What is a Suling?
Suling is the Balinese word for seruling, which means ‘flute’. Made from bamboo, Balinese flutes are always end blown and vary in size. They can be anything from around 20cm to more than a meter long and quite narrow or fairly wide. Generally, the shorter the suling the higher the pitch. High-register suling can either be played solo or with a gamelan ensemble, and are most commonly used to accompany rindik, joged bumbung, angklung, arja and gong kebyar. They are the most common type of flute because they are easier to play and require less breath. Mid-register suling are used to accompany gong suling, gong kebyar, pelegongan, bebarongan and semar pegulingan. They are played in pairs and tuned slightly out from each other to produce a haunting, humming sound and accentuate the melodic line of these orchestras. Low-register suling are only found in the gambuh ensemble. They are so long that they need to have one end resting on the ground when they are played. Since these flutes are the only melodic instruments in this type of gamelan orchestra, a gambuh flute player must be able to do cyclic breathing; otherwise the melodic line will be broken.
Balinese suling have six holes, which are spaced fairly evenly. By covering the holes, the player can produce four- or five-tone modes taken from a basic seven-tone scale. To create slight variations on each tone, a hole or holes can be partly uncovered. Suling produce many other overtones and harmonics, and this is particularly noticeable on the large flutes. Balinese flute playing is characterized by a quivering sound made by wiggling the fingers over the holes and by embellishments known as ngelik.
There are thousands of flute players in Bali and many experts who will not hesitate to proudly show you their collection of suling and the different nuances of each instrument. Many people ornament their flutes with jewels, tassels and even inlay them with turtle shell. These flute fanatics will carry their instruments wherever they go, in case they feel the need to spontaneously break out into song!
© 2009 Vaughan Hatch