As Pak Parno threads his way through the gamelan, he claps his hands to guide the tempo and calls out to beginners who have lost their place in the music. Eyes focus on notes as mallets tap out a lancaran or simple song. The cyclical melody is carried by the metallophones, embellished by the ringing tones of bronze, knobbed kettles. This is punctuated by hanging gongs and led by the beating of the kendhang drum. Repetitive lines pulse on counts of two and four. These crescendo and accelerate before winding down to pause for the strike of the massive gong gede, followed by the musicians’ final note. It is mesmerizing music.
The players awaken from their reverie to see three newcomers have arrived. They are welcomed, and members call out, “Come on, it’s easy – everyone can play.” The guests are handed music and encouraged to sit on cushions in front of the saron, an easy instrument. After some quick instruction, the newbies play along, and smiles of accomplishment bloom on each face. This is the joy of gamelan.
Pak Parno has taught this gamelan group in South Jakarta for eight years, but he prefers another term. “I don’t teach,” he says, “I help people to learn. I am happy and love the arts.” The wizened instructor began studying gamelan, or Indonesian orchestra, more than four decades ago, and he plays professionally throughout the country. The group boasts both accomplished and novice players, who enjoy Pak Parno’s gentle direction.
After two years, expat Cheryl Parker has gained the confidence and competence to play the bonang, two rows of bronze kettle gongs. These horizontal gongs can introduce a beginner’s song and elaborate with a countermelody. “I joined this group to do something cultural,” she says. “You can pick it up quite easily. Gamelan is a calming break, rather hypnotic.”
Andrew and Ashley Goldman from England agree. “It’s a stress relief to concentrate on one thing. And you must concentrate, or you’ll get lost,” Ashley says with a laugh.
Gamelan is the indigenous instrumental ensemble of Indonesia, with variations from the islands of Bali and Java. The music is a hallmark part of puppet performances, traditional dance ceremonies, rituals and orchestral productions.
The gamelan consists of various gongs, which are suspended or flat, plus tuned, metal instruments struck with padded mallets, called tabu. Gamelan instruments generally fall into three types: balungan or melody, elaborating and punctuating. Balungan instruments create a song’s skeleton through various xylophones or saron tuned in octaves. These are easy for beginners to play. The percussive punctuating instruments are gongs, either suspended from a frame or enormous, horizontal kettles. They are struck at rigidly defined places in the melody, and the largest gong marks the end of each rhythmic line as well as the song’s completion. The elaborating instruments include two sizes of bonang, plus a zither, violin and bamboo flute. There can also be a singer. These elements independently weave texture over the melody within established guidelines. Lastly, the kendhang drums pace the song.
Each gamelan is a unique entity, with instruments tuned to one another as opposed to a standard. There are two tunings or lara, comparable to Western music’s major and minor keys. These are pelog and slendro, respectively. The two instruments’ tunings are set at right angles to one another in the gamelan.
Gamelan instruments are treated with the utmost respect by all people for their traditional and spiritual nature. Musicians do not wear shoes when they play and tread carefully, so as not to step over any instruments.
Periodically, during rehearsals, someone in the group calls out, “All change.” At that, the musicians move from one instrument to another. Some are cautious about trying something new, but others, like Ashley Goldman, eagerly jump at the opportunity to move from the saron to the kenong. The huge, gong pots are like a Western drum kit with more options. Everyone is urged to have a go at any instrument, though some take more practice. There is no pressure for perfection, just pleasure in participating and learning.
American Carol Walker heads up this Javanese gamelan group, helping others to delight in Indonesian culture through music. She and Tim Buehrer have grown their collection of pelog and slendro instruments since 1995, and the complete orchestra crowds one large room. “At times, the gamelan is half Indonesian and half expat – it’s a revolving door of musicians,” says Walker. Some come for the social night out, and the goal for others is to advance their musicianship. “Everybody is welcome here and possibilities for performing opportunities do arise.” These provide goals for practice.
Originally, the term gamelan was a broad one, encompassing a wide variety of music. Indonesians appreciated foreign instruments and styles and adopted their use. Over time, however, the rise of Western musical categories branded a standard form of gamelan music. It is enjoying a resurgence of interest in classes like Walker’s.
As the evening closes out, people chat, and a Western tune replaces the cyclical gamelan songs still swirling in many heads. Walker immediately recognizes it and grins. Pak Paron is jamming on a saron demung while a group member picks out the jazzy notes of When the Saints Go Marching In on a banjo. It is a madcap, magical moment. And originally gamelan.
To join the gamelan group, contact: [email protected]