What is the gamelan?

Published 27 Apr 2017

The country of Indonesia has a very rich culture. It is a culture that is characterized by ethnicity and diversity, which is best exemplified by its people and the arts. In terms of music, the most remarkable aspect of Indonesian art is the gamelan. What is the gamelan? Why is it such a crucial part of Indonesian culture?

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A gamelan is a type of “musical ensemble from Indonesia typically featuring a variety of instruments” (“Gamelan”). In fact, it is the “main element of the Indonesian traditional music” (“Indonesian Gamelan”). This ensemble consists of gongs, drums, flutes, “bowed and plucked strings,” xylophones, and metallophones (“Gamelan”). Sometimes, vocals are included (“Gamelan”). The word “gamelan” is derived from “gamel,” a Javanese word that means “to strike or hammer” (“Gamelan”). It also includes the suffix “an,” which gives the word its collective reference (“Gamelan”). The word “gamelan” is the identification of the said instruments, not the musicians who play them (“Gamelan”).

Each gamelan is distinct from all the others (“Indonesian Gamelan”). The difference lies in the instruments themselves, as well as the usage of voice and tunings (“Gamelan”). The repertoire, style and the cultural milieu in which it is situated are also considered. Gamelan ensembles in courts are usually characterized with a specific style. Despite the difference, all gamelans are organized the same way; the groups of instruments have their own assigned purposes (“Indonesian Gamelan”). These instruments form a cohesive whole; each instrument is created and tuned as a part of the unit. Thus, an instrument that belongs to one gamelan cannot be used as a part of another. Since a gamelan is a unified group of several instruments, it requires a group performance. A gamelan performance therefore leaves no room for the individual display of talent (“Indonesian Gamelan”).

Originally, gamelan music is used within formal events only, such as ritual ceremonies and performances for the royal family (“Indonesian Gamelan”). In the rituals, gamelan is the accompaniment to the dances (“Indonesian Gamelan”). At present, the gamelan still retains its traditional purpose, but now it is also played at less formal occasions as concert music (“Indonesian Gamelan”). Moreover, the gamelan is stored in varied locations, from formal venues such as courts and temples to common places like schools and homes (“Indonesian Gamelan”). It is also crucial to emphasize that the gamelan offers many opportunities for people to acquire jobs; it guarantees the livelihood of musicians and gamelan manufacturers (“Indonesian Gamelan”).

Gamelan can be found in different islands in Indonesia, such as Madura, Lombok, Bali and Java (“Gamelan”). The last two islands are where the most popular types of gamelan are found (“Indonesian Gamelan”). In other Asian countries, there also are ensembles which resemble the gamelan. This may is partly due to “emigration, historic trade or diplomacy” (“Gamelan”). A great example of an instrument which follows the gamelan tradition is the kulintang, which is found in the Philippines (“Gamelan”).

There are numerous instruments included in the gamelan, the most prominent of which would be the percussion instruments. The metallophone is one of them, which is a “set of metal bars laid out in a single row” (“Gamelan”). The metallophone is played by striking the metal bars (“Gamelan”). Examples of metallophones included in gamelan are saron, gendér, gangsa and ugal (“Gamelan”). Another percussion instrument in the gamelan is the gong chime. These are “large, drum-shaped gongs laid out horizontally on stands” (“Gamelan”). Gong chimes included in the gamelan are called bonang and kenong (“Gamelan”). A xylophone called gambang is also another part of the gamelan (“Gamelan”). The gambang resembles saron and gendér, but it differs in composition (“Gamelan”). While saron and gender are made of metal, gambang is made of wood (“Gamelan”). Other percussion instruments included in the gamelan are the kempul, kendhang and the gong ageng (“Gamelan”).

Gamelan is made with different materials, such as brass, iron, and wood (“Gamelan”). However, bronze is metal of choice for most gamelan. In fact, the best material with which to make a gamelan is with a “10:3 copper-to-tin bronze alloy” (“Gamelan”). Nonetheless, there are also gamelan ensembles which are made with bamboo (“Gamelan”).

The music of the gamelan consists of layers (“Gamelan”). At the core of gamelan music is a melody called balungan (“Gamelan”). This melody is the foundation for all the other melodies, because it is with which the entire sound is built. Many layers will soon be added, but they must be in harmony with the balungan (“Gamelan”). In fact, it must harmonize with “ends of phrases” (“Gamelan”). These ends of phrases are identified with the Javanese term called seleh (“Gamelan”). Moreover, a certain group of instruments within the gamelan follows a “colotomic structure,” that which ends with the striking of the biggest gong (“Gamelan”). In general, gamelan music is cyclical or ostinato (“Indonesian Gamelan”). It is characterized by its repetitiveness (“Indonesian Gamelan”).

