‘Heavy Metal Magic’

Tucked away in the foothills of Mt Agung in the Klungkung Regency is the ancient village of the gamelan smiths – masters of magically charged metal – the archaic art of bronze smithery. The small village known as Tihingan (meaning bamboo) is a fascinating place to visit and witness some of Bali’s finest crafts people at work.

An enclave of furnaces and fire pits, Tihingan was recently discovered to be even more ancient than what was once thought. Uncovered by local archaeologists, a hearth from a now-disused unknown foundry just north of current settlement was dated it to the 11th century AD. Indeed the Pande (smith) clan that makes up the majority of the population of Tihingan has always proudly claimed ancient roots. Apparently, the current generation of gong-makers is made up of only five somewhat-extended families. Bronze smiths in other parts of Bali are said to originate from this village which was settled by migrants from Central Java all those centuries ago. You can find bronze smiths in a number of other villages in Bali today, including Sawan in Singaraja, Blahbatu in Gianyar and in Tabanan. The only places you can make the round gong kettles (terompong and reong), however, are in Tihingan and Sawan. Around a century ago, gongs used to be made in Bali, but these days all large bronze gongs are manufactured in Java due to the marked difference in production costs.

Tihingan, with its characteristic gamelan-flavoured street names – Jl. Gong Gede, Gang Saron, Gang Curing – is a quaintly sleepy place, consisting of only one main road and an intersection centred upon a monstrous banyan tree. The majority of the small family homes which line the main road at either foundries or workshops which sell gamelan instruments as well as accessories. Some larger workshops also make and carve the heavy wooden casings for the instruments. A good time to make a trip to Tihingan in the morning when it’s cooler and the smiths are working in the foundries pouring molten bronze into moulds, hammering keys or forging gong kettles. The village could never really be said to be a cool place even though it’s located high above sea level and surrounded by rice fields and chilli plantations. This is surely due to the fact the almost every house features a firey furnace used to melt the bronze used in gamelan keys. Being a gong smith is hard, back-breaking work as crafting even the small-sized kantil keys requires a great amount of hammering and manual labour.

It’s enlightening to watch the smiths tuning the keys. Each instrument in a Balinese gamelan is tuned in resonating pairs and depending on the smith the difference in the beating between the pair of instruments may be anything between a sixteenth and an eighth tone. Tuners still rely on the sharpness of their ears to tune a gamelan, and this ‘natural’ tuning system is what gives Balinese gamelan its special flavour. I’ve been told that a gamelan has been tuned before using a metered device, but this only left the ensemble sounding flat and lifeless.

Smiths also have their own particular tuning for different types of gamelan. These tunings are preserved by using resonant bamboo sticks called petuding. I’m told, however, that these days, most customers choose a standard tuning from one of the gamelan at the arts school in Denpasar.

The gong smiths I’ve visited seem to be constantly busy with orders, even during hard times. In spite of the fact a complete Gong Kebyar ensemble may sell for more than USD20,000 people continue to order new sets. These days, a gamelan is not the exclusively the possession of a palace, temple or banjar. In fact, private individuals make up most of the smiths’ clientele. It seems that luckily for these hardworking Balinese crafts people, ‘heavy metal magic’ is a promising way to make a living.

© 2012 Vaughan Hatch


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