Balinese music is rich in melody and texture and is often played outside or in open temples or pavilions. Music, dance and drama are all closely interrelated. Music and dance were once regarded as lowest of Bali's arts. Mick Jagger and Jerry Hall were married in a Hindu ceremony on Bali in 1990. Big raves are sometimes held in Bali.

Music on Bali has been shaped by 1) the traditional gamelan music of Java, 2) a lack of Islamization which has shaped culture elsewhere in Indonesia and 3) the impact of the tourism industry and a large influx of foreigners. Ingo Stoevesandt wrote in his blog on Southeast Asia music: “Bali plays a special role in Indonesia as it was never strongly influenced by Islam. Some scientists see in this fact a more direct link to the bronze ages. The Javanese example shows even more that the Islam was a kind of mentor for the development of Gamelan music all over Indonesia. What increases the international interest and reception of this island? The first reason surely is the worldwide recognition of Bali as a fine tourist location. The second reason might be that all indicators are placed on a small island, thus making it more easy to overview cultural facts. Bali also functions as a “showpiece” demonstrating the beauty of Indonesian dance and music. The island was always attractive to researchers and artists of any kind, even foreign artists like Walter Spies who supported the Kecak singing where several men stand in a circle and try to imitate Gamelan music with their voices, always recalling the “cak” syllabon.

Balinese music is based around an instrument known as the Gamelan. Gamelan or Gong, traditional musical instrument from Bali, is such a central part of Balinese music that the whole ‘orchestra’ is also referred to as a gamelan. Gamelan music is almost completely percussion. Though it sounds strange at first with its noisy, jangly percussion it’s exciting and enjoyable. It needs about 40 people to play a complete formation (Gong Gede). Both men and women can be players.

Unlike the seven-note scale used in traditional Western music, gamelan uses a pentatonic, or five-note, scale to create several overlapping harmonies. Describing Balinese gamelan music John Brily wrote in the Washington Post, “A melodic percussive beat resembling a mix of Andean flute music and a Grateful Dead drum solo rises from the open-air temple...Some drums, gongs and xylophones, metallophones and other percussion instruments.”

Traditional Balinese Songs

Traditional Balinese songs are called Tembang. Tembang is one of oldest arts in Bali and has been a strong part of Balinese culture. Some Tembang were sung by Balinese before the coming of Hindu-Buddhist cultures, such as Kuskus Arum, Suaran Kumbang, Puspa Pangan Jali, etc. Mostly Tembang in Bali contain many moral messages for education. Based on the structure and function, Tembang can be classified into 1) Gegending, 2) Pupuh/ Sekar Alit, 3) Kidung/ Sekar Madya, and 4) Kekawin/ Sekar Agung. [Source: Bali Tourism Board]

1) Gegending is the simplest. It has short sentences, simple dictions, and very clear meanings. The song does not have any rules on how to sing it like the others. Mostly Gegendingan is used in children games or dances which have purpose for bonding among Balinese youth, but a type of Gegending is also used for accompanying sacred dances. Based on when Gegending is used, it can be divided into A) Gending Rare, B) Gending Jejangeran, and C) Gending Sanghyang. A) Gending Rare are children songs. These songs are usually used for accompanying traditional children games. It is used to educate children about etiquette. The popular Gending Rare are Meong-meong, Juru Pencar, Galang Bulan, and Indang-indang Sidi. B) Gending Jejangeran is a cheerful song which accompanies Janger Dance. This song is sung by group of female and male dancers during the dance. C) Gending Sanghyang is a song which accompanies sacred dances, such as: Sanghyang Jaran, Sanghyang Dedari, etc. This song precedes Hindu-Buddhist cultures. The famous Gending Sanghyangs are: Kuskus Arum, Suaran kumbang, and Puspa Panganjali.

2) Pupuh/ Macepat/ Sekar Alit are Balinese traditional songs which has a main rule called Padalingsa. Padalingsa consist of Guru Wilang and Guru Dingdong. Guru Wilang is a rule which arrange how many words should be in a row and how many rows in a song (Pupuh). Guru Dingdong is a rule which arrange the last vocal in a row. Pupuh is used for expressing one’s feelings or giving advice to the younger. This traditional song is sung in mostly Balinese life. So that is why Pupuh has many variation themes. Pupuh is classified based on the feeling of the singer and its intonation (Intonation, Singer feeling, Name of Pupuh: A) Normal, relaxed & peaceful, Pucung, Mijil, Sinom Lawe, and Ginada; B) fast & high, Happy, Adri, Megatruh, Ginada Basur, and Sinom Genjek; C) slow & low, sad & disappointed, Semarandana, Maskumambang and Demung.; D) normal & very high, Angry, Durma and Sinom Lumrah.

