Searching for Sekati – the Mystery of a Balinese Gamelan thought to be Extinct
Bali has an astounding number of different types of gamelan ensemble, and that number is growing all the time as people create new types of gamelan instruments and come up with new ideas for combinations of instruments. Considering this richness of Balinese gamelan traditions – a wealth of ensemble types that have developed over more than a thousand years – it’s hardly surprising that some of these types are more popular than others. There are some, such as Gong Kebyar and Baleganjur which have eclipsed many of the rare and sacred ensembles such as Gambang and Selonding. More popular gamelan types have even arguably led to the complete extinction of a number of gamelan orchestras that today are but a name in library book, ethnomusicology article or a university thesis. However, like many things claimed to be extinct, there is always the chance that a gamelan ensemble – just like pygmy tarsier hidden in the cloud forests of Sulawesi –may just still exist in a small mountain village somewhere waiting to be discovered, identified and recognized.
Around 2005, I found a photograph in Jaap Kunst’s De Toonkunst van Bali from 1924 of a Balinese gamelan orchestra described in the photo caption as “Gamelan Sekati from Bungkulan (Buleleng)”. The instrumentation visible in the photo is described as: gangsa jongkok (two squat gangsa with five or six keys played by children) a pair of large cymbals (hand held and played by a child), terompong pengarep (medium-sized terompong – here played like a reong by four musicians) and kendang (drum, of which there are two of large size and played with mallets).
Photo source: De Toonkunst van Bali
This photo got me thinking – what happened to such an orchestra? Is it lost in time, simply a remnant of an image in an old book or could such an orchestra still exist that we are not aware of?
In January 2017, I came across an old photograph online of an unusual Balinese gamelan orchestra photographed in North Bali for an exhibition in Holland. According to the attribution, the photo was taken in 1875 by Ohannes Kurkdjian at the ‘Night Market’ in Soerabaia (Surabaya). The orchestra is described as a “Gamelan Sekatian” in the caption (but on the photo says ‘Goeng Agoeng’) and has the following instrumentation: Two large gongs, one small kempur gong, two saron (known commonly as ‘gangsa jongkok’ in Bali – here with five keys and with a key order of 51234), one row of large pot gongs (perhaps a terompong or large reong – here played by what seems to be five dwarfs – a dramatic pose, which is possibly also the first time that a ‘pose’ was introduced to gamelan playing, way before the advent of Gong Kebyar) with indiscernible number of pots, one row of smaller pot gongs (perhaps a smaller terompong or reong) with indiscernible number of pots, a pair of medium kendang (perhaps kerumpungan size) drums, four pairs of small to medium cymbals (affixed to bases and played by two players, and possibly two other instruments that are not visible (there are two players who are obstructed in view by other players or instruments).
Photo source: Google photos
A Sekati orchestra indigenous to Bali is not mentioned in any literature other than De Toonkunst van Bali. Colin McPhee, who makes a detailed study of gamelan in Bali in the 1930s that is published in his magnum opus, Music in Bali doesn’t even mention a type of ensemble called Sekati; nor do any other researchers of whom I am aware, right up until this point in time.
I asked musician friends in Buleleng about Sekati or Sekatian gamelan but they all said that that as far as they knew this was a playing style not a type of orchestra. Examples would be similar to these: Buleleng Video 1, Buleleng Video 2, and Ubud. I showed them the photos but they said these orchestras no longer exists.
On April 30th 2020, I watched a livestream on Facebook about Sekatian styles of playing in Buleleng by Kadek Pasca Wirsutha, who is a musician, lecturer and also a researcher from Banjar Paketan in Buleleng. However, these were all played on Gong Kebyar and he described them as a tabuh telu (three count) musical structure if analysed in an academic way. He wasn’t aware at that time of a specific Sekati-type gamelan currently existing in Buleleng but that this style possibly was once played on a different orchestra in the past.
