What is Gamelan?
In Javanese mythology, the gamelan was created by the god Batara Guru for humans. Physical gamelan instruments are an earthly representation of non corporeal instruments called Lokananta that are played by the gods.– R.T. Warsodiningrat, Serat Weda Pradangga.
Gamelan music from Indonesia is old. No one knows exactly how old, but very old. Over millenia gamelan music has developed and spread over the vast archipelago of Nusantara (modern day Indonesia), evolving into many distinct ensembles and styles. Gamelan from Central Java, Cirebon, Sunda, Bali, and other areas have vastly different instruments and styles.
The type of gamelan music that Nusantara Arts plays the most is from the city of Solo in Central Java. The music from Solo is known for it’s meditative ethereal quality and highly complex music theory. It’s beautiful and rich, mirroring the complexity seen in all the artforms from Solo. For many years, Solo was the center of cultural life and the seat of empires on Java. It’s a city of dual royal palaces; the Keraton Kasunanan and Puro Mangkunegaran. These palaces devoted significant time and energy into the performing arts, with intense rivalry between them. Just 40 miles south lies another rival palace city, Yogyakarta with its own unique take on gamelan.
Gamelan music as the original and traditional musical art form of Java is found in many forms. It’s played on its own for musical enjoyment in royal palaces and small villages, and the types of gamelan ensembles even in Solo are vast.
Karawitan – Music for enjoyment / concert music
Karawitan is the umbrella term that contains many different types of songs and music using gamelan instruments Most music performances in Java are unlike anything you might see in the United States or western countries. They are often less formal and have different etiquette, you won’t have to pay to see it, and you can come and go as you wish. There are fewer official concerts, and more musical happenings that take place semi regularly, often coinciding with the Javanese calendar, weddings, radio programming or just for fun. Klenengan shows are music shows that are played for the enjoyment of the music, musicians, and anyone who may want to watch. They feature a full gamelan up to 25 or 30 musicians or a smaller group called a gadhon which uses quieter elaborating instruments. In Java klenengan are usually 7-8 hours long and start at 8 or 9 pm. Buffalo’s Sari Raras Irama often performs concerts, but rarely in the full klenengan all night style but we are always playing karawitan.
Wayang Kulit – Javanese Shadow Puppet Theatre
Probably the most likely type of performance to see in Java, Wayang shows are incredibly popular to this day. Dahlang are puppet masters who weave tales and jokes around stories from Indian epics poems, the Mahabharata and Ramayana. Wayang shows are marathon events often lasting 7-8 hours and going all night long. These shows are part philosophy, part comedy, part tale tale, and all parts fun. They feature excellent music and virtuosic puppetry.
Seni Tari – The Art of Dance
Classic Javanese dance is still a very popular artform. Many children grow up learning Javanese dance arts, and songs. Many of the dances are choreographed from wayang stories, or other Javenese legends. They are accompanied by a full large gamelan ensemble
Sekaten – Ancient gamelan
Sekaten gamelan is less well known internationally, but is a major type of gamelan in Java. Sekaten is only played once a year, and for one week, during the Sekaten festival, celebrating the birth of Mohammed. The giant sized sekaten instruments are associated most with the “Wali Sanga” the first prohpets of islam on Java, but the instruments themselves are probably much older. The music is cosmic in its meditative intensity. We hope to one day bring a set of Sekan instruments to Buffalo
Instruments & Tuning
Modern large gamelan sets contain an assortment of instruments including the saron with tuned metal bars, large and small hanging gongs, hand drums, flutes, and string instruments. It’s a large collection and can be essentially thought of as a Javanese orchestra. At its largest between 18 and 25 performers can be involved, there are also smaller gadhon ensembles with 6-7 players.
Nusantara Arts original iron and brass instruments came from the family of an old Solonese master musician Pak Sukamso, from Karagan. Matt was very close with Pak Sukamsos family during his time on Java. After Pak Kamso passed away, the family bequeathed the instruments to Matt under the condition that he take care of them and spread their joy and love to the people of America. Nusantara arts has since acquired a complete set of Bronze gamelan instruments that we now use for regular practice.
Complete Central Javanese gamelan sets are actually comprised of two entire sets of instruments, one set of 7 note Pelog tuned Instruments and the other of 5 note Slendro instruments. The two different tuning systems have very different sounds and intervals and neither of them are comparable to any western scales. There is also considerable variation of these scales from region to region on Java, and from gamelan to gamelan, so it is rare for two gamelan sets to have the same tuning.