3) Kidung/ Sekar Madya is usually sung in ceremonies in Bali by a group of people and accompanied by Gamelan. Kidung themes are mostly about prayers of adoration. Kidung came to Bali from Java around the 16th – 19th century. It seems to derive from Old Javanese (Jawa Tengaan/ Kawi) which is used in some Kidung. After Kidung arrived in Bali, it was affected by Balinese culture. This influence is evident in the Kidung structure in Bali, which consists of Pangawit (opening part) and Pangawak (main part), which is not found in Java. Some famous Kidung in Bali are Wargasari, Sudhamala, Sidhapaksa, and Alis-alis Ijo.

4) Kekawin is actually life philosophies and other Vedic lessons delivered to people through songs. Similar to Kidung, Kekawin is also sung in ceremonies. Kidung are in Sanskrit. It requires the singer to be able in the language. Kidung is usually sung by two singers. The first singer sings Kidung in its original language, sentence by sentence. After the first singer finished a sentence, the second singer will translate it into Balinese. This action will be done until the end of the Kekawin lyric. Some famous Kekawin in Bali are Saronca, Tanukerti, Girisa, Wirat, and Puspitagra.

Balinese Gamelans

Gamelan refers to both the traditional music made with a gamelan ensemble and the musical instrument used to play the music. A Gamelan consists of percussion, metallophones, and traditional drums. It is mostly made from bronze, copper, and bamboo. The variations are due to the number of instruments used.

Gamelans played in Bali include the “gamelan aklung”, a four-tone instrument, and the “gamelan bebonangan”, a larger gamelan often played in processions. Most of the individual instrument are similar to those found in Javanese gamelans. Unique Balinese instrument include “gangas” (similar to Javanese gendèr except the are struck with bare wooden mallets) and “reogs” (knobbed gongs played by four men). [Sources: Rough Guide to World Music |^|]

The Balinese Kebyar-style of gamelan playing is faster, more dynamically and more expressively than traditional Javanese gamelan music. It often accompanies by Keybar dance. Sacred gamelans in Bali include the Bamboo Gambang, which is usually played at cremations, and the Gamelan Selunding, found in the ancient village of Tenganan in east Bali. Most villages have gamelans owned and played by local music clubs, often known for their unique styles. Most performers are amateurs who worked as farmers or craftsmen during the day. At festivals several gamelans are often played at the same time in different pavilions. |^|

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theatre Academy Helsinki wrote: “After the Dutch take-over of Bali in 1908, the traditional central court of Klungkung in Eastern Bali lost its former importance, and the focus of cultural life partly moved to North Bali near the Dutch colonial centre of Singaraja. New gamelan and dance clubs were established, and their competition led to a cultural renaissance in the 1910s–1930s. The most sensational novelty was a style of gamelan and dance called kebyar, which came about through a competition between two villages in creating musical and dance compositions. With its wildly complex dynamics and its florid, embellished sound, the gamelan gong kebyar is probably the most expressive style of Balinese gamelan music. In 1914 it was used to accompany the first performance of kebyar dance, the kebyar legong, performed by two maidens dressed as men. The new style became popular in only a few years. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theatre Academy Helsinki]

Balinese Bamboo Gamelans

The “joged bumbung” is a bamboo gamelan in which even the gongs are made from bamboo. Played almost exclusively in western Bali, it originated in the 1950s. Most of the instruments look large xylophone made of bamboo. [Sources: Rough Guide to World Music |^|]

“Jgog” (meaning "deep") is a colorfully-painted instrument that comes in various sizes. The largest have bamboo keys over three meters long. "It is usually played in an ensemble, with each musician playing a different apart, ranging from solemn, bass sounds like a pipe organ, to fast phrases using complex rhythms." |^|

One of the most famous Balinese gamelan groups is called Jepog. It comes from the Balinese town of Suar Agung, which is famous for its gamelans. Their bamboo instruments often become damaged while on tour, The group always carries extra bamboo with them to make repairs. |^|

Bamboo trees are plentiful in Balinese districts of Jembrana, Bangli or Karangasem. Here you can find a unique instrument called Rindik (or Jegog in Jembrana)— a percussion instrument made from sticks of bamboo. The different sizes of bamboo are organized in a row from the biggest to the smallest. It is bundled by root ropes on the center of a big bamboo frame. Rindik/ Jegog are played by using a couple of special bamboo sticks. Jegog is played in many small social events because it is more practical to be brought anywhere than the Gamelan which is mostly made from metal. Besides, the cost production of Rindik/ Jegog is cheaper than Gamelan. At this time Jegog/ Rindik is played in many hotels and restaurant in Bali as entertainment. [Source: Bali Tourism Board]

