It’s not a complete ceremony without some music! The Balinese gamelan is a staple of Balinese culture. Composed of a combination of metallophones, xylophones, drums, gongs, and sometimes flutes, the Balinese can compose and play magnificent tunes to suit the need of the occasion.
Gamelan is a term that describes the traditional musical ensemble of Java and Bali.It originates from the Javanese word “gamel”, which means “to strike with a mallet”.Most of the instruments in the ensemble make sounds by striking the metal keys with a bamboo mallet.
Balinese and Javanese gamelan, though sharing instruments, differ significantly. For example, Balinese gamelan tends to be more dynamic and nimble, alternating quickly between beats; whereas Javanese gamelan tends to be quieter and solemn. The difference is believed to stem from the different religious and cultural backgrounds. For the musically-savvy, Javanese and Balinese gamelan are also
tuned differently. Javanese gamelan is tuned following the pentatonic scale, or known as slendro. Common Balinese gamelan is also tuned to the pentatonic scale. For special kinds of compositions, usually related to the type of ceremony in which the gamelan is being played, Balinese gamelan can be tuned to the diatonic scale, or better known as pelog. Tuning also differs from village to village, so you can hear different gamelan sounds across Bali!
Gamelan is often reserved for use in ceremonies. When there’s a religious ceremony at a temple, there’s always a gamelan orchestra playing. It is an essential part of a ceremony, as the Balinese believe that the human ability to play music comes from the gods; therefore, they should show gratitude by playing music. It is also believed that some gods prefer certain tunes! Gamelan is also used in ceremonies on the street. For example, during a cremation ceremony, gamelan is said to entertain the deceased spirits and help guide their way to heaven. But, it would be tiresome to carry all that equipment around! For “mobile” ceremonies, the Balinese use a simplified version of the gamelan orchestra called baleganjur. Unlike the typical gamelan orchestra, baleganjur only carries the “essential” instruments, including drums, cymbals, gongs, and percussion. A typical baleganjur troupe can consist of up to 15 people. They usually hang their instruments by their necks as they walk, making them sort of like a traditional marching band! However, since it is expensive to hire a complete gamelan orchestra, the Balinese sometimes resort to playing gamelan music through a music player.
Gamelan has also played an important role in entertaining tourists. In touristy areas, daily gamelan performances hosted by independent musicians or the local village can be found playing at hotels or the village hall. There are also studies that have shown gamelan music to be beneficial for concentration, leading to increased interest from tourists to obtain copies of gamelan music or simply bask in the beauty of gamelan music.
All in all, gamelan is an integral part of Balinese culture that provides a creative outlet for the Balinese, as well as a cultural experience for foreigners!