What is gamelan?
Deriving from the word “gamel” which means “to hit”, a gamelan is commonly known as an ensemble of Indonesian traditional instruments, many of which are percussive and are struck with a beater. Normally gamelan is identified as a group of bronze pots and gongs but this is not always the case. In fact, many of the oldest gamelan instruments in Indonesia are made of iron or bamboo or coconut shell.
Gamelan is found in many Asian countries, such as Thailand and Cambodia and its origins are uncertain. Some of the structures are similar to Indian music; others have rhythms akin to those found in Africa.
In Bali there are no less than thirty-five different ensembles and many of them have their origins in Java. The most common ensemble in Bali is called angklung, which is commonly used for death rites and in some villages at temple ceremonies. Each gamelan has its own particular function and for some ceremonies only one type of gamelan may be used.
Born around 1915 in Buleleng, the most popular ensemble in Bali in modern times is called gong kebyar which literally means “bursting out” and is found in most hamlets around the island. Nonetheless, over the last few years there is a resurgence of the older forms such as seven-tone semara pagulingan (an ensemble from feudal times) and selonding (a pre-Majapahit iron gamelan commonly found in original (Bali Aga) villages.
The music is played in groups and there are no soloists (perhaps with the exception of flute music). Ensembles vary from smaller duos such as gender wayang through to a massive crew of up to fifty (gong ageng). Considering that gamelan music is rarely notated, coordinating so many instruments, rhythms and musicians is an impressive feat to say the least!