Gamelan: A Cultural Trace in the Malay Archipelago

by Inge-Marie and Dr. Hans Peter Holst (phD)

On our travels around Sundanese Java to research about the art and life of Otto Djaya (1916-2002), the indigenous visual artist and folk painter from Banten, West Java[1], our growing awareness of the Gamelan[2] music[3] and the Wayang theatre[4] increased and the two art forms became peripheral research objectives on their own. It heightened our interest that in Malaysia, where we live, the two art forms are similarly traditional and wonderful.

Gamelan and, more so, Wayang theatre may be vanishing in Malaysia. However, visual evidence produced by YouTube search suggests that currently there is some Gamelan activity in all the states in Malaysia. In fact, Gamelan seems to be attracting a keen amount of interest among the people and the scholars in several States. On the other hand, the Wayang theatre in Malaysia is threatened with imminent extinction. We wanted to know more about the big picture.[5] [6] [7] [8] [9]

In this article, we focus on the music, the Gamelan, because recently we discovered and acquired two ink drawings by Otto Djaya of the Babar Lajar Gamelan ensemble visiting Paris. Both the Ensemble and Otto Djaya were based in Amsterdam at the time.

The signed drawings of Babar Lajar in “Parijs” enabled us to date Otto Djaya’s visit to Paris to exhibit his paintings to December 1947 and to anchor his interest in the Gamelan music[10].

The Gamelan would turn out to be an unparalleled Indonesian cultural treasure similar to the visual arts treasure, painting, contributed by Otto Djaya and his generation of peers. The Babar Lajar Gamelan ensemble was founded in Amsterdam in about 1943. The ensemble was unique by its founder[11], the local manufacture of its instruments during wartime, and its musicians, who were young and musically gifted, and none of whom were Indonesians[12], suggesting the almost hypnotic, cult-like, appeal of Gamelan in the aftermath of the horrors of World War II.  

Indonesian President Sukarno introduced government funded Gamelan schools during the 1950s and 1960s, same as what he did for the visual arts earlier on, in order to encourage and sustain national art forms. “Some Indonesians objected to this elevation of a musical style associated primarily with Java and Bali as a “national” art form – as in a multi-ethnic, multicultural country there are no universal cultural properties”[13].

The indigenous music as well as the visual arts became important propaganda for internationally showing Indonesian culture in the runup to the Netherlands handing over sovereignty to Indonesia in 1949; Indonesia was no longer a colony.

Otto Djaya. 1986. A people inspired by the sea. Serenading water, bliss and sunset; a Sundanese flute, one of the Gamelan instruments. 27×39 cm. Gouache on paper.
Demung, a Gamelan instrument. Note the likeness with the bow and stern of the boat above.
Otto Djaya. 1986.  Fishing boats and fish vendors by the flamboyant tree. 27×39 cm. Pastel on paper.
Gambang, a Gamelan instrument. Some Gamelan designs are inspired more or less by the boat shapes.

Otto Djaya was a Sundanese of West Java. Besides painting Gamelan ensembles into his many paintings of folk dancing and festivals, the boats in his paintings are Sundanese and show an unmistakable resemblance to Gamelan instrument architecture. The Sundanese were captivated by water: stream, lake, ocean. Otto Djaya’s paintings imparted a union of popular culture and music.

Gamelan, an Indonesian Institution

The ‘Gamelan Sari Oneng Parakansalak’ ensemble of Perakan Salak

The “Gamelan Sari Oneng Parakansalak[14] of Sumedang, West Java travelled far from its birth place, a tea plantation in Sukabumi to, first, The International Exposition in Amsterdam in 1883, second, The World Exposition in Paris in 1889 and, third, The World Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893.

In a remarkable coincidence, sixty years after Chicago, at the end December 1945, a 29 years old Otto Djaya, the artist, now a company commander with the rank of Major in the revolutionary Indonesian forces, and his troops played a key role in stopping an advancing British/Dutch tank column at the Bojong Kokasan Ridge, Sukabumi, east of the Parakan Salak area and the tea plantations, the origin of the Gamelan Sari Oneng.   

