the monkey-like Vanara helped Prince Rama fight the evil King Ravana. However, Kecak has roots in sanghyang, a trance-inducing exorcism dance.
Kecak was originally a trance ritual accompanied by male chorus. German painter and musician Walter Spies became deeply interested in the ritual while living in Bali in the 1930s and worked to recreate it into a drama, based on the Hindu Ramayana and including dance, intended to be presented to Western tourist audiences. This transformation is an example of what James Clifford describes as part of the “modern art-culture system” in which, “the West or the central power adopts, transforms, and consumes non-Western or peripheral cultural elements, while making ‘art’ which was once embedded in the culture as a whole, into a separate entity.” Spies worked with Wayan Limbak and Limbak popularized the dance by traveling throughout the world with Balinese performance groups. These travels have helped to make the Kecak famous throughout the world.
Performer, choreographer, and scholar I Wayan Dibia cites a contrasting theory that the Balinese where already developing the form when Spies arrived on the island. For example, well-known dancer I Limbak had incorporated Baris movements into the cak leader role during the 1920s. “Spies liked this innovation,” and it suggested that Limbak, “devise a spectacle based on the Ramayana,” accompanied by cak chorus rather than gamelan, as would have been usual.
In his amazing book Ocean of Sound, David Toop opens with a chapter on the meeting of western composers (especially Debussy) with the sounds of the Indonesian Gamelan (which are essentially orchestras of various sizes). Situating the nexus of much modern music in this meeting by finding strains of these sounds in minimalists like Steve Reich, Terry Riley, and John Cage, but also stretching into the filmic realms of Ryuchi Sakamoto, the electronics of Loop Guru, and the Free Jazz of Don Cherry, just to name a few he cites, Toop indicates the range of influence of this amazing music. David Lewiston’s 1987 recordings on this compilation jubiliantly reflect this diversity, even in the fascinating opening track of various ensembles passing by in a parade showcasing the sounds of cymbals, gongs, drums, flutes, metallophones, wooden cowbells, and countless other mostly percussive sounds. The rest of the tracks on the CD are equally varied. The third track, for example, Genggong Duet, takes place with the Balinese Jew’s Harp, and could almost sound like the electronic squiggles of some electronic outfits like mouse on mars or matmos; the fourth track, a Frog Song which is produced through a piece of palm bark and sounds like a reed instrument, could pass for a free-jazz improvisation. Another exciting highlight would be the 8th track, a Kecak piece that tells the Indian Legend of Hanuman. Familiar to anyone whose seen the film Baraka, this is a piece where a large group sits in a circle, moving, swaying, and chanting, tjak tjak tajk, in furious rhythm. Like the Master Musicians of Jajouka, whom William Burroughs called a “2000 year old rock band,” this music sounds both ancient and progressive at the same time. An excellent introduction based on variety alone, but with digital recording, these sounds are surprisingly clean. For anyone curious about Balinese music, this would be a great place to start.
VA – Bali: Gamelan & Kecak
Recorded by David Lewiston in 1987, these are fine recordings of both famous and little-heard strains of Indonesian music. In a series of recordings that include both large gamelan orchestras and small ensembles, he has captured the wide scope of the music of Bali. In addition to the gamelan works we are offered some very unique sounds: a palm bark version of the Jew’s harp; a reed instrument with a distinctly “Hendrix on the bagpipes” sound. Perhaps most enjoyable is a recording of a passing parade, with various instruments, rhythms, and melodies drifting by in the sort of cacophony associated with Charles Ive’s marching band works. Lewiston’s offering is invaluable. — Louis Gibson
Bali’s most popular ensemble is still the large gamelan gong, consisting of 25 to 30 musicians. The principal melody instruments are metallophones, xylophone-like instruments with bronze keys. Sets of small, tuned gong kettles provide melodic ornaments, while the penetrating bass tones of great gongs punctuate larger phrases. Clashing cymbals add to the overall glitter. A flute or stringed instrument sweetens the melody. The entire structure is supported by two drummers, who create the crucial rhythmic underpinning. The kecak is uniquely Balinese. The rhythmic interlocking “tjak-tjak-tjak-tjak,” chanted by a large group of male voices, originated as the accompaniment to an ancient trance dance. It is a performance of the Ramayana, where the monkey hordes come to the aid of King Rama in his battle with the evil King Rawana. The 80 members of the Sekaha Ganda Sari are heard in this kecak performance.
by Bruno Deschênes
For many musicians, Bali is still the last paradise on Earth; their music shows an unsurpassed originality and creativeness. Still today, new pieces are being composed by Balinese composers for the different existing ensembles. This CD, produced and recorded by American ethnomusicologist David Lewiston, gives us an overview of the large variety in Balinese music, of the different types of gamelan ensembles. The first piece is the music of the opening parade of the Bali Arts Festival on June 1987 (a festival taking place in June and July of every year on the island). You hear recently created ensembles, styles, and pieces as well as older ones. Among the recent musical creations of Balinese are the kecak, a type of rhythmic vocal play with short and percussive words which are used for trance dance. This type of singing, which came to life in the 1930s, is found only in Bali and is sung exclusively by men. Quite possibly one of the best Balinese CDs available!
1 – Opening Parade, Bali Arts Festival – 12:18
2 – Gamelan Gong Sekaha Sadha Budaya – 10:41
3 – Genggong Duet – Artika, Meji – 2:33
4 – Genggong Batur Sari, Batuan – 4:11
5 – Gamelan Salunding, Tenganan – 7:52
6 – Sadha Budaya Gamelan Gong Suling – 6:06
7 – Gender Wayang: Sukawati – Balik, Loceng, Nartha, Sarga – 7:34
8 – Sekaha Ganda Sari, Bona – 8:07
9 – Gamelan Gong Kebyar Sekolah Tinggi Seni Indonesia, Den Pasar – 12:48
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