Javanese Gamelan for Beginners: Unraveling the Secrets of an Exquisite Form

Javanese gamelan orchestra
The Javanese gamelan orchestra consists of a variety of instruments, mostly in the form of hanging and horizontal gongs and xylophone-like instruments, made of bronze.

Few laypeople outside of Indonesia are familiar with gamelan music, Indonesia’s gorgeous bronze gong ensembles. It’s a different story for serious musicians and ethnomusicologists from around the globe. These specialists consider the nation’s many gamelan traditions (Javanese, Balinese, Sundanese and others) to be among the richest, most intriguing music in the world. Javanese gamelan in particular has fueled much study – not to mention fierce passions. It’s not uncommon to hear stories about Western musicians who discover the compelling world of Javanese gamelan music. Many virtually renounce their past musical endeavors and entirely devote themselves to the study of this exotic art form.



If Javanese gamelan music is so irresistible, why isn’t it more popular, among both everyday Indonesians and the foreigners who visit Indonesia? I won’t presume to speak for Indonesians, other than to note that gamelan is a classical, perhaps “old-fashioned” tradition. It has much competition from other forms of music from Indonesia and elsewhere.

The basic instruments of the gamelan, like this saron peking, are easy to start playing.

But for foreigners, the dismaying reality is that on first listening, a sophisticated gamelan piece – the sort you are likely to hear at a palace performance in Central Java, where many non-Indonesians get their first and only exposure to the repertoire – can be downright unpleasant: scratchy string playing, nasal singing, seemingly out-of-tune melodies. Just as a poem in French might sound superb to a speaker of the language, but like annoying gibberish if you don’t speak French, most people need some understanding of what they are hearing before they can appreciate the complex interplay of instruments.

That doesn’t mean gamelan has to be out of reach for novices, though. You can enjoy the French poem if someone takes the time to explain it. Likewise, if you have musical inclinations and are curious to expand your horizons, you can begin to appreciate gamelan.

Many people begin their gamelan studies in college, but there is no need to enroll at a university to start learning. All it takes to begin playing the simplest forms is a set of instruments, a patient instructor, and a few friends to join in. (Gamelan music is never a solo art form; it always depends on the interactions of various musicians.) Despite being exceptionally difficult to master at more advanced levels, Javanese gamelan is surprisingly simple to start learning.  You can contribute to an ensemble without studying the difficult parts.

Where to start?

gamelan at jakarta post
Pagoyuban Retnobudaya playing the gamelan for the 30th anniversary celebration of The Jakarta Post.

The challenge is finding that gamelan set,  instructor, and friends. But if you are in Jakarta and your schedule and location make it possible to visit Kebayoran Baru on Wednesday nights, you’re in luck. Our beginner’s group, Paguyuban Retnobudaya, welcomes new members.

If you have ever been an amateur musician, or just a music aficionado, this group is well worth a try. Sitting surrounded by the majestic gongs and playing the music yourself, even as a complete beginner, is a much different experience than listening from outside. And the underlying assumptions of gamelan are so different from those of Western music that it will delightfully expand your ideas about what music is.



A few facts about us:

  • Meetings are at a private home near Darmawangsa Square and the Widjaya Center.
  • The group plays on most Wednesday nights, 7-9pm.
  • We serve a light meal at the end.
  • We welcome beginners who have never played before, and we communicate in both English and Indonesian so if you only speak one of those languages you’ll be fine.
  • You don’t have to pay anything, but there’s an envelope out for donations to help pay the teacher. We suggest Rp 100k/month if it fits your budget.
  • Members are a mix of Indonesian and expat.
  • You don’t have to commit to coming every single week. But if you try it and decide you like it, you should commit to coming as regularly as possible.
  • You don’t need to bring an instrument – gamelan sets stay put, and musicians come and play.
  • We have a Javanese teacher who has decades of experience teaching foreigners.
  • We aren’t currently doing much performing, but we have had some memorable opportunities in the past. So who knows what the future holds.
  • If it sounds like something you might like to try, send an email to [email protected] for details on how to join.

Who knows – maybe you will discover that you too have a fierce passion for gamelan music.

Want to see more? Here’s a recent video of Paguyuban Retnobudaya playing a beginner’s piece:

 

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About Puspawarna 2 Articles

Puspawarna is an American who has lived all but 4 of the last 30 years abroad, in the Federated States of Micronesia, Mozambique, Egypt – and of course, in Indonesia, where she has spent over 16 years. Now mostly retired, she considers herself amazingly lucky to have found employment as a writer/editor in 5 countries, despite being a “trailing spouse.” She loves playing Javanese gamelan, cooking, and gardening, and spends her time trying to improve her skills at all of them.