“Kampung Jawa”, the Javanese village on the Netherlands’ site at The World Exposition in Paris 1889. The Gamelan Sari Oneng performed there with Javanese musicians.

Gamelan music was formally staged in Europe at the 1889 Paris Exposition. Javanese musicians performed Gamelan in the East Indies section of the Netherlands’ pavilion[15] [16]. In 1993, Gamelan was introduced to USA at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Illinois[17]. Western composers and musicians were intrigued and interested to listen and to experiment with the new sound.

In 2021, Indonesian Gamelan was listed by UNESCO on its Representative List of Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. In comparison, Wayang was listed in 2003, two decades earlier.

In Indonesia, particularly in Java and Bali, Gamelan is the most popular form of traditional music. A Gamelan ensemble typically consists of a variety of metal percussion instruments, usually made of bronze or brass, including gongs, xylophones, and drums. It may also be extended with bamboo flutes, stringed instruments, and vocalists, but the focus is on the percussion.  Metal instruments are expensive to make, compared with those of wood or bamboo. However, they will not deteriorate or change tune in a hot, humid climate. Some scholars suggest that this may be one of the reasons that gamelan developed, with its signature metallic sound.

Gamelan was a feature of court life among the Buddhist and Hindu kingdoms of Java, Sumatra, and Bali. The Buddhist monument of Borobudur in central Java has a bas-relief depicting a Gamelan ensemble from the time of the Srivijaya Empire, 600s-1200s; the musicians play stringed instruments, metal drums, and flutes.

The Majapahit Empire (1293-1597) had a government office in charge of supervising the performing arts, including Gamelan. The Gamelan ensemble was important to court life. Inscriptions and bas-reliefs from Bali, also under the control of the Majapahit emperors, show that the same types of musical ensembles and instruments were as prevalent there as in Java. The gong made its appearance in Indonesian Gamelan during this era as did the stitched-skin drums and bowed strings, at first probably imported as trade goods.

Islam came to Java during the 1400s by Muslim traders from Arabia and south Asia. The most influential strain of Islam then introduced was Sufism that values music as one of the pathways to experiencing the divine. Had a more conservative strain of Islam been introduced, Gamelan in Java and Sumatra might not have flourished.  

In keeping with Sufi teachings, Javanese Gamelan tended to be slower in tempo and more meditative or trance-like. Most of the rhythms are generally soft and reflect the harmony of life, the principles of life generally adopted by Javanese society. Gamelan has become inseparable from Javanese customs and human life and is almost always there in every Javanese ceremony, to accompany dances, dance dramas, theatre, puppets, rituals, events and festivals. In general, no two gamelan ensembles are the same, and those that originated in prestigious courts have their own style and tuning. Varieties of gamelan are distinguished by their complement of instruments and use of tunings, repertoire, style, voice, and cultural context.

There is a principal division between the styles favoured by the Javanese, Sundanese and Balinese. While Javanese Gamelan has soft and slow tones, Sundanese gamelan with its sound of flutes makes it both soft, mellow and romantic[18]. Balinese gamelan has strong and dynamic tones with fast rhythms. Perhaps it can be said that Javanese Gamelan is played for formal dancing and ceremony, Sundanese Gamelan is played for dreamers and lovers, and Balinese for rituals.

Bali is Different

Bali remained predominantly Hindu, wherefore Java and Bali developed different forms of gamelan. Balinese Gamelan emphasizes virtuosity and quick tempos, a trend encouraged by the Dutch colonists. Balinese instruments are built in pairs tuned slightly apart to produce interference beats, ideally at a consistent pace. This concept communicates the idea of repeating rising and falling waves of music.

