Tag Archives: Gamelan

Bali Bamboo Music

When in Bali in 1984, I was walking home one night sometime past midnight. In the distant I heard a deep percussive sound that led me behind a few buildings to a covered performance area. It was a full performance of Jegog Bumbung, a dance drama where a cocky young man chased a single woman dancer. She coyly flirted with him until he caught her and then submitted to his charms. After an intermission there was a scream and the man flew out behind the screen in fear chased by his newly married wife who is now obviously in the dominant role. The music was performed by an orchestra of struck bamboo tubes open on one end with a large tongues carved on one side, suspended in frames. The largest of these instruments had pipes at least three metres long. They were accompanied by a number of sets of progressively smaller instruments playing the characteristic Balinese interlocking rhythms. This ensemble of instruments is called Gamelan Grantang. The sound of the big instruments was very round and deep and traveled well in the night air. This performance went on for hours and although I was the only non-Balinese there I sat listening and watching to almost dawn.


A few weeks later, I ran into another version of a bamboo gamelan in a small village close to where I had found a small cabin to rent on the beach (see Bali Night). One morning I again followed music in the air and came upon two men sitting on their porch playing a matched pair of bamboo instruments called tingklik, which looked identical to the smallest of the instruments played in the Gamelan Grantang. Although they played very fast interlocking parts, they didn’t seem to tire as they played for almost an hour.

The older man invited me to sit down, served me tea and they continued to play. After playing for a while, he asked me if I would like to try the instrument, and handed me the mallets. Although the tingklik is about a dozen hollow tuned bamboo tubes suspended from a small frame the technique for playing it is quite complex. The left hand plays a rather simple melody on the lower tubes, while the right hand plays the rapid intricate patterns following the melody while interlocking with the second instrument.

On just hearing the piece, I was only able to remember a few notes on the right hand before making a mistake at which point my impromptu teacher, took the mallets from my hand and played the piece again, all fifteen minutes of it! He then calmly handed the mallets back to me and asked me to try again. I only managed to play a few more notes correctly before running into problems, and again the mallets were politely taken from my hands, and the full fifteen-minute piece was played again. This process continued well into the afternoon, with my teacher patiently playing the full piece again and again as I muddled my way through it.

Obviously this was a normal for my teacher, and he seemed to have all the time and patience in the world. After many hours, I was exhausted and somewhat frustrated, and we sat for a while to talk and drink tea. While we talked his five year-old son picked up a mallet and slowly but accurately played the whole piece. I realized that I had the wrong teacher, as it would have been easier for me to learn from the five year-old! When I asked how long my teacher had been teaching his son, he replied “Oh I haven’t taught him anything, he has just heard me play so much, He knows all the pieces by heart.”

Our modern world doesn’t allow us to have the time or patience for this type of musical transmission, and I didn’t have the time to stay and study this amazing instrument, although I really wanted to. I imagine that growing up from birth hearing these sounds would implant the music far deeper in your psyche than any other form of learning. Maybe I was born in the wrong time.

I was so intrigued by these instrumental discoveries that I explored more and found that there were pockets of unique music and instruments everywhere in Bali. The two tingklik played together is often referred to as Gamelan Rindik, although a full Rindik often uses a suling, and there is also another large bamboo ensemble called Gamelan Jegog that uses a four-note scale. I have recently learned that there are versions in Java as well. (see: Aural Archipelago)

Mystery gamelan
Mystery gamelan

A month after my impromptu lesson, I traveled to a small village in northern Bali to discover a single bamboo xylophone that was quite different in shape than any other that I had seen on the island. It had bamboo slats of different sizes for keys and bamboo tube resonators. I asked some local people where the instrument was from. “From here,” they replied, “it’s native to our village.” “Do you know anybody who can play it?” I asked. “There is no-one left who knows how to play it,” they replied, “the last person died a year ago.” “Are there any recordings or books on how to play it?” I asked. “No,” was the reply, “nothing at all. The music is lost.” Hearing this was a shock and it deeply saddened me. Since then I have given a good portion of my life to support and preserve traditional instruments and music wherever I could.

Jogeg Bambung with the  Gamelan Grantang:

Gamelan Rindik:

The four note scale Gamelan Jegog:

© R. Raine-Reusch 2014

Rubber Time in Java

Indonesia was my first experience immersing myself in a new culture, and it opened my mind to a world of thousands of different musical perspectives. This is where my musical education kicked into high gear.java rebab

I arrived in Java in time to attend a performance of an ancient court gamelan at the old palace in Jogjakarta on Eid, the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. The courtyard was filled with big crowd eating and socializing. I was not surprised by the casualness of the event, as I had attended other events in Bali that were also a combination of ritual ceremony, formal concert, and casual social gathering.