Even though I had assumed that this type of gamelan was extinct, I still had suspicions that there may be one or two that are either not played or are rarely used. So, I decided to do some research. I checked through a list of recordings from the Basel Archive of gamelan recordings housed now at Fonoteca in Lugano Switzerland that was compiled by Danker Schaareman and noted that there was a number of Sekati recorded during the period early 1960s to late 1980s. Out of these, I had heard one personally in 1998: during a usaba ceremony in Bugbug village in Karangsem a gamelan called Sekati is played, often simultaneously or in turn with their sacred Selonding orchestra and their Gambang ensemble: Gong “Sekatian” Bugbug. I knew, however, that while the music may be in Sekatian style it was in fact simply a gong kebyar ensemble that was rather out of tune (which, in my opinion, lent to its mysterious sound). The other ensembles mentioned, I had, however, never heard before.
It wasn’t until July 2020 that I got to hear a recording of a bonafide Sekati orchestra. Danker had decided to share on YouTube a number of copies of recordings from the Basel archive that he had in his possession in Jakarta. He included full descriptions of the recording situation as well as background about the recording. The ensemble recorded was from Temega village in Karangasem. Swiss painter and long-time Bali resident at the time, Theo Meier made the recording in 1962, and it included an audio description of the ensemble, some questions to local musicians about its history and context, as well as measurements of nearly all the instruments.
On the recording we hear the informants state that the orchestra is called a Sekati ensemble. We can also hear a number of instruments, including a pair of saron, a reong type instrument, two small cymbals and a kempur gong. The reong instrument sounds very out of tune and the pots are in an unusual order that reminds me of Gong Luang. During Meier’s interview with the musicians (one of whom sounds elderly) and villagers (including a woman), he finds out more details about the instruments: there are a total of nine pots in the reong instrument that is referred to as a terompong and is divided into three parts, each with three pots. The saron are called gangsa ageng (large squat gangsa) and gangsa alit (small squat gangsa). Each gangsa instrument has five keys with the following order: 51234 (the same as we find in Gong Gede, Semara Pagulingan, Pelegongan and Bebarongan).
When Meier asks to record each instrument individually, an elderly informant sings the scale as he plays the five tones to Meier as follows: ndang (high ndang), nding, ndong, ndeng, ndung. However, I hear the scale as ndaing (unless ndang is tuned much higher than normal) nding, ndong, ndeng, ndung. Notably, the ndang tone on the gangsa alit at an octave higher, is considerably lower than the gangsa ageng, so it could be the case that it was at some stage tuned the same as the higher gangsa.
According to the elderly musician, there used to be two large gongs but they had already cracked as well as ceng-ceng cymbals that also have cracked. The informants said the ensemble doesn’t have a kendang drum in it.
The gamelan is sanctified and referred to as ‘Betara Telaga Mas’. Meier recorded four pieces called Perejangan, Lanang-Wadon, Maoncangan and another that was not named.
Unfortunately, the recording is no longer to be listened to on YouTube but while it was I noted down the tuning myself. I then made a basic iron-keyed instrument based on this tuning in the range of the gangsa ageng, allowing for the possibility that, as well other recordings by Meier from this era, were a western half tone too low than the actual orchestra. This is a link to an audio recording of the tones and a piece called Perejangan that I have uploaded to this page of Mekar Bhuana’s website . It has a very low tuning compared with most five-tone gamelan sets these days.
At a later date, in the late 1980s, Danker documented the ensemble himself and found out additional information: particularly concerning a disused instrument with bamboo keys that one could assume is similar to a caruk instrument found in Gong Luang, Caruk and Saron ensembles, but with five tones. He offers to help the village renovate the instruments but the villagers say that due to its sacredness is not possible.
In August 2020, a young Balinese from Buleleng name Putu Yuli Supriyandana shared several videos on an unusual gamelan from his home village of Pedawa in Buleleng referred to as ‘Gamelan Saba’. He told me that the word ‘Saba’ refers to the annual ceremony that it accompanies called Saba (known as usaba in Karangasem) rather than the actual gamelan. Based on the instrumentation, tuning, scale (five-tone) as well as playing style, it was almost exactly the same as the one from Temega. So, it is actually a Sekati orchestra even though it is not referred to in this way. Apparently, locals refer to the gangsa jongkok instruments as “selonding don lima”. Here are some videos of the music and dances the orchestra accompanies: Video 1, Video 2 and Video 3.
