South-Eastern Asian culture is vibrant with exciting taste, color, and sound. Bollywood, coming out of Bombay, India, pumps out the most film projects of any country’s film industry annually. As the world’s second-most populous country–the Gold going to China and Bronze for the United States–India is inundated with culture and inspiration within their borders and beyond.
The Southeastern Asian region has proved its creative chops both on-screen and through the speakers. Farther south-east into the island country of Indonesia, multitudinous instruments from xylophones to flutes to gongs ring through country creating their own distinct music genre known as Gamelan.
What is Gamelan music?
Gamelan music is a blend of many different types of sounds including strings, percussion, and wind. The term itself translates to “musical ensemble” alluding to the varied sounds you’ll be greeted with when you press play.
Gamelan is also the name of the ensemble itself commonly found in the genre. It generally refers to a percussion orchestra made up predominantly of tuned gongs of various kinds and various types of metal-keyed instruments.
Where does Gamelan come from?
The environment and terrain of its origins, as well as influence from India, have heavily inspired elements of the music. The prominent (and fast-growing) resource, bamboo, makes many of the woodwind instruments heard within a band. The other elite instrument that is a defining character for the genre is bronze–known locally as kerawang.
The mythical melodies and entrancing chanting create an other-worldly sound that encompasses Gamelan style, and has for centuries. The combination of both can be distinctly heard in most regional and traditional songs today, and have a rich history for the region.
The history of Gamelan and the Javanese
As with any culture, there’s a large political influence that occurred in Indonesia, specifically on the island of Java, that played into the formation of Gamelan. In fact, the origin story of Gamelan itself is sometimes told with heavy influence of religion, royalty, and spirituality.
The gamelan tradition predates even the presence of Islam in Indonesia. Invented to summon the gods, the music gradually became a practice for royals to perfect amongst each other. When Islam was introduced to the region by Indian traders, it could have spelt the end of gamelan tradition, as practicing Muslims often shied away from using instruments and relied heavily on halal vocals for such practices.
But Gamelan survived under the Sufism sect of Islam, which links the experience of music to the divine. So, Javenese Gamelan held its ground in its motherland.
Etiquette for Gamelan
Islam and Gamelan have found a way to get along in Javanese culture. They play music to pay respects, even during the birthday or anniversary of Mohammed the Prophet. There are still some rules which are enforced during this time, like avoiding stepping over instruments, many attendees are expected to come with offerings of food, flowers, and incense to the gamelan gong.
Royalty has also been known to pay tribute to the mosque so they may play music on otherwise forbidden instances, but tend to keep somewhat of a respectful approach to it. They may keep their performances to lower rungs of instruments so as to not make such a show of the exception, and rely heavily on the integrity of the gong.
Gongs are considered to be a very special instrument. Converting “earth and stone into metal” could only be done be very spiritual beings, who take up fasting the day before creating the gong so they may be infiltrated by the heroic and spiritual being Panji.
Along with the music, the dance of the bedhaya often accompanies a performance. All aspects of these performance must be pure and clean.
Notable examples of Gamelan
Through the centuries, Gamelan has found a way to navigate the history of Indonesia and fit into several contexts. It’s used as a backdrop for somewhat of a puppet opera; to introduce princes; as celebratory holy dances; and just outright enjoyment.
New styles of Gamelan involve reshaping the instruments traditionally used. Modern American Gamelan sprouted in the 1960s, and Malay Gamelan was also used to during royal occasions in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Facts about Gamelan
- Gamelan also got a chance in the pop culture spotlight when it was used as the sounds of the Atlantean culture in the Disney animated film Atlantis: the Lost Empire.
- There are two different scale systems used in Balinese gamelan: slendro and pelog.
- It is considered disrespectful to step over an instrument, as it is seen as disrespecting its spiritual identity. One must apologize to an instrument if they step over it.
Gamelan, ultimately, remains to be a strong cultural element in Indonesia. The ancient sounds can be found on many works by Indonesian singer Anggun and plenty of others.