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    What is Gamelan Gambang?

    At this year’s Bali Arts Festival (PKB), there are a number of performances by a rare type of Balinese gamelan orchestra called gambang. In a traditional setting, you can see gambang being played at death rites (pitra yadnya) and temple rites (dewa yadnya) in some villages, particularly in East Bali.

    According to some musicologists, that gambang is thought to have derived from the word ‘gamang’, meaning a mischievous, but generally benevolent, spirit. The orchestra is made up of between six and ten instruments played by five to eight musicians. The instrumentation includes two to four bronze saron, that hold the melody, and four to six bamboo gambang/caruk (that create complex interlocking patterns).

    Gambang melodies are very long and hard to remember and musicians must study intensively for many months just to learn a few pieces. The saron player plays two instruments at once with a beater in each hand. The keys on each instrument are of different sizes, so the musician must be careful to strike the instruments accurately or they will hit a wrong note.

    Each caruk instrument has a different name, depending on its function within the interlocking patterns that make up the complex mesh of gambang rhythms. Since they all play different interlocking pattern, a student must learn each instrument separately – so it can take many years of experience to learn all the parts.

    Gambang instruments are septatonic, but the musical repertoire is based on pentatonic modes. A piece may be played predominantly in one mode, but at certain times a ‘false’ note may be touched upon or the composition may modulate completely into another scale. Gambang melodies derive from vocal chanting called kekawin, and vocalists used to accompany the orchestra; recently some groups have attempted to revive this tradition.

    The entirety of the sound of a gambang orchestra is rather spooky, yet energetic and intensely rhythmic at the same time.

    If you have time in the morning (all of the scheduled performances are in the mornings), check out a gambang performance at the Bali Arts Festival over the next couple of weeks.

    ©2009 Vaughan Hatch

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