Their Sekati is considered very sacred by the villagers and may only be used for the usaba ceremony. No one may practise on the ancient instruments so the villagers have commissioned a new set that is sometimes used alongside the sacred instruments at ceremonies as we see in these videos: New Set Video 1 and New Set Video 2.
According to an article in Guntur FM Magazine, the orchestra includes the following instruments: punggang (tuned to ndung and ndang respectively), penengah, reong, penerus, gangsa selonding, gong besar, gong kecil, bende, kempul, kendang lanang-wadon and ceng-ceng. From what I can see on the videos, the two gangsa jongkok have the same key order as the one in Temega: 51234; however, they are both in the same octave range as the gangsa alit in Temega). The instrument that looks like a reong is actually made up of three instruments: penengah (three pots), reong (three pots) and penerus (two pots) which have a total of eight pots and start on ndeng. It seems that the instrument referred to as a punggang is just part of the penengah, reong and penerus instruments but plays just the second and third pots (ndung and ndang).The guru who knows the entire repertoire has made a practice instrument at his house named cingklik that has eight wooden or bamboo keys that start on ndeng (the same as the penengah, reong and penerus. and played with primitive club-like mallets that resemble selonding mallets from Tenganan village in Karangasem. On the YouTube video uploaded by the Kayoman Pedawa Community, the gamelan is referred to as “Semar Pegulingan”, but I found out later that this is just the name of the piece: Cingklik Video 1. Other villages also have cingklik in their homes to practice on. This is a video of a young musician playing: Cingklik Video 2 as well as another older musician: Cingklik Video 3. Perhaps this instrument was once part of their ensemble? Or perhaps a collection of bamboo keyed instruments were the ancestors of their Sekati with bronze keys and pots? These may be things that we’ll never know.
Sekati pieces in Pedawa have names such as Tabuh Bulung, Glagah Puun, Rejang Sekati, Gamelan Lelemesan, Gamelan Arisan, Semar Pegulingan, Tabuh Keba-kebaan, Tabuh Rejang Renteng, Tabuh Taksu.
There are also types of Sekati in other aboriginal Balinese villages, including Tigawasa, Cempaga and Sidatapa. Tigawasa (where they also have sacred Selonding and Gambang orchestras) has a set that has the same aura as the one from Pedawa, only it is tuned to around a whole step higher: Tigawasa. The orchestra from Cempaga has a scale is similar to Pedawa: Cempaga Video 1 and Cempaga Video 2. The set in Sidatapa that has a similar tuning height but different scale intervals from Pedawa and Cempaga, although I haven’t managed to get a video of the actually gamelan set, only male dancers accompanied by the gamelan. It sounds like the orchestra has a bamboo instrument or instruments in it that could be gambang or caruk: Sidatapa Video 1. There even maybe two different sets in Sidatapa: Video 2. One of the Sekati orchestras from Sidatapa was also recorded in the 1970s (by Tilman Seebass) but the recordings remain undigitized, sitting in the Swiss archive.
In a book written by Pande Wayan Tusan (now Sri Mpu Dharmapala Vajrapani) entitled Selonding – Tinjauan Gamelan Bali Kuna Abad 10–14 we find documentation of an unusual gamelan that the villagers referred to as “Selonding Pancak Saron” from Penida Kelod in Bangli. Its instrumentation is extremely similar to both the Temega and Pedawa ensembles. The pieces of music nor the playing style are also not those which one would associate with Selonding. There is a video of a replica of this ensemble performing at the Bali Arts Festival as the original ensemble is sanctified: Penida Kelod.