Balinese Gamelan Musical Instruments

A Gamelan consists of percussion, metallophones, and traditional drums. It is mostly made from bronze, copper, and bamboo. The variations are due to the number of instruments used. Instruments in a common Gamelan ensemble are as follows: 1) Ceng-ceng is a coupled instrument for producing high intonations. Ceng-ceng is made from thin copper plates. On the center of each Ceng-ceng, is a handle made from rope or yarn. Ceng-ceng is played by hitting and rubbing the two. There are usually six couples of Ceng-ceng in a common Gamelan. There can be more depending on how high intonations are needed. 2) Gambang is a metallophone made from bars of copper in different thicknesses and lengths. These copper bars are rowed above a wooden beam which has been carved in several motifs. Gambang players hit the bars one by one depending on the intended intonation. The difference of thickness and lengths produce various intonations. In a common Gamelan there must be at least two Gambang.[Source: Bali Tourism Board]

3) Gangse looks like a wheel without a hole in its center. It is made from bronze. Like Gambang, a Group of Gangse is rowed above a carved wooden beam and played by hitting it with a couple of wooden sticks. Every Gangse in a row has different sizes, producing different intonations. Gangse is used for producing low tones. This instrument is dominant for slow songs or dances which reflect tragedy. 4) Kempur/ Gong is affected by Chinese culture. Kempur looks like a big Gangse which is hanged between two wooden poles. It is made from bronze and also played by using a wooden stick. Kempur is the biggest instrument in the Gamelan. It’s size is about a truck wheel. Kempur is used for producing low tones but longer than the Gangse. In Bali, to symbolize an opening of a national or international event, hitting the Kempur three times is typical.

5) Kendang is a traditional Balinese drum. It is made from wood and buffalo skin in cylinder form. It is played by using a wooden stick or using the palm of the hand. Kendang is usually played as the opening intonation in many dances. 6) Suling is a Balinese flute. It is made from bamboo. Suling is usually shorter than a modern flute. This wind instrument dominates as the accompanier in scenes of tragedy and slow songs which describe sadness.

Unique music instruments which can only be found in the district of Tabanan are Tektekan and Okokan. These wooden music instruments were first found by farmers in Tabanan. Okokan is actually a wooden bell hung around the neck of the cows and Tektekan is a handheld instrument to make noises for scaring away birds from the ripening rice paddy fields. The rhythms of those instruments later became musical instruments for performances during many temple festivals or social events in Tabanan. At this time these have become strong characteristics of the traditional music art in Tabanan. Okokan and Tektekan festivals have become a member of the Bali Tourism Festivals regularly held each year.

Benjamin Britten and the Gamelan Music of Peliatan Village

Makiko Yanada wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun, “On a Sunday afternoon, Indonesian bamboo flutes can be heard playing against the gentle beat of drums among brick-and-stone houses and temples in the village of Peliatan in the Ubud district of Bali. In 1956, British composer Benjamin Britten spent two weeks in the Ubud district while on tour, wandering through Peliatan and other villages and listening to gamelan. Entranced by the music on my own visit to the area, I peeked into the Balerung Stage theatre to see a group of about 20 boys aged from four to 12. Their teacher, 54-year-old Oka Dalem, led the rehearsal for an upcoming festival at a Hindu temple. Two of the older boys set the tempo with their drums, while younger boys harmonised as they sang and played the flute. Smaller children followed along on metallophones and gongs placed on the floor. I was surprised at how well they played together. My taxi driver, a man named Dewa, said: "They've been listening to gamelan music since birth. It's deep in their bones." [Source: Makiko Yanada, Yomiuri Shimbun, May 15, 2013 ]

“The theatre, the former villa of the Peliatan king, was open and breezy without windows or doors, offering a view of rice paddies and a forest of bodhi trees as the sounds of birds, cicadas and frogs mingled with the music. "Rehearsals are free to encourage kids to bring their friends," Oka said. "Anyone can play gamelan once you feel nature around you." In the evening, about 20 villagers put on a concert. Children dressed in bright reds, golds and other colours danced as their families, dressed casually in T-shirts, watched with smiles. Listening to the metallophones, flutes, drums and gongs, I felt as if I could see the twisted, tangled trunk of a bodhi tree.

“This unique sound enthralled musicians in the United States and Europe who tried to break free from the classic forms of Western music. In a letter to an acquaintance, Britten described the culture of the area as wonderful, rich and noteworthy. A year after his visit, he released the ballet suite "The Prince of the Pagodas", which incorporated many elements of gamelan in its score and was praised for its exotic sounds. Britten featured many elements of gamelan in his works, and even adopted a pentatonic scale in the main melody of the opera "Death in Venice" during his later years. Critics praised Britten as having "digested" Eastern music into his own.”

