Where is Bali?
Bali is one of several thousands of islands that make up the country of Indonesia, which is located between the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Bali is situated in between Java (to the West) and Lombok (to the East). Unlike the Republic of Indonesia, which is predominantly Muslim, the main religion of Bali is Hinduism. Bali’s religious and spiritual beliefs play a prominent role into the way daily life unfolds, and in particular, how music and art are used in society throughout the year.
What is gamelan?
The word gamelan is a term that describes a family of instruments unified by a common tuning and purpose. The word gamelan means “to hammer together” (the root word gamel means “to hammer”), which is all too appropriate given that most of the instruments are struck together with small hammers or padded mallets. Hundreds of gamelan orchestras exist throughout southeast Asia and most feature some combination of metallophones or xylophones (either bronze, iron, or bamboo), gongs, chimes, cymbals, drums, bowed/plucked instruments, and occasionally singer(s). There are over a hundred different types of gamelan orchestras in southeast Asia…25 to 30 of which exist on the island of Bali alone!
Integral to community life in Bali, gamelan ensembles provide musical offering for close to 10,000 (!) sacred and secular ceremonies during the year. Music is considered a gift that is offered to the various gods on the island to promote peace, balance, unity, and to help ward off evil spirits. Every single village banjar (community center) has its own gamelan, which is used to mark these occasions.
The ensemble we will be performing on throughout this workshop is called a Balinese gamelan gong kebyar, which is the most popular type of gamelan in Bali today. The word keybar means “explosion” and “to burst forth” which certainly describes the type of music written for these instruments. The music for this ensemble tends to be loud, fast, and requires a great degree of precision from the members in the ensemble.
What does it sound and look like?
One of the coolest things about playing gamelan is how you play the instruments and what they sound like when it all comes together. The first video gives you a clear look into kotekan – interlocking. Kotekan is a technique used to divide up a complicated melody into different parts that fit together like pieces in a puzzle. As the music gets faster, a melody will often get divided into two strands – polos and sangsih – and players will have to divide the parts in their section. One player will play one part, the other player will play the other, and together they are able to play the original melody at very fast speeds.
The videos that follow are from various performances of Balinese gamelan gong kebyar music to give you a general sense of what it sounds and looks like when it all comes together. Enjoy!