With a possible relocation to Indonesia on my mind, I take a look at the rich and diverse styles of music this archipelago of more than 17,000 islands has to offer. It is the Gamelan, the Indonesian mallet orchestra, that first caught my attention. All across Indonesia you will find gamelan orchestras, but the vast majority of ensembles can be grouped into two different traditions: the Javanese tradition, from the island of Java, and the Balinese tradition, from the island of Bali. Consisting largely of a variety of gongs and various sets of tuned metal instruments that are struck with mallets, the traditional gamelan ensemble music predates the Hindu-Buddhist culture that dominated Indonesia in its earliest records.

Ensembles can differ significantly, but would be often made up of a combination of metallophones, xylophones, drums and gongs; bamboo flutes, bowed and plucked strings, or even a vocalist. The word ‘gamelan’ is derived from the Indonesian word meaning ‘hammer.’ Most gamelan musicians learn and teach the music orally, as the music is traditionally not notated. The Balinese gamelan most often plays a style known as kebyar. Javanese gamelan tends to feature a softer, gentler sound than Balinese ensembles.

There are two main tuning systems that gamelan orchestras use, one which has five notes, and one which has seven notes. Instruments of the same kind usually come in pairs, with each one being tuned slightly differently than the other. When the two play a note in unison, the different frequencies beat rapidly against each other, producing a sound quality musicians call ombak, or ‘shimmering sound.’

Their conservatory is the rhythm of the sea, the wind among the leaves, and the thousand sounds of nature… (Claude Debussy)

Among the earliest evidence of gamelan instruments is a series of stone relief carvings on the Borobudur Buddhist temple in central Java (ca. 800 ad). These reliefs of Borobudur, and other central Javanese temples of the period, depict many other instruments including zithers, lutes, harps, vessel drums (gatam), and transverse flutes.

(Borobudur Buddhist Temple)

The instruments developed into their current form during the Majapahit Empire (13th-16th century), the last Indianized kingdom in Indonesia. In contrast to the heavy Indian influence in other art forms, the only obvious Indian influence in gamelan music is in the Javanese style of singing.

One very famous Balinese performer, teacher, composer and choreographer, is I Wayan Beratha (1926-2014), who dedicated his life to the development of Balinese traditional dance and music and was awarded the inaugural title of Empu Seni Karawitan (master of the art of traditional music) by the Indonesian Arts Institute (ISI) in Denpasar for his lifetime achievements and dedication to preserving Balinese traditional music. In the above video you can hear his Tabuh Gesuri which he composed while in New York.

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