Handcrafted Bali Guitars

Wayan Sukarda of Reuters wrote: “ Pairing Western technology with traditional wood carving has proven successful for one workshop on Bali, with global musicians seeking out its unlikely product — guitars. Canadian Danny Fonfeder, himself an avid guitar player, realised during a visit that the lack of good guitars on the resort island, known more for music featuring gongs and flutes, and the skill of Balinese wood carvers could lead to a new business venture. After recruiting Wayan Tuges, a master wood carver from the hill town of Ubud, and luthier George Morris from Vermont, he began Blueberry, a guitar shop that marries East and West, six years ago. "Originally I'm a woodcarver," said the 55-year-old Tuges, who didn't know how to play a guitar before starting at the workshop but said the carving had never been a difficulty. "But the most difficult (thing) is how we can make the sound. But we've got (that) now." [Source: Wayan Sukarda, Reuters, February 2, 2011 +]

“The guitars are made with wood imported from Canada, with Tuges tapping each piece of wood to check the sound before choosing it. Each guitar is carved with motifs of birds, dragons, flowers or goddesses, with the buyer able to choose what they want, and takes at least 50 to 60 days to make. From a staff of 42 carvers the workshop has grown to 47, all of them trained by Tuges. Many wearing t-shirts, they sit cross-legged on the floor, in a group, to carve. +

The workshop produces 20 guitars a month. Each sells for $1,000 to $6,000 dollars, depending on the design and the materials used. Tuges said Blueberry guitars are used by a number of musicians including Dino Bradley, Rick Monroe and the group Little Texas. "Most of my creation is sold to Americans. Let's say ninety percent to American guitarists, and the rest to Europe and Asia," he said, adding that he hoped to see more Indonesians using his guitars. +

“Balawan, an internationally known guitarist who is a Bali native, said he was attracted by being able to choose his own design for the instrument. "The reason that I use it (is) because it's a very (good) combination between a sound and and art, and craftsmanship. And also (it's) got a very unique sound," he added, fingering the neck of one of the two Blueberry guitars he owns before a performance at a local guitar club. "The Blueberry guitar design, you can choose your own design. So every guitar has a different character and motif, and it is not the same." +

Post Bali Bombing Rock

In 2012, ten years after the bombing in Bali that killed 202 people, Jakarta Post: “Days after the bombing, the vocalist of rock band Navicula, Gde Robi Supriyanto, was busy. Like many Balinese youngsters, he was part of the island’s tourism industry, working in a tour and travel agency, while playing music on the side. After terrorists bombed Paddy’s Pub and the Sari nightclub in Kuta, tourists fled in the hundreds. The whole week after the bombing, Robi, 33, frantically worked to cancel visitors’ bookings. His boss had to hire more staff simply to cancel clients existing itineraries as they headed for home. Some of his colleagues were laid off, while his working hours were reduced from six days a week to just three. The bombing and the turn of events later inspired a change in the path of his life. With more free time on his hands, he turned from his day job to focus on his music and social activism. [Source: Jakarta Post, October 12 2012 /=]

“Indeed, the aftermath of the bombing became a turning point, a moment that the youth of Bali took and shaped into a life driven more by creativity rather than tourism. A decade after the first Bali bombing in Kuta and seven years from the second bombing, tourism has fully recovered and is growing rapidly. However, driven by the island’s young and interconnected with the indie movement in other Indonesian cities and abroad, another sector has sprung up: the creative industry. The typical career or business path most Balinese youth embark upon begins with an entry into the tourist industry. With a thriving industry, the young can always make money, Robi said. /=\

“Like Robi, Navicula’s guitar player and founder of blues band Dialog Dini Hari, Dadang Pranoto, 33, went to tourism school after graduating from high school. “People can get a job in tourism while they’re still in college or ... they can be a tour guide for two or three days,” Robi said. But the bombings changed that. For one thing, the indie music scene in post-Bali bombing became livelier than ever. Bars that had once catered to tourists started to seek out a younger local crowd. “And if they wanted people from Denpasar to come, they had to bring in local Balinese bands,” Robi said. Local indie bands, such as Navicula and punk band Superman is Dead, started to get record deals with major labels. /=\

“Local punk aficionado Rudolf Dethu, 43, then the manager of Superman is Dead, later opened his clothing shop Suicide Glam as a meeting point for the indie community. Young people started to meet up and exchange ideas. The music community worked together with the art community and people from design, clothing, filmmaking and other creative industries, including urban farming.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated June 2015

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