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Bali 1928: Gamelan Gong Kebyar – Emergence of Kebyar – Part 4  

by on Sunday, 4 October 2009One Comment | 1,886 views


Listening to these recordings many Balinese musicians are struck by the impact of juxtaposition and re–combination as a defining feature of kebyar so early in its evolution—appropriating gendér wayang (music for shadow–puppet theater), gambang bamboo music associated with royal cremations, and angklung for their uneven phrasings and meters and palégongan for its form and lyricism. Interestingly, gendér wayang was also influenced during this period by kebyar’s energetic starts and stops, creating a 20th century style for that genre as well, according to I Wayan Konolan (1923–2008) and I Wayan Suweca of the village Kayu Mas. And, in recalling his lessons with another gendér wayang master, I Wayan Loceng (1926–2006), Evan Ziporyn responds, “this was confirmed by Wayan Loceng in Sukawati, who himself had been a réyong player, and who told me point blank that the gineman to Sekar Ginotan (and other pieces) was an attempt to bring réyong tunggal style into gendér wayang.” The same mutual influence was felt as kebyar influenced gamelan angklung.

According to composer I Wayan Beratha, one particularly important aspect of Kebyar Ding lies in its innovation with ngucek (with the ‘c’ pronounced as ‘ch’), a technique of playing ‘ucek–ucekan’, a variety of rapid unison melodic–rhythmic figurations. “Ngucek derives from the movement of rubbing back and forth, like putting out a cigarette, rubbing your eyes when they come in contact with dust, rubbing smoldering pieces of wood together to put out a fire. Ngucek technique is used as a transition to a new melody in kebyar. Kebyar Ding is characterized by patterns of ngucek technique, which became an identifying characteristic of kebyar.”61 As thematic transitions, ucek–ucekan interrupt the steady pulse and melody of the preceding theme with their irregular rhythmic phrasings. While the verb ngucek really refers to the motion of playing the rapid figurations, musicians also refer more generally to phrases or extended themes that contain a series and variety of the figurations as ngucek or ucek–ucekan.


Writing in the 1960s, Ruby Ornstein recalled “McPhee’s description of some pre–war compositions as containing not only kebjar introductions but kebjar interludes as well,” suggesting “that the ngucek transition represents the vestigal remains of these early kebjar episodes.” In Kebyar Ding, (as Ornstein, recalling McPhee, suggests) we hear ngucek as a defining feature of the first, Kebyar, section as well as transitions throughout. Terminology varies from place to place, and neither McPhee nor Michael Tenzer (except once62) refer to ngucek but rather to “kebyar phrasing,” as Ornstein does here. In fact, ever since 1925 musicians have referred to the first section as the kebyar, or byar, and the verb denoting the playing of this kind of rhythmic/melodic phrase—as well as other signature syncopated unison figures outside of regular pulse or meter—as ngebyang or ngebyar. But according to Wayan Beratha and Wayan Begeg, the primary characteristic that constitutes kebyar is the ngucek phrasing and ucek–ucek are consistently referred to in the course of our discussions with other musicians as well.

What we hear in these recordings confirms that such ucek–ucekan constituted entire sections of compositions. Such a compelling entity, this ucek that helped define a revolutionary expression with such a subtle gesture—wiping, erasing, shaking up, clearing one’s eyes from what smoke? —and then musically interrupting, upstaging, reinvigorating, accelerating, pushing forward.


Bandem (2006:2) reflects a general consensus in characterizing kebyar style as syncopated ucek–ucekan rhythms, cadenzas and unison passages as well as specific techniques played by the réyong such as interlocking ubit–ubitan63 and new sonorities of the byong chord, byok or byot dampened stroke, and kécék–kécek non–pitched sound produced on the rim of the instrument. Another of the “revolutionary signature techniques and devices” is the use of the byar (and byong) chord64 heard on this CD as the initial sound of Kebyar Ding. As can be heard in Kebyar Ding, by 1928 the byong chord played by the réyong section came to replace the klentong, which had been used for mid–phrase punctuation in légong music (although the klentong was re–introduced several years later). Ziporyn comments, “The chord (whether you call it ‘byong’ or ‘byar’) is important because it’s the first significant non–colotomic harmony (in the broad sense of the term) since the introduction of gongs from Java. In other words, what ‘byong’ contributes to ‘byar’ is that it’s always the same chord, and therefore NOT always the same pitches as the gangsa or pokok instruments are playing. That adds to the ‘ramai’, gives each gamelan a signature sound.”

The following passage of a Gong Belaluan rehearsal was found amongst Colin McPhee’s notes at the UCLA Ethnomusicology Archive:

I find among my notes the following account of a music–club rehearsal I witnessed during my first week in Bali. The club was the Kebyar club of Badung, one of the leading organizations of the island.

When I arrived, the musicians were playing at top speed. Suddenly they stop. The first drum, who seems to be leader, is not satisfied. The four boys at the reyong play an intricate section by themselves, rather experimentally. The gangsas join in. Drum number one stops them again. He wishes to hear the first row of gangsas alone.

Ah! Someone is playing a wrong note! Who is it? Each must play the passage alone. The wrong note is finally located in the third player, who has a wrong idea of the melody. A discussion and a clarification. The third gangsa plays alone. Is this it? The second player joins in, to show him. Yes! says the leader, all right. Let’s get on. The orchestra begins again.

A vigorous rhythm now sounds on the three sets of cymbals, violent and syncopated. Suddenly the orchestra is call[ed] to stop again. The cymbals have played the rhythm once too often. Drum number one explains. He would now like to hear the reyong players once again, each boy separately. They play a complicated passage, first slowly and carefully, then at breakneck speed. Good! Go on! The orchestra joins in once more.

Stop! Those gangsas again! Play alone! No, it is wrong! Each player separately. Number three is wrong again (he seems to be new). The drummer goes over to the instrument, and sitting across from the player, plays the melody for him. He is doing this in reverse, since seated on this side, the low notes are to his right.

The second drummer now goes over to the leader of the gangsas and shows him a new part. (This seems to be new, judging from the expression on the boy’s face.) The two practice this difficult part some ten minutes, teaching it to the rest of the gangsa group. At last it is learned, and the orchestra begins playing again.

Later, I asked the drummer, who turned out to be Regog, famous for his kebyar compositions, the name of the piece they were practicing. He answered that it had no name, as it was in the process of being composed. When it was finished they would give it a name. (In one place Regog conducted with his right arm. I never saw this done again.)

Notes by Edward Herbst for the CD of Bali 1928: Gamelan Gong Kebyar of Belaluan, Pangkung and Belaluan (

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  • One Comment »

    • Sugata said:

      This article is fascinating to me. Thanks so much for the effort. It seems to me at this stage of first cursory reading that the techniques that Marya developed and were so admired by his contempories are potentially still available to musicians and performers. Once a style is developed it tends to become prescriptive in order to pass it on. However with the right personalities working together it can be reinvigourated.
      don’t you think?

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