Bali with its Kebyar[19] music broke away from the Javanese gamelan and the ceremonial gamelan. The Balinese refashioned their music and dance style by Kebyar, which originated in North Bali villages a century ago and spread rapidly over Bali’s music and dance landscape. Soon, ensembles in Central and South Bali were refashioning their ceremonial Gamelan orchestras of suspended gongs, bronze-keyed metallophones, tuned gong chimes, and drums to accommodate the new style[20], additional keys were added to extend ranges, some instruments were melted down and re-forged to respond to Kebyar requirements. Musicians wanted lighter bronze keys and more of them, and longer racks of gong chimes, to play the rapid melodies and sharp accents. Playing techniques and innovations in one realm led to innovations in the other. Kebyar dancing embodies the music’s restless energy and vice versa. It was popularly said that Kebyar is a modernist’s hallucinogenic dream, cast in bronze.[21]

Today most Indonesians have embraced the Gamelan as their national sound and it is heard frequently on the air. Even so, stand-alone gamelan concerts are unusual.  

Gamelan Melayu

Gamelan is said to have originated late in the Srivijaya Empire around the 900s and to have migrated to the Riau-Lingga Sultanate, a long stone throw from Johore. Gamelan[22] instruments were brought to Pahang in the 1800s making it one of the oldest musical instruments found in Peninsular Malaysia today. Gamelan music existed primarily amongst the ruling class at the Pahang, Terengganu, and Johor palaces, as an accompaniment to the traditional dance known as Joget[23], usually performed for guests of the palace, at elaborate ceremonies and festivals.

Since then, Gamelan has continued to be played among the people and has spread to other states[24]. Having little to no function in Malaysia outside of ceremonial performances, Gamelan Melayu is now largely entertainment music to practitioners, performers, and audiences/connoisseurs[25]. We noted that there are many enthusiastic Gamelan performers in Peninsular Malaysia.

Before 1982, Gamelan instruments in the UK existed only at the Indonesian Embassy. Today, the interest in Gamelan flourishes. Today, there are some 150 Javanese, Sundanese and Balinese Gamelans in the UK. Clearly, the British did not think as much of Gamelan during colonial times as the Dutch did.

Contemporary compositions of Adrian Lee for the Rhythm in Bronze ensemble[26], Ng Chong Lee [27], Marzelan Salleh [28], and Junita Batubara [29] are immensely interesting and uplifting.

Adrian Lee, Hakikat Air from Arus Gangsa, performed by Rhythm in Bronze

A Gamelan Symphony Festival was held in 2018 at the Sultan Alam Shah Islamic College as a showcase of Gamelan Melayu, with six local Gamelan groups from both secondary and tertiary education institutions participating. In 2019, the project called for a Gamelan competition, bringing in competitors from a total of eight secondary and tertiary education institutions, with the host emerging as the winner. In 2020, the Virtual Gamelan Symphony Festival (VGSF), aimed to make Gamelan Melayu accessible to the masses, through simple and easy-to-follow video lessons[30] .

Gamelan travelled from Indonesia and inspired others

When western composers presented music inspired by the Gamelan they were met with both derision and enduring admiration at the premiere as, typically, within days, the confusion among audiences and critics had turned into pleasure. 

Was it mere coincidence that the formation of vast stylistic ecosystems came into being simultaneously with modernists in Western music and the first Gamelan presenters coming together? The musical scale was different but the musical characteristics were similar. The Western composers and the Gamelan artists must have shared some deep cultural commonality and instinct of sounds, tuning, and timing. We shall not know, but ecosystems continue to grow. The attraction of Gamelan to Western composers and audiences resulted in both adaption and adoption [31].

The most significant characteristic of Asian music is the use of pentatonic scale and gong chimes, also used in western music along with other instruments. This describes the relationship between Asian and Western music[32] [33]. In Javanese Gamelan music, the slendro scale has five tones per octave, of which four are emphasized in classical music. The pelog scale has six or seven tones, and is generally played using one of three five-tone subsets in which certain notes are avoided while others are emphasized. [34]

We find in our travels that music is spanning the world across cultures. With music compositions of today, especially what suggests to be symphonic, it is difficult to tell if Eastern heritage instruments and tonal systems are inspiring Western heritage or the other way around. Either way, the output is typically capturing the ear and senses and does not give reason to reject classical Western music and/or music and composers of previous centuries and of antiquity. It is deeply satisfactory to witness by ear that music makers have tremendous ambitions and see few boundaries ahead of them.

