How Balinese Gamelan is Made

One day, Balot invited me to the gamelan factory that made his own personal set of gamelan. I had to meet him in a small village in Gianyar, where all of the gongsmiths lived. As I told you in a later post, each village in Bali has their own craft. I lived in the village of wood carvers. Everyday, I would watch them carve sculptures of Hindu gods by hand on their main pavilion day in and day out. One village over is where gongsmiths live. Unlike the wood carvers where each household had their own “factory”, the gold smiths all worked at a few main gamelan factories.

Balot took me into the main pavilion of the property where all the frames for the instruments sat in various stages of completion. Balot then took me to the very first step of making the gongs: measuring the ratio of metal. Most gamelan are made with bronze, which is a mixture of tin and copper. Other lesser quality gamelan are made of iron. Even though iron is a sturdier and stronger metal that may last longer without chipping or breaking, bronze gives more of a shimmery and pointed sound that can be heard over iron bars.

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After measuring the metal, it is then melted in a giant open-air furnace. This is an incredibly hot and dangerous job. It’s essentially a pit of fire. These men are melting and forging this metal in flip flops and bare hands. All while calmly smoking a cigarette on the side of their mouth. I thought it was so insane they have been doing this for so long, they are practically on autopilot while sticking their hands in a pit of fire. They mold it, then fire it, mold it, then fire it again. Mold, fire, repeat, until the metal is in the desired bar shape. This step can take days, which is quite difficult because they have to make the bars all at relatively the same time because the bars need to be as consistent as possible throughout all the instruments. Because of this, its essentially impossible to mix and match different gamelan sets because they are all tuned to their specific set. Each instrument is unique and one of a kind.

 

After the bars and gongs have been forged, they are then tuned by scrapping off parts of the gong or adding extra bronze to the underside of the bars. There is no standard tuning for Balinese gamelan. Within a particular gamelan set, there is also a purposeful detuning of notes produced by pairs of instruments.  This results in a characteristic ‘vibration’ in the sound waves, a natural phenomenon related to electronic ‘phase shifting.’ To our Westernized ears, this would sound out of tune, but that shimmer is something almost religious to the Balinese. It’s the marriage of two different sounds that are opposite, but work perfectly together in harmony. The gongsmiths tune it to the way the buyer wants its to sound. Some want it more flat (low), others want it more sharp (high). Others want it way more dissonant, or out of tune, than usual. There is no wrong answer.

 

After the tuning process, the frames of the instruments are then built. You can have frames made as modern or as traditional as you want. The most common is a red base coat with gold accents of Hindu gods depicting ancient Balinese stories. After the frames are made and painted, the resonators are placed inside. Resonators are the tubes that make the bars “sing”. Imagine a Texas football game and you are sitting at the very top of the bleachers. You wouldn’t be able to hear what the cheerleaders are saying if they were just yelling. They use a megaphone to project their voice all the way to the back. That is what a resonator is for the metal bars. That’s how you can hear gamelan from even as far as a kilometer away! Resonators are traditionally made with bamboo, but because of the humidity and heat, bamboo has the tendency to expand and break quite quickly. The more modern gamelan are now made with PVC pipes because they are less fragile and won’t expand in humidity.

 

The last step is to string the bars and gongs onto their frames and BAM. You have yourself a brand spanking new gamelan set. As you can see, these are incredibly ornate instruments that take 6 to 12 months to make a single set. It was an absolutely amazing experience to see gamelan in the making! If you want to see actual video of this incredible process, there are videos at the end of this blog!

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Bali was such an enriching experience. I have never been somewhere that has so much culture. To anyone interested in visiting Bali, please look farther than the 4 star resorts and beach parties. Actually go out and listen to gamelan. Go see a traditional Balinese dance recital. Visit a temple. The culture here is just so prevalent and colorful. You cannot miss it. Thank you to everyone I met in Bali, this was such an unforgettable two months!

Next Stop: Holiday with Mom and Dad in Australia and New Zealand!

