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 Jl. Duren Tiga on Sunday mornings, you’re might want to give Samurti Andaru Laras a try. This group usually communicates in Indonesian, but many members speak English and they are welcoming to new people.

If you have ever been an amateur musician, or just a music aficionado, it group is well worth giving this 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. Who knows – maybe you will discover that you too have a fierce passion for gamelan music.



 

Want to hear some basic music? Here’s a recent video of Paguyuban Retnobudaya (a beginners’ group the author managed while living in Indonesia) playing a beginner’s piece:

 

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About Puspawarna 3 Articles
Puspawarna is an American who has lived in the Federated States of Micronesia, Mozambique, Egypt – and of course, in Indonesia, where she lived for nearly 18 years before retiring to Hawaii in 2018. She still maintains close ties to Indonesia and visits often, and remains active in the Expat Indo community. She loves playing Javanese gamelan, cooking, and gardening, and spends her time trying to improve her skills at all of them.