Music in Bali – Culture of the Balinese

The people of Bali hold a special place in their heart for music and traditional Balinese gamelan has won fans around the globe.

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Origins of Bali Music

The origins of Balinese music are said to be traced back to Java around 230 AD. It is said to have been originally developed in Java as a means to summon the gods. Both of the islands share the same musical instruments, but the way music had developed in each place differs significantly – Bali has its own unique style. The Canadian composer Colin McPhee once commented that the thing that makes Balinese music so special is that the local people do it through delight and pleasure.

Bali Gamelan

The traditional music of Bali is created by an orchestra of percussion instruments referred to collectively as gamelan – this is a Javanese word which roughly translated means to strike with a hammer. All the instruments in the gamelan orchestra are built and tuned to be played together. There are many different styles of gamelan and each of these will have a particular function.

Balinese gamelan is closely associated with the local religious tradition – this music is performed at every important religious ceremony. It is also part of the traditional Balinese shadow puppet shows (Wayang kulit). These performances involve shadow puppets made from translucent rice paper which are then back lit by candles or an oil lamp. Throughout the whole performance the gamelan orchestra will be playing to add tension and move the action along.

Balinese Instruments

The instruments that are used by the gamelan group include:

  • The ceng ceng are a type of brass cymbals that can create a light ting sound or a louder clash. This instrument is used to accompany the drummer and it is often used in the parts of the musical compositions where excitement is building.
  • The gamelan will also use a number of gongs made from bronze. This are struck with a cloth covered mallet at set times throughout the performance.
  • The gangsas is probably the most distinctive of all the Balinese instruments – this looks a bit like a xylophone but is much bigger. The gangsas can have anywhere from 4 to 14 bronze keys – it is hit with a hammer.
  • The jeogogan is more or less the same as the gangsas, but it has a lower pitch.
  • The kendang refer to double sided membrane drums. These are usually played with the musician sitting down and the kendang in their lap – there is also a smaller version of this instrument that is kept inside a frame. Each end of the drum makes a different sound – one end is referred to as male (high pitched sound) and the other end as female (low pitched sound).
  • The reyong is made up of a long frame with gongs of various sizes along its length – these look a bit like cooking pots. This instrument is usually played by four musicians who will each hit their part of the reyong with a special hammer. As a group they are able to cover about 8 octaves.
  • The trompong is a smaller version of the reyong, and it is played by just one musician.
  • The rebab is a type of two stringed violin.

Styles of Balinese Music

There are many different styles of Balinese gamelan, but the most famous would include:

  • Gamelan gong kebyar is the most popular type of music on Bali and it originated on the north of the island. It is played with great energy by up to 35 musicians with regular tempo changes along with sudden starts and stops.
  • Kakul gamelan sounds similar to gong kebyar, but this is the music of the people of south Bali.
  • Wayang gamelan (gender wayang) is music that is created specifically for the traditional shadow puppet shows. It is usually played by 15 musicians.
  • Gong gede is one of the oldest styles of gamelan. These days this style is usually reserved for the important temples in the mountains.
  • Beleganjur is a type of processional music that is used in ceremonies when groups of people are moving from one area to another.
  • Pelegongan is used for Balinese dance.

Balinese Music in the West

The music of Bali has had a significant impact on western music. Composers such as Claude Debussy and Benjamin Britten have been inspired by the music from this island. It is the Canadian composer Colin McPhee though, who is given most credit for bringing Balinese music to the west. He first heard gamelan music in New York when a friend gave him a recording back in the 1930s. McPhee was so impressed that he decided to travel to Bali to experience gamelan for himself. He ended up living in Ubud for a number of years, and this had a significant impact on his life. Colin McPhee later wrote about his experiences, and his love for the island, in his book A House in Bali. Today there are many westerners who are attracted to Balinese music because it is so meditative and serene. It is popular within both the new age and world music genres.

Where to Listen to Traditional Balinese Music

Most visitors to Bali will catch snatches of Balinese music during their stay. If they wish to experience a deeper appreciation of the music they can:

  • Go to Ubud because this is the main center for gamelan music in Bali. Not only is this one of the best places to go to listen to this type of music, but it may even be possible to how to play some of the gamelan instruments.
  • Attend a Balinese religious ceremony
  • All the villages on Bali will have wayang shows around the time of their important ceremonies. Visitors who are respectful will usually be welcome and as well as watching the shadow puppets they will also get to listen to some gamelan music.