FUN FACTS:

-One time with Balot and some of his friends, it was dinner time and one of the guys went out to get dinner for all of us. The traditional way to have “take-away” meals in Bali is to wrap the fried rice in a banana leaf that is folded up around your chicken satay sticks. So when you open it, it looks something like this:

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-Women aren’t allowed to enter Hindu temples when they are menstrating.
-I didn’t just go to traditional gamelan concerts. Bali is all about the punk rock scene and I was lucky enough to see a couple of shows from the more famous punk rock bands. When you think of punk, you think of anger, go against society, stick it to the man or the government. In Bali, they use punk music to talk about social and environmental issues that are occurring in present day. Many of the musicians are political and environmental activists who use their music and local fame to create awareness of what is happening in Bali that should be changed and what to do to change it. You can see a really interesting article about the environmentally-charged punk rock scene HERE

 

GGP (Gamelan Girl Power) with Ayu and I Made Subandi…..and (gasp) more Indonesian snackies

One day, Balot invited me to go to a children’s gamelan rehearsal lead by his mentor, I Made Subandi. The rehearsal took place at Made’s house, where he had his own personal collection of gamelan instruments. I arrived around the same time as the children did for their rehearsal and watched while everyone shuffled in. Just like the typical American soccer mom, the Balinese parents would drop off their children, but instead of a minivan it would be a motorbike. Instead of a soccer jersey, they would be dressed up in their traditional Balinese wear, which is much more complicated than some exercise clothes. Every little boy is required to wear this outfit (pictured below) even when just practicing gamelan. It’s a sacred act, so you must be dressed correctly to show respect.

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It was time for rehearsal to begin. I sat in the front with Balot and observed how Made managed and taught the group of children. Balot would go to some of the students and play with them if they forgot a passage (remember, all gamelan in learned by ear), and Made would help keep beat or tell the group when they were moving onto the next session with number signs. When Made wasn’t instructing the kids (a couple of mere seconds here and there), he would ask me about my studies and what I want to get out of gamelan while simultaneously stuffing more and more Balinese snacks into my hands. “Try this! Now try this!” Made would say. He would eagerly wait to see my reaction after every snack. I tried a brand new fruit here called “salak”, or snake fruit, because the exterior looks like scales.

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Looks pretty cool, eh? Anyway, back to music.

All of the children ensembles I saw today were only boys. Traditionally, Balinese children start studying traditional Balinese art as early as age two. The boys play gamelan, and the girls dance to the gamelan. Girls are of course welcome to join the ensembles, but it is a rare sight to see a girl among the boys. I met one of the few female gamelan players who actually help teach the children’s gamelan class that I saw. Her name is Ayu, and she is 16. After rehearsal, Ayu, Balot, and I went upstairs to talk away from the noise of all the children. Balot told me that female gamelan players are still seen as taboo to the older generation. They are seen at the came caliber of the children ensembles and are not taken as seriously as the male adult ensembles. I wanted to interview both Ayu and Balot, but Ayu did not speak english, so Balot translated for me. Here is a picture below of Ayu:

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Ayu comes from a long line of musicians. Even though music has always been a huge focus in her house and her family, her father initially didn’t want her to do music. Ayu’s older brother also plays gamelan, and has been very supportive of Ayu’s similar passion. Her brother then told her father that he wouln’t continue to play gamelan if Ayu didn’t get to play in high school. After that little shock, the family then became completely supportive of Ayu joining Madu’s studio and the music high school in Bali.

Because of the negative stigma of being a female gamelan player, its difficult to get girls to be interested in playing. Unfortunately, Ayu didnt get as many opportunities to play as the average male gamelan player, but now being labeled as one of Made’s students, more and more people are wanting to see her play. She is seen as something rare among so many male players.

Just like Ayu, Balot’s parents didn’t agree with him being a musician, but more on the reason that it is not a suitable career to make money. Eventually his family finally came around to the idea because they trusted Made to mold and teach Balot. In Bali, if Made invites you to study with him, it is a huge deal and you should take the that opportunity. If Made saw something special in Balot, then his family has to trust that judgement and let Balot pursue music.

Made has an incredibly open mind when it comes to the battle of the sexes in music. He doesn’t see someone’s gender as a way to quantify their talent. He believes in the mind. The potential. There is more than just gamelan in the world. There is more to see. He is more interested in what is out there, while still respecting the Balinese tradition. Both Balot and Ayu have seen a significant difference in their playing and creativity after being taken on as a student of Made. They are taken more seriously and people look at them differently, with more respect for their craft. Because of Made, Balot has been inspired to become a composer and enroll in ISI, the arts institute in Bali. He has made Balot and Ayu really believe in themselves. Even though they both attend arts school, they feel that they learn the most here. Not only about music, but about the world and themselves. They have learned that music is more about how you respect one another.

Made teaches only a small percentage of technique, and the rest is learning from your emotions from the inside and learning how to pull it out of yourself. It is a process that is constantly progressing and growing. This process doesn’t see age. Balot, at the age of 29, has learned more about self-confidence from Ayu during their time here. He says you can always learn from the children, from their confidence. They see things more simply than adult. You do have to respect your elders in Balinese culture, but here, you also need to respect your youth. For Ayu, she has learned how to compose from Balot. From this, she has learned to use her music as a form of reflection and understanding of her inner self.