This balance of formal and casual was also present in the music. Gamelans are performed in interlocking parts at a slow to moderate speed in Java and at a lightening speed in Bali. Yet, that day I heard an old piece that was far slower than I had ever heard before. So slow in fact that there was a repeating section where a number of musicians that in theory should hit a note at the same time, but in practices they all hit the note at a slightly different time, creating a sort of haphazard staggered effect. This was a shock to my organized western mind and I initially thought they were a bit sloppy. But as they continued to play, I began to hear the beauty in this effect as it sounded very much like rainfall.

The gamelan orchestra was split into two parts on either side of the courtyard, and would play sometimes separately and sometimes together. After going back and forth between them for a while I decided to just sit on one side and listen. I sat in the shade very close to the gong player, and had a good view of the orchestra. In some pieces the gong is played quite often, while in others the gong cycle is very long and the gong is seldom heard. I was watching the gong player during one of the latter pieces, where the time between gong strikes was almost ten minutes. The player struck the gong, and then casually turned around to his friend behind him and started a conversation, he then lit a cigarette, talked for a while longer and then got up and walked off. I saw him occasionally walking through the crowd stopping to talk for a while and then disappearing again. Hearing the gong cycle coming to an end I noticed him casually return and sit down, but with his back turned to the gong. He started talking passionately to his friends while pulling out his lunch and beginning to eat. He seemed to be oblivious to his rapidly approaching cue, as he became further involved with his conversation and meal. I became quite anxious at his apparent lack of concern and wondered if he knew how close his cue was, and there it was, and he hadn’t heard it! I was surprised no-one called to him to quickly hit the gong when he stuffed some food in his mouth to empty his hand, reached for the mallet, and casually leaned over and hit the gong over his shoulder at the exact “right” late moment. The mother gong is often played after the end of the rhythmic cycle, which in the west we would consider late. Sometimes in Indonesian music such a musical marker might be far later than a western musical mind would ever expect, and in this piece it was even later still.

There is an expression in Indonesia called “rubber time” as time is a very relative concept there, stretching like rubber, and this certainly applies to music there. That day I realized that the strict adherence to time so important in the western world was not always necessary for music.

© R. Raine-Reusch 2014

Gamelan Stream – Environment in Bali

My first trip overseas to research music in 1984 included two months on the Indonesian island of Bali, and then another month in Java. At the time Bali was a cultural goldmine. From the very first day, I was surrounded by an array of amazing styles of traditional music. I heard gamelan classes at the nearby gamelan school during the day and gamelan performances at every night, punctuated by street processions, and impromptu performances even in the middle of the night. Throughout the island there were regular ketchak monkey chants, dance dramas, and local ceremonies. In fact at times there was so many performances of traditional music that it was hard to escape it.

bali log drumOn one very hot day, I decided to get away from the heat of Ubud and followed a small stream up into the trees a few kilometres from the town. I eventually came to a few small pools of water situated by a small temple. It was such a picturesque spot that I spent most of the day lounging by these pools. I was pleased to finally get away from the insistent sounds of the Ubud gamelans. Sporadically throughout the day I thought I heard a short melody of a popular gamelan piece being repeated over and over again in the distance. Thinking it strange that someone would be practicing gamelan so far from town, I decided to investigate. I walked all around the area trying to find where the sound was coming from, but music was elusive, it would fade in and out. If I thought I had traced it in one direction, then it would seem to come from another. Finally after about an hour of searching I found the source. It was not a gamelan; it was the stream! The water falling over small rocks sounded exactly like the short gamelan melody I had been hearing, and in combination with the rhythmic chorus of afternoon insects mimicked a full small ensemble!

Back in Ubud I started to listen to the local sounds in a new way. I found that the rhythms and melodies in the music often mirrored the sounds of the environment, especially the insects. This became even more obvious in Java, where I found different insect sounds and local traditional music again structurally reflected aspects of the environmental sounds. I thought this was fascinating. I also found that the sounds of Bali and Java are similar but different. An example is the small lizards found in almost every Indonesian house climbing the walls eating insects are called geckos in Bali, and named for the sound they make “ge-ko.” In Java they are called tokay, for their call “to-kay.”

Another new sound in Bali I encountered when I was talking with a friend. I heard a loud buzzing sound approaching. I turned and saw a very large fist-sized beetle slowly flying through the air. Its body was too large for it’s inefficient wings, so once it is airborne, it cannot turn quickly. If you are in its way, it will hit you. Fortunately it makes so much noise with its efforts to fly that anyone in its path is startled by its approaching roar, and has plenty of time to gauge its flight path and step out of the way. In fact the beetle flies so slowly that it is easy to observe it in detail, if you could stand the noise enough to get close to it!

Walking along the beach one day I came upon long bamboo poles holding up fishnets, each pole had a small section shaved to create a small rectangular hole with sharp edges that acted like reeds. When the wind blew the poles produced a flute-like timbre, beautiful but also somewhat eerie. Longer versions of these poles with red banners were placed around graveyards to keep away spirits. Yet when the wind blew through the poles sounding more like the voices of the spirits themselves.

This awakening to sound in Indonesia was exciting. I found that the environment, sound, music and culture there were quite different from anything else I had experienced before.

© R. Raine-Reusch 2014