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    What is Gender Wayang?

    If you’ve ever been to a wedding, cremation, tooth filing, or seen a puppet show in Bali, then chances are you would have heard gender wayang. An archaic type of gamelan orchestra dating back to possibly around the 10th century, the ensemble is made up of either a pair or a quartet of 10-keyed bronze metallophones. Like the bamboo rindik xylophones, gender wayang can be played by only two people, yet musically they produce rich and varied compositions, representing many of the instruments in a large gamelan orchestra. They are played with round beaters using a difficult two-handed technique that involves a hitting and damping technique that can take years to master. Normally the left hand part carries the melody and the right the ornamentation, but not always. Add to this the fact that both parts often interlock with each other and you have a pretty complex musical balancing act! This is one of the reasons that gender wayang are considered by Balinese to be perhaps the highest form of gamelan music.

    The music produced by the instruments is not loud, but rather quite soothing, almost meditative. This is the reason why gender wayang are used to accompany the often painful coming-of-age tooth filing ritual, and when played on a cremation tower also helps to accompany the spirit of the deceased to the afterlife. The instruments are tuned to a five-tone fairly even tempered scale that the Balinese that varies from region to region, or simply according to the personal preferences of the tuner or the owner themselves. Originally there were many, many different tuning but these days there seems to be a trend towards standardization due to the popularity of certain recordings etc.

    Historically, gender wayang were so named because it was the ensemble that always accompanied Balinese puppet shows (wayang). However these days, apart from in ritual, it is more common that people use larger gamelan orchestras. This is both due to trends as well as the time and practice needed to create a gender wayang group. More on gender wayang in the next issue of Kulture Kid.

    © 2010 Vaughan Hatch

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