The tonality and rhythm of Indonesian Gamelan contributed to the ‘atonal’ ideas and compositions by Western composers from around 1900 onward, for instance, Debussy, Erik Satie, Francis Poulenc, Benjamin Britten, Igor Stravinsky and Bela Bartok, and many others.  

Erik Satie (1866-1925). The composers Satie and Debussy were the earliest to use the exotic and highly dissonant Gamelan scales. Satie’s Gnossiennes compositions for piano are among his earliest compositions and evokes ‘another world’ by its “highly original modal harmonies, pure simplicity, and monotonous repetition”[35]. The originality and simplicity could possibly have been influenced by Debussy – or it was Satie who influenced Debussy; both were thinking in terms of Gamelan scales in the late 19th century.

Claude Debussy (1862-1918)[36], Pagodes[37], 1903.

Maurice Ravel (1875-1937), String Quartet in F by the Hagen Quartet.

Francis Poulenc (1899-1963), Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra[38], with Poulenc and Jacques Février on the pianos, 1932.

Colin McPhee (1900-1964)[39]. Returning to North America from Bali end of the 1930s,   he composed Tabuh Tabuhan for 2 pianos and orchestra, without a single Gamelan instrument in the orchestra.

Benjamin Britten (1913-1976)[40]

Lou Harrison (1917-2003)[41], Concerto for Violin with Percussion Orchestra and Varied Trio (1987).

The Otto Djaya images in the article are the property of the authors and may be copied for educational purposes. The authors borrowed the pictures of the Gamelan instruments from
https://lsa.umich.edu/content/dam/cseas-assets/cseas-documents/gamelan/JavaneseGamelanMusic.pdf



Footnotes

[1] We are currently writing on our final edition of a book about Otto Djaya (1916-2002):   http://archive.ivaa-online.org/files/uploads/texts/OTTO%20DJAYA,%20THE%20CHRONICLE,%2015-06-2019.pdf

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gamelan

[3] https://lsa.umich.edu/content/dam/cseas-assets/cseas-documents/gamelan/JavaneseGamelanMusic.pdf

[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wayang

[5] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Malay_gamelan

[6] https://www.esplanade.com/offstage/arts/joget-the-popular-ever-evolving-music-of-dance

[7] https://www.prestigeonline.com/my/people-events/people/made-in-malaysia-pak-dain-fusion-wayang-kulit/#:~:text=Malaysia%20has%20always%20identified%20with,200%20to%20250%20years%20ago.&text=The%20Ramayana%20and%20Mahabarata%20held,art%20from%20long%2C%20long%20ago.

[8] There are four types of wayang kulit in Malaysia, namely Wayang Kulit Jawa, Wayang Kulit Gedek, Wayang Kulit Melayu and Wayang Kulit Kelantan, http://mpunasilemak.blogspot.com/.   In Malaysia, the culture of wayang kulit is slowly dying out as the younger generations are less interested in this wonderfully expressive culture.

[9] “In Malaysia, Wayang Kulit Kelantan is the pre-eminent form of shadow puppet theatre. However, it is threatened with imminent extinction nowadays. There were more than 300 dalangs (shadow puppeteers and narrators) in the 1960s but the number decreased tremendously to 11 in 1999.” Khor, Khengia (2011). Segi University. The Use of CGI (Computer Generated Imagery) to Capture the Visual Styles of Wayang Kulit Kelantan, in International Journal of the Arts in Society, No. 4, pg 203-214.  Wayang was placed on UNESCO’s Representative List of Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity in 2003. In comparison, Gamelan was not listed until 2021.

[10] Gamelan musicians were to appear and accompany in many motifs of his paintings.

[11] https://heindegraaff-nl.translate.goog/babar-layar/?_x_tr_sl=nl&_x_tr_tl=en&_x_tr_hl=en&_x_tr_pto=sc

[12] http://www.indischmuziekleven.com/index.php?lang=14&dept=95&article=203

[13] Dr. Kallie Szczepanski, Ph.D. History, Boston University, is a history teacher specializing in Asian history and culture. She has taught at the high school and university levels in the U.S. and South Korea. https://www.thoughtco.com/history-of-gamelan-195131, updated on June 26, 2019.