Just like Ayu, more and more women are being taken under the wings of gamelan teachers and given chances that were not initially there say, 20 years ago. Even though its still quite intimidating for the average girl to start gamelan, especially when the girls are initially put into dance as early as the age of 2, but women like Ayu show these aspiring women that it is possible to break through that barrier and learn. Many people are now asking Ayu to teach their children and want her to compete in multiple gamelan competitions around Bali. Opportunities for women are growing everyday.

I have learned that it is very Balinese to be competitive. Gamelan is an artistic war from one village against another. Sometimes, they even have people sneak over into the other village to hear what they are doing, and mimic it and make it better for the upcoming competition. The biggest lesson I think that Made has taught all of his students is that you need to play for yourself. Music is supposed to build you up, not break you down. He shows them that it is used for meditation, for positive growth, not only in your musical talent, but in your life. You can communicate how you feel through music.

What I learned from Ayu and Balot that day was absolutely priceless. As a classical musician, brought up in a strict ochrestral music style, college was a rude awakening. I lost the love of music early on in college and considered dropping it all together. I lost the fun in it. It did seem like a battle. I had to beat the person ahead of me. Something that was my therapy, my safe place, became this chore. Into my later years at Rice, I found more of a rhythm on how to turn out results and eventually get into the groove of enjoying the music I previously feared to play. But my self confidence really didn’t kick in until I graduated and went to Music Academy International before my Zeff year. That was the first time I was playing not to prove to anyone that I was worthy of being there. I was playing for myself. And I played so much better than I ever had.

Sitting there with Balot and Ayu really reinforced that mentality I recently discovered. As Balot said, its a process that will never stop forming and growing. My interview with Balot and Ayu was truly eye opening for me. Even on the other side of the world, people deal with the same problems and work through them the same way. When you enjoy the music you play, people around you will also enjoy it and feel the joy that you are radiating.

Thank you Balot and Ayu for an amazing day!

STORY TIME
-I legit fell in a hole at night on the way to visit my friend for dinner. Like Alice in Wonderland style. After falling and screaming and flinging my phone across the road, an Aussie man laughed because he thought I tripped, then I heard a “Oh shoot, shes like down”. Then his family came to help me and a nice Balinese boy came to personally wipe all the blood off my legs. Never have I thought that I had to use the excuse, “Sorry I’m late, I fell in a hole” ever in my life.
-Finding people’s houses in Bali is near impossible for me because 1) I was driving a little scooter everywhere and depending on google maps yelling into my ear, 2) there are streets that exist in real life, but Google doesn’t consider them to be real in maps, and lastly, 3) you have to watch out for herds of ducks that run through the rice paddies or dogs that decide to take naps in the middle of the road.
-I was mugged by a monkey at the Uluwatu Temple. I leaned up against a wall to attempt to take an artsy picture of another monkey and then I see a little monkey hand come across my face and take my glasses. Then he proceeded to eat my glasses and then a Balinese man came up to the monkey with a banana and threw it at the monkey and grabbed my glasses. Positive reinforcement. Spoiled little furry devils.

Balot and Insitu Recordings

I met many new friends through the Narwastu Gamelan Ensemble. Many were Westerners who were studying gamelan for a year at the local university, the Indonesian Institute of the Arts. One night, they invited me out to an album release of record that was a compilation of new music by Balinese composers on traditional gamelan instruments.

I arrived to the record release party right on time as per the Facebook event, still used to the precision of Korean time. I forgot that the Balinese are on island time, which means the event wouldn’t start for another hour. The venue was also a coffee bar, so I got a coffee and sat there by myself watching everyone set up for the release party. Trying to not look as awkward as I felt, I began to talk to one of the local musicians there who was helping set up. Little did I know, he was the co-founder of the record label that was responsible for this album release, Insitu Recordings.

Insitu Recordings is not only a record label, but also an arts collective made up of composers and musicians from all around the world who share a passion for Balinese music. Co founded by I Putu Gede Sukaryana (Balot) and Jonathan Adams, Insitu Recordings uses traditional Balinese gamelan in new and innovate ways to create an entirely new sub-group of music. From playing Bach inventions on one of the various metallaphones, to adding an American style rock band to a traditional gamelan gong kebyar ensemble, Insitu is giving traditional Balinese gamelan music a fresh coat of paint and creating something new and exciting anyone around the world would enjoy. Every couple of months, Insitu Recordings releases an installment of music by various composers from all around Bali, and even some composers from the West. It is a platform for young and talented musicians and composers to showcase their music to the public and get their music out there in the international music world.

