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From The Grace of The Gamelan to The Pulse of The Underground: The Power and Passion of Music in Bali  

by on Wednesday, 5 April 20062 Comments | 1,224 views

A life without music would be unthinkable in Bali. Here music is woven into the very fabric of society, playing an essential role in ceremonies to mark the turning of the life cycle, to celebrate the anniversaries of temples and to accompany potent days in the traditional calendar. Music reaffirms the value of tradition, and expresses Balinese creativity, innovation and aspirations for the future. It brings people together to play and to enjoy, solidifying a sense of community and culture. Virtually any day, anywhere in Bali, if you listen hard enough, you can hear the sweet tones of music in the air.

Although the Balinese are, for the most part, no strangers to MTV or to the modern Indonesian pop that fills the airwaves across the nation, the most beloved music in Bali is still the traditional gamelan. Gamelan is the Balinese word for “orchestra,” and it refers both to the groups who play the music and to the music itself. Gamelan music, to the uninitiated ear, can sound quite strange, for it is very different from Western music, using its own scale and rhythm. Those who try to describe it tend to resort to the poetic, likening it to the sound of water rushing along a riverbed or to the sound of moonlight playing along the silver shores of the sea. Each listener approaches its beauty and power differently, although there are certain facts about this ancient and exotic genre of music that can help the audience understand something of its meaning. Gamelan groups can range in size from the four person gender wayang who play to accompany the traditional shadow puppet performances to groups of fifty or more musicians, all playing a particular percussion instrument in a gamelan gong orchestra. No matter what the size of the group or the precise type of music played, gamelan instruments all share the general designation of percussion instruments – instruments that are hit or tapped with mallets — although there are a wide range of types of instruments and ensembles in Bali, whose characteristics may change from one village to the next. There are xylophones, gongs, cymbals and drums, made out of cast bronze or bamboo. Bronze instruments are the best known, and are created by experienced instrument makers using ancient techniques. Each piece of the orchestra is tuned to the ensemble’s own unique scale, generally a pentatonic or five note scale. Because they are hand made creations, particular ensembles of instruments will be allowed to have their own particular sound, rather than trying to tune them to some universal standard, making each orchestra distinctively different. In fact, variation between gamelan groups is the inevitable outcome of the Balinese belief that music is not only an important part of life but is itself alive as well. Musical instruments are thought to possess their own unique animate spirit, and as living beings they are treated with the utmost respect, with special ritual offerings made to them regularly as a sign of appreciation for their beauty and value.

It has been estimated that there are at least two thousand groups playing traditional gamelan music in Bali, although it is hard to find an exact count, for membership in musical associations is fluid and shifting, with groups forming and changing personnel according to the specific purposes for which they are playing: an upcoming ceremony, a tourist performance, or a local competition, for example. Most often groups are formed by members of the same banjar, or village association, who will gather to practice, perform and administer the group’s funds. Most players are not full time musicians, but instead work as farmers or laborers or tour guides or civil servants – any of the range of occupations in modern Bali – devoting their spare time to their music. And most musicians play not for financial reward but for the sheer love of the art. A particularly proficient and professional group may be paid a small sum for performing at a ritual event or at a hotel or restaurant, but most of the money goes back into the group’s treasury to use for the purchase and upkeep of the instruments. Even as outside observers bemoan the commercialization of Bali, the persistent popularity of the gamelan belies the notion that the traditional Balinese arts are falling victim to tourism and modernity. Indeed, by playing gamelan music, Balinese reaffirm age old values of community. In the gamelan, there are no soloists or virtuosos or stars. The point is not for one musician to outshine another but for the entire orchestra to perfectly synchronize its tempo, rhythm and melody, with each member playing a complex, interweaving counterpart to the others. By working together to master the incredible complexity of the music and to weave each musician’s work into the shimmering waves of sound, Balinese gamelan players help bring art into the everyday world and reassert the important of cooperation and social cohesion in the modern world.

Even though the gamelan is an ancient musical form hundreds of years old, it is not a stagnant art. New compositions and revivals of old works are constantly being staged, offering testimony to the Balinese love of experiment and innovation. Today, especially talented musicians and composers can study gamelan in state sponsored high schools and universities for the arts, where they also come in contact with innovative new ideas. Balinese players have also been affected by the passion for Balinese music shown by legions of foreign fans, who have come to the island to study gamelan’s history, to learn to play, and to exchange opinions about its future direction. Groups at Western universities have exported whole sets of gamelan instruments to teach students to appreciate this unique genre of music, while Balinese groups have been invited to showcase their talents abroad. These cross-fertilizations of inspiration and devotion have helped ensure that gamelan music remains a vital medium for expressing both the resilience and constant renewal of Balinese culture for the new millennium.

Gamelan is not, however, the only music to be heard in Bali. The younger generation of Bali – and many of its older citizens as well – have become quite familiar with a truly global variety of musical genres. Even in the most isolated of the island’s villages, radios blast the latest Western rock hits, Indonesian pop songs, and the immensely popular dangdut, a hybrid of Arabic, Indian and Indonesian music sung to a decidedly Western disco beat. And in urban areas like Denpasar and Kuta, teens decked out in mohawk haircuts, black jeans and heavy leather boots practice their punk style and sound, singing songs in heavily accented English that express their hopes and frustrations with the complexities of modern Bali. And, of course, there are Bali’s famed nightspots, where one can hear the latest jazz, funk, rock and techno hits in a truly cosmopolitan environment. Whatever sound you crave, from the shimmering sweetness of the gamelan to the pulsing beat of the underground, the island’s musical diversity is sure to enchant and inspire you on your journey to Bali.

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