Music and dance play an essential part in daily Balinese life, and as a tourist you can’t fail to experience it, either at a special tourist show, in rehearsal or at a temple festival. Traditionally, Balinese dancers and musicians have always learnt their craft from the experts in their village and by imitating other performers. In the 1960s, however, the government felt that Bali’s traditional arts were in danger of dying out and so two schools for the performing arts were founded: one for children of high-school age, now located in Batubulan; the other for advanced degree-level students, next to the Taman Budaya Arts Centre in Denpasar. Feelings about these two establishments have been mixed, with some performers anticipating a gradual whittling away of the traditional variety of forms and styles as graduates of the schools return to teach a blander, more standardized technique to the youngsters in their home villages.
The national music of Bali is gamelan, a jangly clashing of syncopated sounds once described by the writer Miguel Covarrubias as being like “an Oriental ultra-modern Bach fugue, an astounding combination of bells, machinery and thunder”. The highly structured compositions are in fact produced by a group of 25 or more musicians seated cross-legged on the ground at a variety of bronze percussion instruments – gongs, metallophones, and cymbals with a couple of optional wind and stringed instruments tuned either to a five-or (less commonly) a seven-tone scale, and most are performed at an incredible speed. One recent study of a gamelan performance found that each instrumentalist played an average of seven notes per second.
Gamelan is actually the Javanese word for the bronze instruments, and the music probably came over from Java around the fourteenth century, but the Balinese duly adapted it to suit their own personality, and now the sounds of the Javanese and Balinese gamelan are distinctive even to the untrained ear. Javanese gamelan music is more restrained. This modern Balinese style, known as gong kebyar (gong means orchestra, kebyar translates, aptly, as lightning flashes), has been around since the early 1900s, emerging at a time of great political upheaval on the island, when the role of Bali’s royal houses was irreparably dented by Dutch colonial aggression.
Over eighty years later, gamelan orchestras are an essential part of village life. Every banjar that can afford to buy a set of instruments has its own sekeha (music club), and a recent census found that there are currently 1500 active gong kebyar orchestras on the island. In most communities, the sekeha is open to men only (the all-female gamelan of Peliatan is a rare experience), but has no restriction on age, welcoming keen players of any standard and experience between the ages of about eight and eighty. Players are not professional musicians, they all do other jobs during the daytime and rarely get paid for any musical performances. Rehearsals generally happen after nightfall, either in the bale banjar or in the temple’s bale gong pavilion. There’s special gong music for every occasion-for sacred and secular dance, cremations, odalan festivities and wayang kulit shows-but players never learn from scores (in fact few gong compositions are ever notated), preferring instead to have it drummed into them by repetitive practice. Whatever the occasion, gong players always dress up in the ceremonial uniform of their music club, and make appropriate blessings and ritual offerings to the deities. Like dancers, musicians are acutely conscious of their role as entertainers of the gods.
Although the gamelan kebyar is currently by far the most fashionable style of music in Bali, and therefore the most common type of orchestra. There are over twenty other different ensemble variations on the island as well. The smallest ensemble is the four-piece gender wayang that traditionally accompanies the wayang kulit shadow play performances. The largest is the old-fashioned classical Javanese-style orchestra comprising fifty instruments, known as the gamelan gong. The classic sounds of the Balinese gamelan are produced mainly by bronze instruments, but there are also a few orchestras composed entirely of bamboo instruments. These ensembles are a particular specialty of western Bali, where they’re known as gamelan joged bumbung and gamelan jegog.
The most common orchestra, the gong kebyar, is composed of at least 25 individual instruments, and always features half a dozen tuned gongs, a few sets of metallophones, two drums, a few sets of cymbals and one or more flutes. The leader of the orchestra, takes leads from the dancers during performances. This he does by fluttering or raising his hands from his seated position close to the front of the stage. Holding a double-ended cylindrical drum, the kendang, on his lap, he controls the tempo of the piece by beating out the rhythm, usually with his hands, on both drum heads.