Across Indonesia, but particularly on the islands of Java and Bali, gamelan is the most popular form of traditional music. A gamelan ensemble consists of a variety of metal percussion instruments, usually made of bronze or brass, including xylophones, drums and gongs. It may also feature bamboo flutes, wooden stringed instruments, and vocalists, but the focus is on the percussion.
The name "gamelan" comes from gamel, a Javanese word for a type of hammer used by a blacksmith. Gamelan instruments are often made of metal, and many are played with hammer-shaped mallets, as well.
Although metal instruments are expensive to make, compared with those of wood or bamboo, they will not mold or deteriorate in Indonesia's hot, steamy climate. Scholars suggest that this may be one of the reasons that gamelan developed, with its signature metallic sound. Where and when was gamelan invented? How has it changed over the centuries?
Origins of Gamelan:
Gamelan seems to have developed early in the history of what is now Indonesia. Unfortunately, however, we have very few good sources of information from the early period. Certainly, gamelan seems to have been a feature of court life during the 8th to 11th centuries, among the Hindu and Buddhist kingdoms of Java, Sumatra, and Bali.
For example, the great Buddhist monument of Borobudur, in central Java, includes a bas relief depiction of a gamelan ensemble from the time of the Srivijaya Empire, c. 6th-13th centuries CE. The musicians play stringed instruments, metal drums and flutes. Of course, we do not have any record of what the music these musicians were playing sounded like, sadly.
Classical Era Gamelan:
During the 12th to 15th centuries, the Hindu and Buddhist kingdoms began to leave more complete records of their doings, including their music. Literature from this era mentions the gamelan ensemble as an important element of court life, and further relief carvings on various temples support the importance of metal percussion music during this period. Indeed, members of the royal family and their courtiers were all expected to learn how to play gamelan, and were judged on their musical accomplishments as much as their wisdom, bravery, or physical appearance.
The Majapahit Empire (1293-1597) even had a government office in charge of supervising the performing arts, including gamelan. The arts office oversaw the construction of musical instruments, as well as scheduling performances at the court. During this period, inscriptions and bas reliefs from Bali show that the same types of musical ensembles and instruments were prevalent there as in Java; this is not surprising, since both islands were under the control of the Majapahit emperors.
During the Majapahit era, the gong made its appearance in Indonesian gamelan. Likely imported from China, this instrument joined other foreign additions such as stitched-skin drums from India and bowed strings from Arabia in some types of gamelan ensembles. The gong has been the longest-lasting and most influential of these imports.
Music and the Introduction of Islam:
During the 15th century, the people of Java and many other Indonesian islands gradually converted to Islam, under the influence of Muslim traders from the Arabian peninsula and south Asia. Fortunately for gamelan, the most influential strain of Islam in Indonesia was Sufism, a mystical branch that values music as one of the pathways to experiencing the divine. Had a more legalistic brand of Islam been introduced, it might have resulted in the extinction of gamelan in Java and Sumatra.
Bali, the other major center of gamelan, remained predominantly Hindu. This religious schism weakened the cultural ties between Bali and Java, although trade continued between the islands throughout the 15th to 17th centuries. As a result, the islands developed different forms of gamelan.
Balinese gamelan began to emphasize virtuosity and quick tempos, a trend later encouraged by Dutch colonists. In keeping with Sufi teachings, Java's gamelan tended to be slower in tempo and more meditative or trance-like.
In the mid-1400s, the first European explorers reached Indonesia, intent on elbowing their way into the rich Indian Ocean spice and silk trade. The first to arrive were the Portuguese, who started out with small-scale coastal raids and piracy, but managed to capture the key straits at Malacca in 1512.
The Portuguese, along with the Arab, African, and Indian slaves they brought with them, introduced a new variety of music into Indonesia. Known as kroncong, this new style combined gamelan-like intricate and interlocking musical patterns with western instrumentation, such as the ukulele, cello, guitar, and violin.
Dutch Colonization and Gamelan:
In 1602, a new European power made its way in to Indonesia. The powerful Dutch East India Company ousted the Portuguese, and began to centralize power over the spice trade. This regime would last until 1800, when the Dutch crown took over directly.
Dutch colonial officials left only a few good descriptions of gamelan performances. Rijklof van Goens, for example, noted that the king of Mataram, Amangkurat I (r. 1646-1677), had an orchestra of between thirty and fifty instruments, primarily gongs. The orchestra played on Mondays and Saturdays, when the king entered the court for a type of tournament. van Goens describes a dance troupe, as well, of between five and nineteen maidens, who danced for the king to the gamelan music.
Gamelan in Post-Independence Indonesia:
Indonesia became fully independent of the Netherlands in 1949. The new leaders had the unenviable task of creating a nation-state out of a collection of different islands, cultures, religions, and ethnic groups.
The Sukarno regime established publicly-funded gamelan schools during the 1950s and 1960s, in order to encourage and sustain this music as one the national art forms of Indonesia. Some Indonesians objected to this elevation of a musical style associated primarily with Java and Bali as a "national" art form; in a multiethnic, multicultural country, of course, there are no universal cultural properties.
Today, gamelan is an important feature of shadow puppet shows, dances, rituals, and other performances in Indonesia. Although stand-alone gamelan concerts are unusual, the music may also be heard frequently on the radio. Most Indonesians today have embraced this ancient musical form as their national sound.
For more information, please see "Intro to Gamelan" by Megan Romer.
Bali and Beyond: A History of Gamelan, accessed December 2012.
Gamelan: Venerable Lake of Honey, University of Michigan, accessed December, 2012.
Javanese Gamelan: A History of Gamelan Music, accessed December, 2012.
Spiller, Henry. Gamelan: The Traditional Sounds of Indonesia, Volume 1, ABC-CLIO, 2004.
Sumarsam. Gamelan: Cultural Interaction and Musical Development in Central Java, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.