Gamelan – the Life-Breath of the Balinese

“Gamelan music and instruments are a fundamental part of the life of a Balinese which is focused around the relationship between people and god, people and nature and between all people. These three concepts of harmonious living are known as Tri Hita Karana” (Dr. I Made Bandem)

This analysis by a Balinese musicologist is based on the old palm-leaf manuscripts which were written hundreds of years ago by court intellectuals. A couple of manuscripts in particular, known as Aji Gurnita and Pra Kempa, reveal a great philosophy behind music making in Bali. Diagrams involving the directions of the wind, the gods which imbibe each particular tone and even colours associated with vocal sounds are found throughout the scriptures. There is a section on the different types of court gamelan, their instrumentation, scales and even a guide how to play them.

Whilst today, with the exception of a handful of intellectuals, few are aware of these texts or the philosophy behind gamelan, all Balinese Hindus would agree that gamelan is essential to their society. Without gamelan, a ceremony in Bali would be empty, devoid of the aural pleasures that are so characteristically Balinese. The type of ceremony determines which gamelan may be used and this too is outlined in the scriptures. Special orchestras used for cremations, for example, should not be used for tooth filings or weddings, for risk of disaster or sickness.

Unlike many other traditional societies, anyone can play the gamelan – male or female, young or old, able-bodied or handicapped. It’s all about being together as a musical collective: working together to breathe as one. It’s true that traditionally women didn’t play gamelan but over recent years they have been accepted graciously as capable musicians and in some instances can outdo the men. Today’s sekaa wanita (women’s groups) are perhaps more enthusiastic and dedicated to most men’s sekaa.

Children are encouraged to play gamelan and at ceremony time it’s not uncommon to see little Wayan or Made sitting on dad’s lap following his father’s hands with his or her eyes, occasionally grabbing at the beater in an attempt to join in.

There are no heroes in gamelan. It’s true that there are some instruments which are technically more challenging and require special skill, such as the kendang drums or the gender metallophones, but even the smallest pot gong plays an important part and is essential to the overall sound-scape. Whilst playing the gong is not technically difficult, without it, a large gamelan is empty with no root to hold the music together.

I don’t think there is any other society in the world where music is so fundamental to everyday life. For this reason, unless somehow the religious disappears, gamelan in Bali will never die out completely. Repertoire, however, may be lost because this is not traditionally notated and is learned by rote, passed on from generation to generation.

To a certain extent this ‘foreign music’ has converted many Balinese and interest has been lost in certain more obscure forms of gamelan, but the function of gamelan will always be there and this necessity dictates its existence.

Gamelan music itself has influenced many foreign composers and some foreigners, such as myself, play no other instrument other than gamelan ones. For me, it’s the community concept that attracts. In a gamelan group I become just an anonymous voice in a unity of sound. I don’t have to be the world’s greatest musician or soloist and people won’t get jump at me if I miss a note or slip a beat. Playing gamelan is very relaxed and mistakes are normally laughed about rather than frowned upon. So if someone offers you to join in on their gamelan at a practice or a ceremony, give it a go. The Balinese love it if you show some interest in their culture, and you never know you might be inclined to take it up as a hobby. Watch out though, ‘gonging’ can be addictive!

© 2012 Vaughan Hatch

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