A gamelan is an Indonesian percussion orchestra. The word gamelan (pronounced gah-meh-lan) comes from the Javanese word “gambel,” meaning “to strike” or “to play” and most often refers to the sets of percussion orchestras of Bali and Java. The instruments consist mainly of bronze gongs of varying sizes and pitches, keyed metallophones, often suspended over bamboo resonators, double-headed drums, cymbals, vocals, bamboo flutes, and spiked fiddles.
Gamelan music is known for its extensive use of polyphony. Musical compositions are often constructed so that lower pitched instruments, such as the larger gongs, play at a relatively slow pace to give structure to the musical composition, while the higher pitched instruments play much faster melodic passages to create a rich and entrancing musical texture. Balinese gamelan, the style which Gamelan Mitra Kusuma studies and performs, is known for its use of tightly interlocking polyphonic melodies, called kotekan, wherein one musician or group of musicians play one portion of a melody,while another musician or musicians play the other portion. Kotekan are often performed at very high speeds, requiring intensive rehearsal and group coordination.
In Bali, music and dance are essential components of almost any activity, and a wide variety of ensembles has developed to accompany both religious and secular events. One might see gamelan performances at Balinese-Hindu temple ceremonies, weddings, tooth filing ceremonies, and cremations, as well as secular concerts, music competitions, and school and governmental functions. There are dozens of different types of gamelans in Bali to fulfill these functions, ranging from large metal orchestras to bamboo ensembles, vocal groups, and even groups dedicated to the imitation of frog sounds. Gamelan Mitra Kusuma studies and performs upon a number of these different ensembles, and they are briefly described below.
Gamelan Gong Kebyar is often the first style of Balinese gamelan that a Westerner is exposed to, and it is by far the most popular ensemble in Bali. Gong kebyar developed in the early 20th-century, and its rise in popularity is believed to be tied to the loss of power of the Balinese royal courts during Bali's brief period of Dutch colonization. At this time, many traditional court-owned gamelan instruments were passed down to village authorities who, realizing an opportunity to create an entirely new style of music, modified these old ensembles to fulfill their creative ambitions.
Because of its early association with the royal court gamelan traditions, gong kebyar is often viewed as a direct descendant of the grand gong gede, which played a slow, stately, and very loud style of gamelan called lelambatan for royal ceremonies. Thus, gong kebyar groups are often called upon to play a somewhat updated version of this court music to accompany certain rituals and festivals. However, gong kebyar's earliest composers, wishing to make an unforgettable impact on their audience, also developed new compositions with unexpected and explosive changes in tempo and dynamics, and extremely fast and dazzlingly syncopated melodies, requiring virtuosic musicians and tightly coordinated ensemble playing. The word kebyar, in fact, means "a sudden burst", as in the sudden blooming of a flower, and also describes the
arrhythmic and unpredictable introductions, transitions and conclusions of most gong kebyar compositions.
The core melody of most gong kebyar compositions is played by large five-keyed xylophone-like instruments called jegog and jublag (or calung). This melody is subdivided by a seven-keyed instrument called penyacah. The jegog, jublag and penyacah are accompanied by a set of ten-keyed instruments called gangsa, played by nine musicians, and a set of 12 small horizontally suspended gongs, called reyong, played by four musicians. These instruments play kotekan, which in gong kebyar can be quite difficult and elaborate, as well as many other elaborations on the core melody. Two drummers act as the “conductor,” cueing the many changes in tempo and dynamics. A set of small cymbals, called ceng-ceng, accompany the drummer, and quite often the reyong, ceng-ceng and
drummers overlay elaborate rhythmic constructs, called ocak-ocakan, over the melody. Bamboo flutes, called suling, and occasionally a spike fiddle, called rebab, reinforce and further elaborate the song's core melody. The texture as a whole is punctuated by the large suspended gongs, considered to be the spiritual centre of the ensemble.
Gong kebyar uses a five-tone modal scale, called selisir, which is derived from a seven-note scale used in several older Balinese ensembles. The gangsa are two octave instruments, and the reyong's 12 gongs contain a little more than two octaves. A gong kebyar's pitch range for its melodic instruments is a little over four octaves.
Much of the gong kebyar repetoire is designed to accompany dance and other theatric performances, and musicians and dancers in Bali often work for days on end to perfectly coordinate a dancer's every movement with a musical counterpart, from a simple walk from one end of the stage to another, to the eye movements and facial expressions of the dancer.
While the instrumentation of gamelan angklung is similar to gong kebyar, it has several critical differences. First, the scale of gamelan angklung only uses four pitches, derived from a different set of notes in the traditional seven-note scale. Secondly, whereas many of the instruments in gong kebyar span multiple octaves of its pentatonic scale, gamelan angklung instruments only contain one octave.
