The music of Bali is one of the gateways to this culturally and artistically rich island for visitors. Music is present everywhere in Bali, and there is a greater concentration of orchestras and musicians in Bali than elsewhere in the world. Music plays, quite literally, an important role in sharing a region’s culture with visitors and foreigners. It paves the way for communities to express themselves without the barrier of language.
Music features in every part of life in the region and is very diverse. Villages and temples form the centre of music in the province, with each village having multiple music clubs. An essential part of music culture in Bali is instruments not belonging to individuals but groups like the music clubs or sekas.
Types of Balinese Musical Instruments:
Named after the “ceng ceng ceng” sound it makes upon being hit, this instrument is made of metal and shaped like a cymbal. On the outside of the metal cymbal are red threads used for holding, and music is made by hitting one plate with the other. The ceng-ceng accompanies almost all types of Balinese music.
The genggong is made of a bamboo frame with a tongue cut from a palm sugar leaf. The instrument is played by sucking in the “playah” at one end and pulling on the string attached to the tongue. Different vowel sounds produce different notes, and music is produced by vibrations.
Consisting of 11 bamboo rods and played by hitting the rods with a rubber mallet, the rindik produces a delicate hum. This hum is born out of the bamboo rods being tuned in pairs, with each one slightly higher than the previous. Rindik compositions usually take inspiration from nature and differ in each village in Bali. In musical celebrations, multiple people play a rindik, and flutes, gongs, ceng-cengs and the like accompany it.
Gongs have been used in the region since the 13th century and are a traditional part of not only Balinese music but also the music of Indonesia. Gongs are versatile and feature in Bali’s contemporary music scene, often used in collaboration with electronic music.
Made out of bamboo tubes, flutes are blown to make music. A flute is made out of a bamboo tube with six holes in its belly. Flute players know which of these holes to cover to make different sounds. In Bali, flutes, also known as the suling, are played using a circular breathing technique to make a constant sound, which is very different from the rest of Indonesia.
The kendang is a drum used in Indonesia, with two heads that are beaten to make music. Kendangs are an important part of the gamelan orchestra, and in Bali, they are used in pairs. For example, a gamelan in Bali uses a low-pitched kendang called the kendang wadon and a high-pitched one called the kendang lanang. Along with these two, Bali is home to seven types of kendangs of different sizes. From the largest to the smallest, they are the kendang mebarung, the kendang tambur, the kendang bebedug, the kendang cedungan, the kendang gupekan, the kendang bebarongan, and the kendang krumpungan.
The mandolin is a stringed percussion instrument played by plucking at its strings. Mandolins became popular in the region after the Japanese occupation of Indonesia and have now become an essential part of the gamelan orchestra.
Gamelan Gong - Traditional Balinese Orchestra:
A style of orchestra indigenous to Bali and Java, gamelan consists of gongs, flutes, xylophones, tambourines like the kendang, drums and the like. Gamelan is an essential part of Bali’s culture, bringing people together and allowing them free expression.
While Balinese and Javanese gamelan developed similarly under the Majapahit Empire, most of Indonesia converted to Islam during the 15th century. Bali, however, remained predominantly Hindu, reflected in its gamelan music developing differently. For example, the region’s orchestra featured a quick tempo and focussed on virtuosity, unlike the more meditative Javanese gamelan.
There are over 20 different types of gamelan in Bali, with each type having its own context and tradition. The gamelan gong gede of the Batur temple is believed to be the oldest form of gamelan in Bali. The gamelan semar pegulingan from the east of Bali features seven tones, while the gamelan pelegongan has five tones. The gamelan gong keybar is the most modern form of the orchestra in Bali, having developed in the early 20th century, and features a much quicker tempo. Portable gamelan styles, like the gamelan bebonangan and gamelan angklung, are part of temple ceremonies and religious processions.
Places to Experience Gamelan Music
1. Ubud Palace
Gamelan accompanies dance shows here, and visitors are treated to captivating costumes and dance movements. Ubud Palace also provides a brochure explaining the performance in English.
2. Cenik Wayah Children’s Gamelan and Dance Group, Ubud Water Palace
Against the stunning backdrop of the Ubud Water Palace, this performance features talented children and young adults putting on an enjoyable show.
3. Mekar Bhuana
Mekar Bhuana offers an all-around gamelan experience. Visitors can interact with gamelan experts and learn about this musical tradition, and even try learning to play a few of the instruments. Along with watching a gamelan performance, visitors can also purchase instruments.
4. Bale Banjar Kelod
Bale Banjar Kelod features an all-woman gamelan performance, as well as multiple dance performances such as the famous seated dance.
Gamelan groups routinely perform or rehearse in the town of Ubud, and most groups are open to visitors dropping in on these rehearsals. These performances are a very different experience from scheduled performances but are as lively and fun an experience.