So far, I’ve managed to find data about eight Sekati type gamelan in Bali, found in at least three regencies (Buleleng, Karangasem and Bangli), with the majority in North Bali. It has surprised me that I have found so many in just the space of a few months. It’s quite likely that there are more sets which have not been identified. The villages in Buleleng that have Sekati are mostly Bali Aga (aboriginal) villages, whereas the villages in other regencies are only old villages but not necessarily Bali Aga. The fact that both Selonding and Gong Luang include pieces with the name Sekati in their repertoire as well as Sekati playing styles suggests its antiquity. We can also see from the size and shape of the instruments, particularly the terompong that they are from a more ancient period in history compared with Gong Gede. Pots, gongs and cymbals are often found cracked and out of tune, and the entire orchestra sometimes has an honorific title, as with Temega orchestra.
At a glimpse, it may seem that all these orchestras are similar to Gong Luang. However, there are key differences: first, Sekati are always five tone, whereas Gong Luang are seven; second, the playing style is different; third, the repertoire is completely different with Gong Luang music finding its origins in mostly Gambang music; fourth, Sekati never seems to include any jegogan and I’ve only found one set with a bamboo-keyed instrument.
In terms of instrumentation, a Sekati orchestra has certain characteristics that differ from other gamelan orchestras in Bali. A small to medium to large sized ensemble, based on what I know, a Sekati could be made up of a minimum of 6 instruments played by 8 musicians or a maximum of 16 instruments played by 22 musicians. An ensemble may include: 1 large terompong, 1 small terompong, 1 medium gangsa jongkok, 1 small gangsa jongkok, 1–2 medium or large kendang, 2 medium cymbals, 2 large cymbals, 1 punggang, 1 bende, 1 kempur, 2 large gongs and 1 instrument with bamboo keys. What is key to know is that it is five tone and that it has squat gangsa with five or six keys. Also, the key order on the gangsa jongkok is important: the ones that are still active have the high ndang tone in the left position.
Sekati repertoire, or at least the playing style, has been transferred to a number of orchestras, including Selonding, Gambang, Gong Kebyar, Gong Luang and possibly Saron. For example: Selonding pieces with Sekati names and playing styles in Tenganan: Sekati Panjimarga, Abuang Kare; the Gong Luang from Kaba-Kaba Badung plays a piece called Tabuh Sekati; the Gambang from Sibetan sometimes plays in a Sekati style: Gambang Sibetan; and in Buleleng there are numerous Gong Kebyar / Gong Dewa Yadnya pieces played in Sekati style known as Sekatian.
Looking further afar, could there be a connection between Sekati gamelan in Bali and those called Sekati or Sekaten in Java? If we look at the style in Central Java (Solo and Jogja), there are few similarities. The instruments in Java are also all seven tone. However, when we look at Sekati gamelan in Cirebon we find more similarities. They both have saron with small dimensions. The physical appearance of the terompong in Balinese Sekati is very similar: the pots have a short nipple and the sides of the pots are short: the instruments are much squatter than those in the rest of Bali or in Central Java. There is one row of pots played by 3–4 players in both ensembles; also, the cymbals are played in the same simple manner and are of a similar dimension. In addition, on the whole, the tuning height and intervals are closer to Cirebon than Central Java. The attack of the terompong instrument in Sekati is very similar to the short attack of ancient bonang in Cirebon gamelan – this could also be, however, due to its antiquity.
The playing style in ancient Cirebonese gamelan art-forms shows remarkable resemblance. For example, Professor Sumarsam from Wesleyan University said that he notated the recording of the Sekati from Temega and it was very close to that of Cirebon gamelan.
Even though Sekati in Cirebon in seven tone, the other ancient orchestras in Cirebon such as Renteng and Denggung are five tone according to Cirebon gamelan expert Richard North: he explained these orchestras in detail during a lecture on Cirebon Gamelan that was part of Nusantara Arts Gamelan Masters Lecture Series via Zoom in September 2020. As far as I know, five tone pelog orchestras that have similar instrumentation are not found in other parts of Java. Here are a few videos for comparison: Sekati, Renteng, Denggung.
It may be too early to make these connections between Bali and Cirebon; but it is clear that, if there is a connection, it is more closely related to Cirebon rather than other parts of Java.