[14] The pictures of the Gamelan Sari Oneng are borrowed from https://sukabumiupdate.com/posts/83123/sari-oneng-gamelan-sukabumi-yang-tampil-di-peresmian-menara-eiffel-paris

[15] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Exposition_Universelle_(1889)

[16] The first appearing at the 1899 Paris World Exhibition when the Netherlands’ exhibited of its East Indies colony.  The British pavilion at the Exhibition did not have a similar Malaya element.

[17] On an area of approx. 700 acres at Jackson Park and Midway Plaisance. Pavilions were built by 46 countries; some 27 million people visited the expo. It was synonymous with a world’s fair celebrating the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus. The ‘Syndicate Java Chicago’, formed by two West Java tea plantations, arranged to send a Gamelan with musicians to the Expo. The Gamelan and the free servings of Java tea was enthusiastically received.

[18] Encyclopedia Jakarta. December 2020.

[19] Kebyar means “to flare up or burst open”, and refers to the explosive changes in tempo and dynamics characteristic of the style. It is the most popular form of gamelan in Bali.

[20] McPhee, Colin. Music in Bali. Yale University Press; First Printing (April 1, 1966).

[21] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ndnhbvBolH8

[22] https://gamelansymphonyfes.wixsite.com/vgsf

[23] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joget

[24] Kelantan:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sfBn5oUMNio
Perlis: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GFXZm1JFxYs
    Perak: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PP9wZY_Yjjo
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VFKMRRNmhwk
    Malacca: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_F5j7QIHJLY
Negri Sembilan: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kfMBFuKQzLc

[25] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5Z7NxzTk2hI

[26] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bI9SU0jXkvQ

[27] Ng Chong Lim, Shadows,performed with the Gamelan trio of Kamrul, Shafic and Susan Sarah John at the ASEAN Chopin Competition 2014. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5rcfW5CH-2k
Dragonfly, piano by Celestine Yoong, ASEAN Chopin Competition 2014 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vM8IKJGRaBk
Ng Chong Lim, piano and Ion Mazur violin, 2020, performing Claude Debussy’s Violin Sonata in g minor https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=onI03ahJm10
A Distant Voice of Rain Forest, piano by Nicolas Ong https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9yMcdpFJqBM

[28] Marzelan Salleh, Si Pencuri Epal (A poor boy with his stolen apple). Conducted by Tazul Izan Tajuddin. Performed by UITM Student Chamber Ensemble at the Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lU4RBUHVb08
Puteri Gunung Ledang, Piano Solo performed by pianist Jamie Tan for the 7th Malaysian Composers Concert Series 2016, at Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C89D79HeNBQ

[29] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3q19x2U-vIM&t=229s

[30] https://gamelansymphonyfes.wixsite.com/vgsf/about-vgsf

[31] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P63CpTSy7_4&t=112s

[32] Batubara, Junita. Story of Tjong A Fie: Programmatic Music Composition Combining Chinese, Malay and Western Music Elements, in International Journal of Academic Research in Business and Social Sciences, Vol. 7, No. 9, 2017.

[33] https://latitudes.nu/the-influence-of-gamelan-on-western-modern-music/ 2017

[34] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sZG3b6aluBk.   

[35] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Erik_Satie

[36] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e8TAVT-Fvas

[37] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SfYEkk9nir4   Insight!

[38] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V87wGyfUQiQ

[39] Colin McPhee and Benjamin Britten play Balinese Ceremonial Music for Two Pianos https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J3PacNDMneE

[40] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=usztkkF8gVI

[41] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gn-GP8KUJB4

Author: Museum Volunteers, JMM

Museum Volunteers, JMM Taking the Mystery out of History

2 thoughts on “Gamelan: A Cultural Trace in the Malay Archipelago”

    1. Thank you to you. As for ourselves, the music managed to bring tears of pleasure to our eyes!

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