What is Angklung used for?

Across Bali, there are thousands of bronze angklung groups, perhaps as many as the ubiquitous and incredibly popular gong kebyar that originate in North Bali in the early 20th century. In South Bali, most of the instruments have just four keys with four tones, but in the ever-dynamic north, these instruments have expanded ranges, using a four or five tone scale spanning over 5, 6, 7, and eight bronze keys. The expanded range basically allows musicians to play more complex interlocking patterns over a wider range. It is in the north too that the fast and capricious angklung kebyar style evolved and these instruments with expanded ranges were also augmented with larger drums and gongs.

If you ask your average Balinese in South Bali about angklung, they will always say that it is the orchestra used for cremation rituals; therefore, the word angklung itself harbours feelings of grief and loss. For many outsiders to Balinese music, the cheery tones of the angklung seem to be incongruous to the main morbid function of the orchestra itself. At some time in history, at cremation time angklung was probably chosen over the heavier and bulky gambang ensemble, as it was lighter to carry in a procession.

In other parts of Bali, including some villages in Gianyar, Karangasem, Jembrana, and most of Buleleng, angklung is used in other rituals too, specifically for temple ceremonies. In the case of East Bali and Lombok (Balinese Hindu communities that date back at least to the Kingdom of Karangasem), the orchestras and their repertoires are almost unrecognizable to the smaller ensembles of South Bali. Featured in these areas are large bamboo rattles, bamboo xylophones, as well as cymbals of varying sizes. The music is simpler and more repetitive, suited to temple rituals.

Angklung, normally in its kebyar form, also appears regularly in secular contexts, particularly in North Bali. These orchestras have a different tuning and can be used to accompany dance.

There are very few Balinese that know that angklung is or was used for anything but cremation rituals. This is basically because most people rarely leave their own village. Both the function and the instrumentation of angklung have changed dramatically over the centuries, demonstrating that Balinese art-forms are dynamic and ever-morphing. In ‘global’ Bali, the important thing is that the rare types of any art-form and documented so that we have an accurate record of the Bali of the past.

© 2016 Vaughan Hatch

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