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.
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!
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!
-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:
-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