Balot and I ended up talking all night about what he wants to see happen in the Balinese music scene and how he want to change the way people view music here.
The Balinese are incredibly competitive when it comes to gamelan ensembles. Balot compared gamelan competitions to a war. He wants to change this idea of music being more than just a competition where someone is better than the other, he wants it to be more of a positive activity. “People aren’t playing for themselves anymore” Balot says. He wants to remind people that music is almost like therapy because it is a reflection of one’s self. Because of Balot and Insitu Recordings, more and more contemporary composers are allowed to showcase and celebrate their talent on a broader spectrum while still respecting the Balinese music tradition.

Balot’s over all mission for Insitu Recordings opened my mind. What if I don’t completely focus on just women in percussion? What if I go even farther? I realized that although it is good to focus on women in traditional percussion ensembles and see how they have essentially “stuck it to the man” in regards of playing instruments that are traditionally only for men. But if I focused solely on women-only projects, I felt like I was doing the same thing to men that they have been doing to women all of these years. They are 50% of the population. If they have a musical mission that interests me that is made for the common good of the community, I should research, study, and learn from them as much as any other woman I have studied thus far.

This got me thinking. Women are choosing now to drum; not just for the sake of drumming, although I know that is quite an important factor, but they’re doing it to foster change for the better in their community. When Nidhi, Michelle, Leontine, etc. taught children how to play drums, they didn’t just teach girls, they taught any and everyone for the greater good of their community. They aren’t there to find the next Mozart, however, it doesn’t hurt if you find one, they’re using music to spark change and hope to anyone who wants to play along. Whether you’re a victim of domestic abuse, have HIV/AIDS, trying to find your next meal, or just want to play on a drum for the fun of it, they are there for you, using MUSIC FOR CHANGE.

I had my aha-moment. I know it might sound like a simple concept, and that I’ve even done outreach for children during my time at Rice, how did I not think of this before? During those music outreach days back in Texas, I didn’t feel like I was actually making a difference with an hour presentation. Maybe I did for some of the kids, but the feeling I experienced during my first half of my fellowship was incomparable. It was more than a music class for for kids I studied, it was therapy. This changed the attitudes of many people and was then directly poured into that community. Music fosters confidence and hope in people who originally think that things aren’t possible, that things aren’t going to get better. By seeing and learning first hand from the amazing women in Africa, I’ve learned that Balot is doing the same thing, but in Bali. By using gamelan as a starting point, Balot has allowed many new composers see that there is more to see out there. “We need to gain perspective and see what is out there while still respecting the Balinese tradition”. Because of Balot, there is now a community of young composers and musicians in Bali who can collaborate and make music that which they can share with the world.

I was so excited that night that I had a break through. I had a new burst of energy and inspiration for my project. I thought to myself, “This. This is what I want to bring back home and do with my life”. I left the release party with a CD of the new album and plans to meet with Balot again, and got a celebratory Cuban sandwich and ginger ale from my sandwich guy down by the beach.

You can check out the amazing new compositions of Bali’s talented young composers HERE. Support the arts and buy some of the music! Be the cool hipster that has worldly music on your iPhone when you backseat DJ and everyone automatically thinks you’re deep or something!

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I have a “food guy” in each place I live for a go-to meal. Just insert a different food before “guy” in each country:
-South African coffee guy: His place was really close my hostel and we got to talking after he noticed me stretching in my really weird contortionist-ways with my arms while writing and yelled out loud “good god what?!” Then his dog peed on my white shoes. Whatever. His place had great coffee.
-Rwandan banana muffin guy: Another coffee shop where that monkey (pictured in one of my previous blogs) would just chill and stare at me…maybe he was just staring at my muffin. My ultimate go-to snack while working on my blog
-Korea fried chicken guy: There’s a little known fact that Korea is famous for their chicken and beer. Well, I thought it would be too lame to go to an actual restaurant by myself for dinner still at this point (I eventually got over that fear in India), so there was a guy with a GIANT wok in the main shopping district in Seoul with fried chicken made by the gods. Perfect lonely people snack
-Balinese Cuban sandwich guy: The sanitation was questionable, but I had an iron stomach after Rwanda. Plus nothing beat having an ice cold ginger ale outside the 7/11 with my favorite stray cat I befriended and would feed her the scraps. I swear I had human friends, too.