Gamelan music
Gamelan is a style of music that originates from Java and Bali in Indonesia. While quite traditional in style, it has set its roots deep into contemporary Indonesian music as an influence, and is perhaps the most iconic music from the region. It is an atmospheric and abstract soundscape of metallic noises, percussive elements, complex rhythm and traditional instrumentation.
The music is mostly percussive and percussive-melodic. The most common instruments include metallophones which are placed with mallets, and kendhang which are a set of hand-played drums which provide the pulse. While these two instruments tend to set the foundation for each composition, the music is also often decorated with other melodies and counter melodies from xylophones, bamboo flutes, vocalists (referred to as sindhen) and rebab, which is a bowed instrument derived from Arabia. Traditionally, it isn't a notated form of music as it began as an oral tradition, but nowadays there are precise methods to recording the music on paper, mostly invented to preserve various pieces in the court records as music is generally memorised.
The music is often improvised, and when writing new music, the band leader, also known as the sekaha, who helps the community to invent new gamelan, will encourage the performers to add their own element to the music and leave enough space in new compositions to include improvisations. They believe that music should grow and change, and even in some performances of traditional gamelan pieces, new sections and improvisations are added so that the music is constantly changing. The only time this isn't applicable is when they play their oldest and most sacred pieces, which are memorised and rehearsed frequently and passed down through generations, note for note.
Gamelan music has become less popular over the years as more and more people have started listening to pop music, however it is still frequently played at traditional festivals and ceremonies as well as other formal occasions. It is a very central part of the Indonesian culture, and as the iconic sound of Indonesia, we won't see it disappear anytime soon. Bands such as Krakatau and SambaSunda have created a jazz fusion using the ethnic gamelan music and instrumentation blended with contemporary instrumentation such as drumkits, keyboards and guitars to create a modern Indonesian sound. The band Bossanova Java have also fused a more refined style of gamelan from Java with bossa nova music to create a very unique soundscape that still sounds true to it's geographical origins.
Gamelan also influences music from as far away as Japan and beyond. Quite noticeably, the Japanese synth-pop group Yellow Magic Orchestra featured a heavy use of gamelan elements and samples on their 1981 album titled Technodelic. Gamelan music has also influenced the soundtrack to several anime films including 1988's Akira, composed by the Japanese music group Geinoh Yamashirogumi. Even the some of the soundtracks used for the iconic Sonic games feature gamelan samples and influences.
More traditionally, gamelan is a cultural music performance, and often is accompanied by traditional Indonesian dancing, puppet performances called wayang, and is also often played at traditional rituals and ceremonies. The music not only accompanies these activities, but is a solid and vital element to the entire performance, so much so that everybody needs a thorough understanding of everything happening, for example, the puppeteers in the wayang must understand the music to be bale to give cues for the music, and the dancers who perform alongside the music can usually play instruments in the ensemble as they study the music extensively to fully immerse themselves in the performance.
Almost all religious rituals involve gamelan music, including ceremonies performed by the Catholic Church in Indonesia. There are pieces that are believed to fend off evil and others that are believed to have magical powers. Certain ceremonies have particular gamelan composed specifically for them, such as the Gamelan Sekaten which is used for Mawlid an-Nabi, also known as Muhammad's birthday.
Gamelan has also found a way out of Indonesia and into other cultures where it has grown and developed into something entirely new. Both Malaysia and the United States have developed their own style of the music which, while keeping true to Indonesian gamelan roots, has become something very unique and different.


up Top