Bali is a tricky amalgamation. Javanese immigration and Australian and Chinese tourism have laid a thick net over traditional culture to produce a confusing lattice of very different worlds. The realities are forced to share physical spaces while their lived experiences vie for autonomy and the chance to continue existing as culturally distinct.
A Javanese man is selling gado-gado out of a cart, which his family has owned for decades, next to a surf shop, that last year was a reggae bar, and the year before was a rice paddy. Lives contrast and overlap, and like a magic eye book, on the surface some experiences – breakfasts, beach chairs and bars – appear dull and two-dimensional, but with a simple change of gaze, a millennia of tradition, hidden beneath the pattern, bursts forth, and magic arises.
Gamelan is one of the many mind blowing three-dimensional shapes that is easy to overlook. An Indonesian tradition, though most prominent in Java and Bali, gamelan is practiced and performed in temples around the island, and most who visit will hear the melodic sounds drift by as they scooter down Bali’s busy roads. The closer you get to gamelan, the more you realize it is worth stopping for.
…gamelan is practiced and performed in temples around the island, and most who visit will hear the melodic sounds drift by as they scooter down Bali’s busy roads.
A percussion heavy ensemble, contemporary gamelan includes a variety of metal instruments, usually made from bronze or brass. At any one time, 10 to 50 musicians pound out a perfectly choreographed rhythm on a multitudinous array of drums, gongs and xylophones, the effect of which is blissfully hypnotic. The complex music, each piece of which is designed for specific occasions ranging from death rites to temple ceremonies, is rarely notated, and is born and carried through aural traditions spanning thousands of years.
In fact, Gamelan dates back to when history of the area began. Since the 8th century, Buddhist and Hindu cultures in Indonesia have referenced the style of music, which usually featured in court life. It began with rudimentary stringed instruments, iron drums and flutes, though, like the culture in Bali itself, evolved and adapted throughout the oncoming years with the ebbs and flows of foreign influence.
In the 12 century, China, long after the first migrations of people travelled to the island on basic wooden rafts through the Philippines and Sulawesi, had a renewed influence on the island. A Balinese king married a Chinese princess who brought with her, among dragons and foreign currency, the gong. Creating an earthy echo, the gong gradually became a foundation of the percussive sound and is ubiquitous in Indonesian gamelan today.
A huge influx of Javanese culture pervaded Bali in the 1300s when the Majapahit Empire, led by the Javanese Prime Minister, Gajah Mada, killed the Balinese king and colonized the indigenous culture. Architecture, theatre, music and dance were all influenced. The Javanese brought brass and bronze drums, supplanting the iron gamelan, which is now only practiced by the original “Bali Mula”, who continue to exist in small villages on the island, retaining links to their ancient civilization.
The next distinct change to gamelan came three hundred years later with the mass conversion to Islam in the Indonesian archipelago. With increasing trade with Muslims from the Middle East and South East Asia, the Majapahit Empire fell, and Sufism spread throughout Indonesia. Unlike other forms of Islam, which are more critical of cultural artifacts not pertaining directly to worship, Sufism has a strong connection to music, believing it to be one of the many pathways to the divine, and therefore promoted the continued existence of gamelan in Java and Sumatra, when it may have otherwise gone extinct.
As an agrarian society, that was mostly self-sufficient, it remained isolated. Here a split was formed between the two dominant forms of Gamelan – Javanese and Balinese.
As Bali lacked any major trading port and no important spices were grown on the island, it was unaffected by the spread of Muslim traders and remained the only island to not be converted in the archipelago. As an agrarian society, that was mostly self-sufficient, it remained isolated. Here a split was formed between the two dominant forms of Gamelan – Javanese and Balinese. With the tempo of the former growing slow and meditative, a spiritual experience in line with Sufism. While Balinese gamelan gained virtuosity with the nations independence, quick tempos and sharp beats, a style later encouraged by Dutch colonialists.
European incursions began in the mid-1400s when Portuguese spice traders reached Indonesia and sought ownership of the lucrative Indian Ocean silk and spice trade. This lasted 100 years, before the dominant Dutch East India Company ousted the Portuguese and seized control of the majority of Indonesia. Though, it took until 1846 for the Dutch to begin intervening in Bali and until 1908 for total dominance of the major kingdoms. During their reign, the Dutch left many accounts of Gamelan, which was almost always played for royalty with local dancers framing the sound with their delicate movements; particularly their “dancing eyes”.
Since the Dutch left, Indonesia was granted independence and with it the impossible task of uniting the disparate islands in the region, with their unique cultures, religions and languages. Bahasa Indonesia became the national language and Gamelan has grown into their national sound. At first the other islands resisted this change, as their cultures did not have the same emphasis on gamelan as Bali and Java, but gradually they have softened, and gamelan has developed into an inseparable feature of puppet shows, dances, rituals, and ceremonies in Bali and Indonesia. And whether it’s enjoyed in a random temple on the side of the street or at a fancy resort, the thump of the ancient drums will take you to a different time.