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

 

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.