Considering its simple repertoire, playing style, simple instrumentation, as well as association with Bali Aga villages – it is most likely that Sekati is a very ancient type of Balinese orchestra. Even though most ensembles include kendang drums, Sekati should be included in the category of ancient Balinese gamelan and did not appear during the later court period. My theory is that Sekati is the ancient ancestor of Gong Gede and that Gong Gede orchestras only appear many centuries later with financial support due to royal patronage. This would explain why Sekati also accompany ancient indigenous dances such as Rejang and Baris which are not as choreographed as those from the period when Gong Gede emerged. Sekati could have inspired five-tone Semara Pagulingan or Gong Cenik (which are only found in Buleleng and are five-tone orchestras with a 51234 key order on the gangsa jongkok).
What is certain, based on my research over the past months, the Balinese gamelan called Sekati is no longer a mystery and is most certainly alive and well, albeit only found in pockets mostly in north, east and central Bali.
As far as I know, Sekati gamelan have not been extensively documented or researched in Bali, nor has their connection to other ancient or court gamelan art-forms in Bali or Java been allured to. It is certainly a unique art-form, once presumed to be extinct and one that I feel should be in the category of archaic or ancient Balinese gamelan. I hope that this short article will encourage researchers– particular Balinese youth interested in gamelan and music history as well as the government to explore the roots of this unique art-form further and possibly put together a puzzle of musical parts that are now strewn far and wide.
The power of social media! After this article was published on September 29th 2020, I received information about two more potential Sekati orchestras that still exist and are used only on rare occasions in specific ceremonies.
In Selat Village, Buleleng there is an ensemble that fits Sekati instrumentation perfectly with two five-keyed gangsa jongkok, one kempul, one pair of ceng-ceng, one petuk, one reong and one kendang. There used to be one large gong in the orchestra, however this went missing during Dutch occupation (1906 – 1945). The orchestra is referred to as ‘Gong due Raja’ (orchestra owned by the king) and musicians who play the orchestra must be from a hereditary line and be purified before learning. According to my informant, Gede Arya from Anturan Village, the instruments are considered very sacred and are kept in the gedong (building for sacred objects) in the Pura Desa (village temple) and are only used for odalan in Selat Village. The first piece played at the ceremony by the orchestra by be in lelonggoran style. It is not yet possible to get photos or videos of this orchestra due to covid restrictions on ceremonies.
Update on 18.10.20: just received a short video of this set via Whatsapp. Whilst I can’t publish it, I have found out a few things: the tuning is very similar to the Sekati from Pedawa, abeit it slightly lower. The gangsa jongkok have their keys in the more modern order of 12345. The original reong was so crackeed that it had to be replaced – the new pots have modern dimensions and do not look like original Sekati pots that are smaller, shorter and have short nipples on them. The way they play the orchestra is slightly different from other styles.
Sanda Village in Apuan, Tabanan also has an ancient orchestra that seems to be a Sekati. According to my informant, I Wayan Agus Suryawan (Jro Mangku Gede), the instruments are considered very sacred and include two five-keyed gangsa jongkok, a riong with 11 pots, one kempur, one 70–75 cm gong, one small hand-held ceng-ceng, a kendang with a mallet, and a bende. The bende is considered to be the protector and most sacred instrument in the orchestra.
Gangsa Jongkok keys – Photo courtesy of I Wayan Agus Suryawan
Riong pots and kendang – Photo courtesy of I Wayan Agus Suryawan
He said that the scale is not pelog nor selendro, but somewhere in between that he describes as “bebeg”. This orchestra is owned by the temple and is only used for specific temple ceremonies called aci. The pieces of music played are mostly in a sekatian style using a technique he refers to as “nyolcol”.
So now it is likely that Sekati are found in at least four regencies in Bali, meaning that the spread is wider than initially thought. Do you know of a Sekati type gamelan elsewhere in Bali, perhaps in your own village? If you do, drop me a message on firstname.lastname@example.org, via Facebook messenger (https://www.facebook.com/vaughan.hatch/) or Instagram (@wayanpon_mekarbhuana).
Copyright © Vaughan Hatch 2020
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