What is a Rebab?
Thought to have originated in Persia and perhaps arrived in Indonesia due to trading with India, the Balinese rebab is categorised as a “bowed spiked fiddle”. It is used as a melodic instrument in a number of different Balinese gamelan orchestras, notably gambuh, semar pegulingan and gong suling.
The resonator of a rebab is made from wood or coconut shell and is covered on the front with animal-gut. The neck and tuning pegs which look like ears are wooden also. Traditionally rebab strings were made from copper wire but over recent times, especially in Bali, they’ve been replaced with guitar strings.
Visually similar to its Javanese counterpart, the Balinese version is different in a number of ways. It is relatively smaller and streamlined, and most resonators are made from coconut shells. The neck is also covered almost entirely with decorative motifs crafted from silver, accentuating the instrument’s graceful form.1
A rebab is played by a solo musician sitting cross-legged and is held in a vertical position either in front of the left shin or clasped between the calf and the thigh. The play bows the instrument with a bow made from wood and horse’s tail or, these days, nylon.
Until a few years ago, Balinese rebab makers were thought to be extinct, however now there are few emerging here and there, noticeably in East Denpasar. These instruments are real works of art and feature all the typical Balinese accessories: gold gilded leather ornamentation, tassles and even jewels. Most rebab are now kept in soft or hard cases and some instruments even have performance stands as they do in Java.
A rebab is not an easy instrument to learn and it is difficult to even produce a sound at first, but as with much gamelan music, persistence is the key!
An excellent read on the Balinese rebab is Learning the Balinese Rebab by Pande Made Sukerta, published in both English and Indonesian.
1. Learning the Balinese Rebab by Pande Made Sukerta
©2009 Vaughan Hatch