The history of gamelan speaks of its interesting origins. It was said that it existed before Hindu-Buddhism influenced Indonesian culture, which implies that the gamelan is a “native art form” of Indonesia (“Gamelan”). Most of Indonesian art carries a strong Indian influence, except of the gamelan (“Gamelan”). If a trace of Indian reference is to be found in gamelan music, it is only from the singing style of the Javanese gamelan (“Gamelan”).
The gamelan also has its roots in Javanese mythology. It is believed that Sang Hyang Guru made the gamelan in Saka era 167, or in 230 AD (“Gamelan”). Sang Hyang Guru is a god who reigned over Java as king (“Gamelan”).

It was said that he resided in a palace located in Maendra Mountains in Medangkamulan, which is presently called Mount Lawu (“Gamelan”). Sang Hyang Guru had to communicate with the other gods, so he felt the need to have a signal to call upon them (“Gamelan”). This is the reason why he invented the gong. Because a single gong is not sufficient to send out more complex messages, he made two more (“Gamelan”). This resulted in the original gamelan. It is this legend that offers the reason behind the sanctity of the gamelan. For Indonesians, the gamelan is a sacred entity that has mystical powers (“Indonesian Gamelan”). Musicians and non-musicians alike show respect for the gamelan; oftentimes, the gamelan is given offerings like incense and flowers (“Indonesian Gamelan”). These offerings are made because people believe that spirits watch over the gamelan, which is probably the reason why it was believed that playing the gamelan can effect changes in nature (“Indonesian Gamelan”). As a sign of respect for the spirits, musicians remove their shoes before playing the gamelan (“Indonesian Gamelan”). In addition, stepping over an instrument in the gamelan is prohibited. It is believed that by doing so, the spirit might be offended (“Indonesian Gamelan”).

The oldest gamelan ensembles are called the Munggang and Kodokngorek gamelans (“Gamelan”). Both of these are located in the palaces of Java, and were believed to have existed since the 12th century (“Gamelan”). It is said that it is from the Munggang and Kodokngorek gamelans where the “loud style” originated (“Gamelan”). The counterpart, the “soft style,” originated from the kemanak tradition (“Gamelan”). The “soft style” is also associated with the Javanese poetry recitals, which resemble the present day bedhaya dance performances (“Gamelan”). The 17th century ushered in the fusion of the loud and soft styles, and it is this fusion that characterizes the Balinese, Javanese and Sudanese gamelans’ sounds (“Gamelan”). The styles are different, but the main components, such as technique and concepts, remain the same (“Gamelan”).

The types of gamelan are identified by geography. The two major types of gamelan are the Balinese gamelan and the Javanese gamelan. The Balinese gamelan is best known for gong kebyar, a style characterized by its fast tempo and dynamics changes (“Gamelan”). There are other styles of the Balinese gamelan, which are gamelan angklung and kecak (“Gamelan”). Kecak is also referred to as “monkey chant” (“Gamelan”). On the other hand, the Javanese gamelan has a slower tempo (“Gamelan”). In the 19th century, the Javanese gamelan was played mostly at the courts of Javanese rulers (“Gamelan”). Aside from the tempo, the two types of gamelan differ in other ways too. In terms of instruments, the Balinese gamelan has more metallophones than gongs (“Indonesian Gamelan”). In addition, the keys in the metallophones of Balinese gamelan are thicker than the metallophone keys of the Javanese gamelan (“Indonesian Gamelan”). This is the reason why the Balinese metallophones create “bright sounds” (“Indonesian Gamelan”). Another thing that sets the Balinese gamelan apart from the Javanese gamelan is the presence of cymbals (“Indonesian Gamelan”).

The NIU Gamelan Ensemble is one of the famous Indonesian gamelan groups (“Indonesian Gamelan”). This ensemble has performed under the direction of Dr. Han Kuo-Huang, and can play both Balinese and Javanese gamelan music (“Indonesian Gamelan”).

I like the gamelan because it is very different from all the other instruments and ensembles in the world of music. It is rooted in the rich Indonesian culture, and it has mythological origins that add further interest to it. Moreover, despite the uniqueness of the gamelan, various parts of the world have learned to embrace this musical gem. Therefore, the gamelan is a crucial part of musical history, not only of Indonesia, but also of the entire world.

Works Cited

  • “Indonesian Gamelan.” Seasite Indonesia.
  • “Gamelan.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia.
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