I hit the ground running at my first rehearsal with the Narwastu gamelan ensemble. I’ve seen gamelan performances before on Youtube and I even attended a gamelan concert during my first couple of days in Bali, but this was the first time I was touching distance to the instruments. It was the first time to hold the mallet, to touch the bars; I felt like a child again touching the piano for the first time.
Jonathan, one of the founders of Narwastu, sat me down in front of one of the instruments, the calung, and handed me a mallet and told me to follow the student playing right next to me. For the most part, I kept up with the rest of the ensemble. I would watch and mirror what the girl next to me would play and luckily, I hit a majority of the correct notes. Gamelan is very similar to a vibraphone with its metal bars; however, instead of using a foot pedal to dampen the entire instrument, you are the dampener. After every note you play with the hammer in your right hand, your left hand will dampen the note by pinching the bar with your thumb and index finger.
Traditionally, gamelan is taught aurally through repetition and memorization. I found this to be incredibly difficult because the music is written to attain a unified musical expression, with all of the melodic lines in unison while repeating passages “X” amount of times. What was difficult for me was it felt like each phrase was repeated “X” amount of times, and the “X” seemed quite random. Western music slowly transforms from one phrase to the next, but Balinese gamelan, to me, felt like a random number of times something was repeated, which would leave me guessing what the next section was.
Memorizing what seemed to be hours upon hours of music was my main challenge when trying to understand and absorb Balinese gamelan; however, nowadays, you can find sheet music to some of the pieces. But this isn’t like your typical Western Classical music transcriptions you see of Bach and Beethoven. Instead of a staff with notes that go up and down indicating how high and low the pitch is, each note has its own symbol and is written out left to right and spaced out farther to indicate a note is to be held for a longer amount of time and closer if the note is to be held for a shorter amount of time. Below, your an see the music I (partially) learned to read and how it correlates to the metallaphones I learned to play. Just like in elementary school music class, the symbols of the notes, for this particular example they are numbers, where written on the bar. I felt like I was learning how to play piano all over again, but luckily I naturally took to the metallophones and caught up with the class quite quickly.
There are many different types of gamelan ensembles all through South East Asia. Each ensemble…in each village…on each island…in each country practices a unique version of gamelan. Even though each ensemble has specific performance practices and made with various types of materials, they are all made up of the same basic ensemble.
Java, the biggest island in Indonesia and home to the country’s capital, Jakarta, has an entirely different version of gamelan compared to Bali. Many Javanese people move to Bali for various reasons, and along with them also comes their own version of gamelan. Through the Narwastu ensemble, I was able to join and practice with a Javanese gamelan entirely made up of Javanese musicians and my friend from Canada, Sarah.
I arrived late to the first rehearsal because its quite easy to get lost when I’m the one driving. I arrived to the general area Sarah told me to meet her for rehearsal. Because Bali doesn’t really use street signs or addresses, I had to walk around for a while until I heard the ensemble playing and followed the music to one of the member’s house. Gamelan is an incredibly sacred practice for the Javanese as well, and to show my respect to the ensemble for letting me be apart of rehearsal, it is polite in Indonesian culture to approach each member individually, shake their hand with my right hand, with my left hand over my heart, and gently nod my head in thanks. It was increasingly generous of them to let a random American girl join their rehearsal, so I wanted to show them my utmost respect for them, their music, and their culture.
They welcomed me in as their own instantly, even though the only way to communicate was through laughing and point. One of the players invited me to play next to him and handed me a mallet and a cheat sheet of music. Instead of the symbols you recently saw above of Balinese music transcription, the Javanese ensemble indicated numbers to each note. One of the leaders of the ensemble came to sit in front of me and played the notes so I could watch and mirror his playing. Towards the end of rehearsal, the wife and son of one of the players came to greet us with Indonesian snacks and listened to the last remaining songs.
I thought it was funny that I have lived such an entirely different life than these people, yet the world has now become so connected that we were all sitting there together. During our last song, the son of one of the players sat in the middle and began to “dab” to the music. For those of you who don’t know what “dabbing” is, it is a famous dance move from some music video that is really popular right now, apparently. I don’t know, its a dance move of some sort and here is a lovely instructional video for reference:
I know it may seem funny that this little kid “dabbing” made me take a step back and really realize how amazingly connected the world is now. We are all so connected, but many people choose to stay within their own parameters without gaining perspective of other cultures. I was sitting in a room with a group of people who couldn’t speak my language, and I couldn’t speak theirs, and we were brought together on a deep and personal level by sharing each other’s culture and music. If we were not able to bond through music, we at least bonded by laughing at the little Javanese boy “dabbing” in gamelan rehearsal!
-Do NOT step over the gamelan instruments! My best guess is to show respect for the instruments, but you never know. Mount Agung (the volcano of the Gods) could erupt or something.
-Many people come to Bali to study yoga even though balinese people neither invented nor regularly practice yoga…but they sure know how to capitalize on it!
-Every year, some Balinese villages partake in an animal sacrifice to Mount Agung. It takes 6 hours to hike up, and 6 hour down. Most people just throw a duck or chicken down the volcano, but sometimes they have to sacrifice a cow or goat. Try to imagine leading a cow up a 3,000 meter high mountain just to kick it over the edge.
(Featured Image taken from the Narwastu Ensemble website)