If you’ve ever been to a tooth filing ceremony in Bali, you would have heard the music of gamelan gender wayang. Instruments played by either by two or four musicians in pairs, a gender wayang ensemble is Bali’s most intimate gamelan ensemble.
This is not just because the group is relatively small compared to the commonly seen large orchestras used at temple ceremonies like gong kebyar, but because they are normally played facing each other. At Mekar Bhuana Centre, we’ve thought a lot about why certain gamelan ensembles are laid out facing each other. Other examples are selonding and gambang, two of Bali’s archaic-type ensembles. A commonality of these ensembles is the lack of a rhythmic leader, time-keeper or cymbals that serve a sort of “conducting” function in the larger ensembles. These ensembles are all played with a mallet in each hand, in contrast to instruments in other ensembles played with single mallets. Gender wayang, in particular has complex rhythms which demand a high level of concentration and coordination, as well as a rhythmic empathy with the other player or players (if it’s a quartet) so that everything interlocks perfectly.
Due to the complex nature of gender wayang music, facing each other is definitely advantageous. A simply raise of the hand of the dominant player can signal a dynamic change; a lowering of the head suggests a soft passage; and raised eyebrows that the piece is about to come to and end.
Once gender wayang musicians have played together for many years, they sort of watch each other out of the corners of the eyes rather than directly, and, from personal experience, it can be uncanny to find that both of you may add particular variations (sort of like basic improvisation) in exactly the same part of a piece.
Since gender wayang are essential to so many ceremonies in Bali, it is also paramount that both musicians know when to start and stop based on what, for example, the priest is doing or about to do. This goes double for accompaniment of a puppeteer where cues are lightning quick, and a new character or scene requires a different piece of music often with contrasting dynamics from the previous one.
Next time you see some gender wayang musicians at a ceremony, keep an eye out for the slick body language.
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