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Bali 1928: Gamelan Gong Kebyar – A Sketch of the Time Period of these Recordings  

by on Monday, 24 August 2009No Comment | 3,374 views

In 1928 Bali was part of the Netherlands East Indies (now the Republic of Indonesia) but Bali’s rajas had not been entirely conquered until 1908. Kebyar emerged around the turn of the 20th century in North Bali’s Buléléng region, which came under Dutch control beginning in 1849 after forces loyal to the Balinese king of Lombok and allied with the Dutch killed the celebrated military leader and chief minister of Buléléng, Gusti Ktut Jlantik, along with the king of Buléléng and the king of Karangasem, East Bali. At the time Bali had eight kings and their own internecine struggles for power allowed the Dutch to play one kingdom against another. Economic control was the goal but Dutch efforts to morally justify their conquest centered on the Balinese slave trade (which Holland had long benefited from) and widow sacrifice associated with royal cremations. One by one the kingdoms collapsed under Dutch attack: Lombok in 1894, Badung (Denpasar) in 1906 and Klungkung in 1908.


Each fell in “a traditional way to signal the ‘ending’ of a kingdom, and indeed the word puputan means ‘ending’. The puputan was both a sign to other kings of an end, and a way to achieve liberation of the soul by death in battle.” Adrian Vickers continues, “…the Dutch moved on the capital of Denpasar. On the morning of 20 September the king, his family and thousands of armed followers all dressed in white and ready to meet death in battle, marched out to meet the Dutch. Each of the leading warriors ran amuk in turn, marching on as if bullets would bounce off their bodies. The Dutch opened fire on ‘women with weapons in their hands, lance or kris, and children in their arms’ who ‘advanced fearlessly upon the troops and sought death’…surrender was impossible: ‘where an attempt was made to disarm them this only led to an increase in our losses. The survivors were repeatedly called on to surrender, but in vain’. The king, his family and followers advanced relentlessly, killing themselves and any Dutch troops who came within range as they went. The Dutch later tried to cover up the death toll, but while it was fairly light on the Dutch side, well over 1000 Balinese were killed.”

We can speculate about all of the factors that fed an artistic explosion in the period following the collapse of the kingdoms. I Nyoman Catra speculates that the profusion of creative experimentation was akin to medicine helping heal the trauma of social upheaval and colonial occupation. The dismantling of the power and wealth of the many regional kingdoms led to a kind of decentralization/democratization of the arts as they spread out to the banjar ‘hamlets’. Puput ‘the end’ also implies the beginning of something new. And along with the fashions and technology associated with modernity brought in by the Dutch came the small but steady stream of European and American travelers on cruise ships to this island paradise beginning in the 1920s. The Bali Hotel opened in 1925 within hearing distance of Gong Belaluan’s rehearsals at their balé banjar and soon became a hub of artistic accommodations to the tastes of international audiences. At the same time Balinese innovations continued to be driven by indigenous tastes and passions—both of artists and their local audiences.

Interestingly, during this same period of time on the other side of the planet, post–war marching bands were inspiring a revolutionary music genre incorporating new dimensions of rhythmic and melodic complexity, improvisation, mixing and experimentation with earlier genres. Musical instruments discarded after the Civil War were taken up by former slaves whose newly–won freedom led to the invention of jazz which, like kebyar, became a musical force for the next century.


Various manifestations of Balinese modernism are exemplified by the emergence—most likely in the teens—of jangér. One clear influence on jangér was Komedie Stamboel, the Malay–language European–influenced theater which first appeared in Surabaya, Java in 1891. Seemingly innocuous and lightweight to foreigners but well–loved by most Balinese to this day, jangér humorously blended traditional dramatic themes with catchy songs performed by girls in traditional costumes along with a kecak chorus of boys in western costume including short trousers, epaullettes and silly moustaches. Jangér (on CD#5) fused musical elements from Sang Hyang trance ritual, Malay pantun sung poetry, and cakepung palm–wine drinking songs with gamelan gaguntangan, most commonly used to accompany arja dance opera, as well as gamelan tambour which included a rebana drum of Arabic origin; their adaptation of the saman and saudati style of hand and arm movements and postures performed in Muslim Sufi rituals and other dances in Aceh, North Sumatra, became a signature element of jangér’s male kecak dancers. All this came together in jangér with elements of classical légong dance and wayang wong dance drama based on the Ramayana epic, as well as circus acrobatics inspired by visiting troupes. Curiously, revivals of jangér over the course of the 20th century have recurred in times of political and social turmoil.

In the 1920s gong kebyar and related dances were starting to be seen and heard across both North and South; the compositions recorded in 1928 from Belaluan, Pangkung, Busungbiu and Kuta represent a revolutionary shift in musical and choreographic aesthetics. Cak (kecak) would only appear as a distinct dance drama—evolving into the Ramayana “monkey chant,” as it is known to international audiences—four years later, although its chorus traditionally accompanied Sang Hyang trance rituals, and jangér, its sister genre with kecak chorus, was already popular. I Ketut Marya (1897 or 1898–1968), spelled Mario by Covarrubias and other westerners, had just recently created his Igel Trompong (Tari Trompong) and Igel Jongkok, the dance later known as Kebyar Duduk. Of the first written account of kebyar McPhee relates, “According to the Regent of Buléléng, Anak Agung Gdé Gusti Djelantik, who told me in 1937 that he noted the date in his diary at the time, the first kebyar music was publicly heard in December 1915, when several leading North Balinese gamelans held a gamelan competition in Jagaraga…”

Juxtaposition and re–interpretation were essential to I Wayan Lotring (1898–1983), a master of Balinese modernism and leader of the gamelan palégongan in the coastal village of Kuta. His brilliant compositions startled and inspired musicians throughout the island. Lotring was a superb player of gendér wayang, the virtuosic quartet of ten–keyed metallophones that accompanies wayang shadow–puppet theater (heard on CD #3). But his major musical innovation centered on palégongan, the gamelan associated with légong, the elaborately choreographed court dance. One hears in palégongan a more fluid and lyrical style than in gamelan gong. But Lotring introduced rhapsodic melodic fantasies and subtle rhythmic shifts of phrasing often inspired by other traditional genres. His Gambangan, Gegendéran, and Gegénggongan compositions were modern visions inspired by musical elements within these traditional forms.

