One of the most intimate gamelan ensembles on the island, a gender wayang (gender for short) group consists of either two or four musicians. In the complete group of four, there are two medium-range instruments and two high-range.
The ensemble of four is most commonly used to accompany a nighttime puppet show, otherwise known as wayang kulit. The two medium range gender are used for tooth filing (mepandes/metata), cremation (ngaben), wedding, and sudamala (for people born in the week of Tumpek Wayang) ceremonies.
Gender are tuned to a particular tuning called slendro. It is thought that perhaps this archaic pentatonic scale originated in the Sailendra kingdom of Hindu Java (ca. 6th century), hence the name slendro. In contrast with other many other types of gamelan, the scale consists of fairly evenly spaced tones, giving the music a timeless, ethereal feel.
The repertoire of gender wayang is extensive and one legendary musician in Karangasem is said to know more than 150 pieces. The song titles are traditionally named after animals and their amusing movements, e.g. Dongkang menek Biu (Green Tree Frog Climbing a Banana) or Cerucuk Punyah (Drunken Chirping Bird).
A gender is played with two hands by a musician holding two wooden beaters called panggul. The left hand usually carries the melody and the right an often-complicated rhythm, but this is not always the case. Some songs even require musicians to play difficult rhythmic patterns in both hands, whilst moving in contrary motion and interlocking with the other musician’s patterns!
The pair of gender are tuned slightly “out” from each other, giving the music a indescribably beautiful shimmer.
The dexterous musicianship required to play the gender wayang is not something learned over night and may require years of intense training. Being the most difficult gamelan music on the island, gender wayang musicians are highly respected by the Balinese. Due to recent regional competitions as part of the annual Bali Arts Festival, more and more young people are becoming interested in studying this wonderful ancient artistic tradition.
© 2016 Vaughan Hatch