Gamelan angklung also has a more delicate and sweeter sound than gong kebyar. The instruments are considerably smaller, and hence more portable, than gong kebyar. Part of the reason for this portability is its use in cremation rituals in Bali, where the musicians often play in a procession as the funeral bier is carried from the cemetary to the cremation site, in addition to playing music to accompany the ceremony.
The structure of the music is similar to gong kebyar. Jublag and jegog carry the basic melody, which is elaborated by gangsa, reyong, ceng-ceng, drum, and flute. A medium sized gong, called kempur, is generally used to punctuate a song's major sections. And although most older compositions generally do not employ gong kebyar's more ostentatious virtuosity and showmanship, many Balinese composers have created kebyar-style works for gamelan angklung, often featuring dance.
A gender (pronounced with a hard "g" sound) is a bronze-keyed metallaphone, similar to gangsa, but with somewhat thinner, more delicate keys. It also differs from gangsa in the way it is played. Whereas the gangsa is played with a single mallet, the gender is played with two mallets.
Gender wayang is an ensemble of four gender used to accompany shadow puppet plays, or wayang kulit. It is considered one of the most difficult gamelan instruments to play, partly because of the playing technique, but also because these four instruments, along with a puppeteer and his assistants, perform all of the duties of a gamelan group. The gender players play a slower basic melody, similar to what the jublag, jegog and penyacah would play in gong kebyar, with their left hands, while playing elaborations similar to gangsa and reyong with their right. The puppeteer, or dalang, acts as conductor, knocking a small piece of wood , called cepala, against the puppet box, giving signals similar to those given by a drummer, while he maneuvers the puppets, speaking and/or singing all their parts.
The themes of the puppet shows are generally derived from the Hindu epic, the Mahabharata. Sometimes the Ramayana, a tale of the exile of Prince Rama of Ayuda, is used as a basis of the plot, but in this case, the gender wayang is augmented with additional instruments such as drums, ceng-ceng, flute, a cluster of bells called gentorag, and many of the smaller gongs used for time keeping in other gamelan ensembles.
Gender wayang is also played as an accompaniment the Balinese ceremonial tooth filing, where a young person's teeth are ritually filed to refine his or her appearance, weddings, and other temple ceremonies.
A Joged bumbung ensemble consists of four ten-keyed bamboo instruments played with rubber mallets. The technique for playing is similar to gender wayang, with the left hand playing a basic melody while the right hand plays elaboration. It is an ensemble used for social occasions, and accompanies a flirtatious social dance. Female joged dancers invite members of the audience to dance with them, giving young men an opportunity to show off their dance skills and flirt with the dancers.
Tektekan is played with bamboo slit drums, called kul-kul, that are cradled in the players' arms and struck with a wooden mallet, producing a sharp rhythmic sound. Groups of between 10 and 20 players strike these in interlocking patterns similar to kotekan, and they are sometimes accompanied by drum and gongs to punctuate rhythmic cycles.
Tektekan is often used to accompany a performance called calanarong, a ritual drama wherein men go into trance and are possessed by the spirits of witches, led by a queen named Rangda. This ritual is believed to be dangerous to both participants and spectators, and is only carried out at specific times under conditions very carefully controlled by a Balinese priest. Today, a more benign form of calanarong is staged for tourists in Bali, where the participants simply enact the possession. However, many of the same precautions are taken, as there is always a danger that the reenactment could become real.
Other uses of tektekan include processions, since the instruments are very portable. Tektekan has also recently been incorporated into new gong kebyar pieces.
Bebonangan, or beleganjur, is processional music, and has a very similar history and function as marching bands in the West. Like marching bands, it was originally used to lead armies into battle, and today it is used for parades and festivals.
However, beleganjur has an additional use in religious ceremonies such as odalan, held on the anniversary of a temple's concecration, and cremations. In fact, if a particular gamelan is not available for a ceremony, beleganjur often takes its place, because the instruments used are comparatively less expensive than most other gamelan.
The simplest form of beleganjur can consist of only about nine instruments: a large gong ageng, a second gong called bendé, four pairs of large, handheld cymbals called ceng-ceng, two drums played with mallets, and some kind of small time-keeping instrument called ketuk, kempli, or tawa-tawa. The drums and cymbals play interlocking patterns of a repeating gong pattern.
This form of gamelan can be then augmented with more cymbals, a smaller gong to compliment the gong ageng, two tuned, handheld gongs called ponggang, and small tuned gongs often taken from the reyong of a gong kebyar. When these gongs are used in this context, they are often called bonang, hence the name bebonangan or beleganjur bebonangan.
In recent years, this ensemble has gain popularity among young men, who are attracted by its martial qualities, high volume, and the challenge of playing the instruments, particularly the ceng-ceng, bonang, and drum, as they demand physical strength and endurance. Ensembles often compete fiercely for prizes in competition, and the performances often include elaborate, bewildering and physically exhausting compositions played at breakneck speed, accompanied by detailed and difficult choreography.