As far back as history recalls, there has been great competition in Balinese arts, reflecting a cultural attitude of jengah, a strong instinct of “not wanting to lose,” which motivates the accepted practice of taking the accomplishment of a rival and changing it in one’s own way while improving on it. In kebyar’s early days, groups might send a spy to climb a tree within hearing and hopefully sight–range of a rival village’s rehearsal in order to memorize their latest innovations in preparation for an upcoming competition. Very serious adversarial relationships existed between rival jangér ensembles as well, such as those of neighboring Kedaton and Bengkel, where conflicts were expressed politically, aesthetically, and by employing spiritual magic against one another. While competition has fueled creativity, Balinese arts have also flourished as a result of generous cooperation between artists of different villages and regions. For example, during kebyar’s early developmental phase, musical leaders from the northern village of Ringdikit came to Belaluan, South Bali, to exchange repertoires. As a result Belaluan’s kebyar was infused with the North’s revolutionary style and Ringdikit acquired knowledge of légong music and dance. Even earlier, notable légong masters from more southern regions
taught in the North, such as I Gentih from Kediri, Tabanan, who taught the female leko (nandir is the male version and both were accompanied by bamboo rindik) dance in Jagaraga, and whose student Pan Wandres turned it into kebyar leko and later into kebyar légong, subsequently adapted into Teruna Jaya by his student, Gdé Manik of Jagaraga. Ni Nengah Musti (1934–) from Bubunan and later Kedis learned kebyar légong from Pak Gentih and tells us she did not hear that term used even around 1940. Instead it was referred to simply as Légong Lasem or Légong Kapi Raja ‘Monkey King’ (a version of the Subali–Sugriwa story within the Ramayana)depending on the narrative enacted. She also informs us that I Gentih was the teacher and Pan Wandres the dancer for whom he created kebyar légong.


In 1922 Gong Pangkung’s leader and composer I Wayan Gejir (1880–1943) came to Belaluan with Marya, who was born in Belaluan but moved to Tabanan at around the age of ten soon after the puputan Badung. Together they taught a seminal composition for dance called Kebyar Jerebu originally created in 1922 in the village of Kutuh by Gejir in collaboration with I Wayan Sembah of Kedis which was recorded by Odeon but never released and is now long–forgotten. In Belaluan a warm friendship developed with Belaluan’s musical leader I Madé Regog, who McPhee described as “sympathetic and brooding.” Upon the birth of Wayan Gejir’s first child back in Tabanan he named her Mregog so that his own name would become Pan Mregog (father of Mregog), to honor their close friendship by having a name closely resembling but not exactly the same. On the 1928 records we can hear many themes echoed between Pangkung and Belaluan, such as Tabuh Longgor I and Kebyar Ding III.

It is also worth noting with regard to the recordings of 1928 that a great many links existed between participating artists. One example is Ida Boda (Ida Bagus Boda) of Kaliungu, Denpasar (1870–1965) who grew up in the Geria Gdé ‘Brahmana compound’ in the village of Batuan when it was still part of the kingdom of Negara, Sukawati. Ida Boda, whose singing is included on our CD #2, was one of the foremost légong masters and taught all over Bali, including Busungbiu, whose kebyar music shows clear légong influence. Boda often danced topéng mask theater with the musicians of Belaluan on a gamelan angklung on loan from Banjar Bun (heard on CD #4), performed the Cupak drama with the batél ensemble of Kaliungu (heard on CD#3), and taught the jangér group in Bengkel, rivals to Ketadon (CD #5). Among his légong students were I Nyoman Kaler, Ni Ketut Reneng and I Wayan Beratha, who would later become the musical leader of Sadmerta–Belaluan. The music captured on this collection of recordings attests to a generous cross–pollination in Balinese arts, illuminating how aesthetic influences were often derived from villages which were once prominent but whose legacies have survived with less recognition due to sociopolitics and the lack of aural or written records. The importance of légong musical forms in the emergence of kebyar makes even more salient the creative influence of Saba and its music and dance master, I Gusti Gdé Raka Badeng (a.k.a. Anak Agung Raka Saba), who is known to have taught in Tamblang, near Bungkulan in the North. And Saba is where Wayan Lotring learned the légong repertoire that he then disseminated to palégongan and kebyar ensembles all over Bali with his own creative imprint. He returned the favor years later by teaching his Saba teacher’s son, also called Anak Agung Raka Saba.

In 21st century Bali we find an inquisitiveness toward reclaiming the past,wondering what is important in Balinese culture. Wayan Lotring’s gamelan palégongan in Kuta was melted down in 1972 to enable local musicians to purchase a kebyar ensemble on which they could perform for tourists. But it took a younger generation in Kuta to commission a new palégongan, accomodating their interest in a revival of traditional légong.

The unprecedented interest in these old recordings amongst musicians, dancers and singers young and old has encouraged our persistence in implementing, over many years and continents, a repatriation project, searching far–flung archives to assist contemporary Balinese in reclaiming their aural history.

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