Gamelan Musician - courtesy of Richard Blair

A gamelan (photo copyright ©

A gamelan is an instrument made up of  instruments. It plays the classical music of Bali and Java, Indonesia. But that’s not important. What is important is that a gamelan makes incredible music.

A few gamelan facts:

  • Gamelans have been around for over 1200 years.
  • A gamelan’s instruments are built and tuned together and are not interchangeable with the instruments of other gamelans.
  • Gamelan music influenced Claude Debussy, Erik Satie, John Cage, Lou Harrison, Béla Bartók, Francis Poulenc, Olivier Messiaen, Pierre Boulez, Benjamin Britten, Steve Reich, Philip Glass.
  • But that’s not important. What is important is the terrific music gamelans make.

Here’s a taste. The music of an unusual iron gamelan (most are bronze) from the village of Tenganan in eastern Bali. The cut is just over a minute. I recommend that you listen to the whole thing if you can spare the seconds:

That clip is from a recording given to me by my friends Julian Gerstin and Carlene Raper, who got it from a Tenganan weaver. (It was on her computer. She burned it onto a disk for them.)

(By the way, if you listened to the slower pattern of the lower-pitched metalophone in the foreground, you might have noticed that it continually played beats 4 and 1 of a four-beat bar – or 1 and 2, depending on where you put the downbeat.)

In Bali, the gamelan is a part of life in every village. It lives in a village building and, besides being played by itself, it is played at every special occasion, sacred or secular. It accompanies classical dance, shadow puppet plays, weddings, and funerals. The web site for Gamelan Tunas Mekar (a gamelan from Denver, Colorado, USA) says that gamelan “accompanies temple festivals and traditional life-cycle rites, including tooth filings and cremations, as well as more recreational events.”

I wonder how many tooth filings and cremations Tunas Mekar accompanies in Denver.

Enough talk. Here’s part of a performance by a larger ensemble:

That clip is from a JVC World Sounds CD – Gamelan Semarpegulingan I (VICG 5024-2)]

The incredible speed of the metalaphone players is partly an illusion. Some of the very fast melodies are played by two musicians playing alternate notes. That’s a difficult trick to pull off. It takes endless practice. The YouTube video below is of two musicians practicing this interlocking technique. Note also that beside playing this fast interlocking melody with one hand, they’re dampening the key they just played with the other.

I already said that most gamelans are bronze. Here’s a clip of one of my favorite gamelans. It’s made of  bamboo.

That cut is called “Amuknama (Driving the Water Buffalo)” (I have no idea why). It’s from the CD The Music of Bali (volume one) performed by Swara Cipta Priyanti. (Celestial Harmonies 13136-2). It’s the first of three terrific CDs of Balinese music.

Here are some links to gamelan information I’ve bumped into on the web:

This post is mainly to introduce gamelan to people who’ve never heard it, and to remind people who have that there may be more to it than they know, gamelan music that they have not heard.

Gamelan is fascinating musically and culturally. Google it with the parameters you’re most interested in – the musical theory, the cultural context, the history, etc.

Here are some longer performances from YouTube.

First is a bamboo gamelan (jegog), Gamelan Sekar Jaya, based in the Bay Area, USA, performing Jaran Dauh:

Next is a more typical bronze gamelan, Gamelan Cudamani from Bali. The video includes the traditional Balinese dance that gamelan often accompanies:

Here’s another bronze gamelan from Bali – Gamelan Gong Kebyar:

If you enjoy those, search for gamelan on YouTube  and you’ll find hundreds more. If you find a performance you think is special please let me know about it. I may link to it here.

The music is also available on CD or as MP3 downloads.


About charles thiesen

I live in Dorchester, MA with five housemates and a cat named Chat Cousteau. I write novels and ride a recumbent bike, among other things.
This entry was posted in rock to world, what I love and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to gamelan

  1. Aniko says:

    Very cool. I think I’ve heard the music before, but I didn’t know what the instrument was called, let alone what a big thing it was.

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