How do Balinese make bronze gamelan instruments?

For centuries, the art of Indonesian bronze forging was enshrouded in magic and secrecy. Since the onset of mass tourism, however, this specialized processes has become more accessible and been fairly widely documented. According to recent archaeological evidence, the Balinese may have inherited this age-old art from the smiths of Central Java as early as the 12th century. The large gongs, however, have always been imported from Java where labour is cheaper.

Bronze is an alloy and in the Indonesian gong smith tradition, a mixture of copper and tin at a ratio of thirty to ten is preferred. This ratio guarantees that the resulting alloy is malleable enough for heavy-duty forging, resistant enough to years of gamelan playing, and capable of producing a pure note when struck.

Before any gamelan is crafted, a Balinese gong smith will choose and auspicious day – this may be a full moon or a particular convergence of ‘good days’ on the Hindu saka calendar. Once the date is set and special offerings made, the metals are selected, weighed and smelted for a specified duration in a crucible over a wood fire (modern smiths now opt for gas) to form the alloy Balinese call kerawang. The molten liquid is then poured into a mould to create the desired shape. This mixture is then allowed to cool and taken out of the mould. Now it is hammered and reheated to forge its final shape. For a gong, several men may be needed to pummel the red-hot metal into shape. To condense the molecules in the alloy, it is then quenched in cool water. After this it is filed and, in the case of a key, a cymbal or a pot, holes are bored so the instrument can later be strung over the wooden cases. It’s time now for the tuning process.

© Vaughan Hatch 2013


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