traditional Balinsese music and dance in the San Francisco Bay Area

Bali, a small island in the Indonesian Archipelago, is unusally blessed with an abundance of music, art and dance. Balinese musical emsembles are called gamelan, which is the Indonesian word for orchestra or ensemble. The word gamelan does not refer to any specific instrument, but to the collection of instruments as as whole.

There are dozens of different types of gamelan in Bali. Most are made from bronze keys with bamboo resonators, but some are just made from bamboo. The music has a very long history. There have been bronze gamelans in Indonesia for hundreds of years, and their origins may trace back 2000 years.

While the musical tradition is quite ancient, it is still very much alive and active. Virtually every village on this island of just three million inhabitants has a performing gamelan. Some have a dozen or more.

 Balinese gamelan music San Francisco The two most common tunings in Bali are pelog and slendro. Pelog is roughly equivalent to the pitches mi, fa, sol, ti, do of the Western diatonic scale. Likewise slendro is roughly equivalent to the pitches do, re, mi, sol, la. Gamelan Kori Mas uses instruments in both tunings. Listen the same piece in pelog and in slendro to hear the difference.

One of the most distincitive characteristics of Balinese music is the use of interlocking parts, or kotekan. This is a technique whereby a very fast string of notes is divided into two or more seperate parts and divided among the musicians. Usually there is a "plain" part (or polos) which is typically on the beat and traces the underlying melody more closely. The complement to this part is called sangsih, and is usually off the beat and plays around the melody. When these parts are played together with precision the result is an incredibly fast stream of notes which fills the musical surface with rich detail. This ornamentation is too fast for even the most virtuosic performer to achieve alone, but divided among musicians it becomes possible. While this technique of interlocking parts appears in other musicial traditions around the world, no other tradition has developed it to such levels of complexity as in Bali.

Another distinctive element of Balinese music is the concept of paired tuning. Pairs of instruments are purposely tuned slightly apart at every pitch, resulting in one group of instruments that is overall very slightly lower (called pengumbang), and another group that is overall slightly higher (pengisep). When these instruments are played together the result is a vibrating sound. To an untrained Western ear this effect might seem out of tune, but to a Balinese ear it is a sound which is vibrant and full of life.

 Balinese gamelan music San Francisco Hear the musicians of Gamelan Kori Mas discuss Balinese music with Maestro Alasdair Neale of the Marin Symphony. (Pre-concert lecture, recorded in the Marin Civic Auditorium April 29, 2008.) [download the free Quicktime player]

 Balinese bamboo gamelan music and dance in the San Francisco Bay Area

In Bali there are at least two dozen different types of gamelan. These different types vary in many ways: the total number of musicians, the tuning or mode which is used, the materials from which the instrument keys are made, and the settings in which the music is performed.

The type of gamelan represented by the music of Gamelan Kori Mas is one of the most compact, requiring as few as 2-4 musicians. (Most other Balinese gamelans require somewhere between 16-30 musicians.) Although the group is small, almost all of the musical elements which characterize Balinese music are present: interlocking ornamental parts, unison melodies elaborated by the flute, paired instrument tunings, and cyclical musical structures punctuated by the gong. It is a complete gamelan ensemble in its most condensed, portable form.

 Balinese bamboo gamelan music and dance in the San Francisco Bay Area

This type of ensemble is known as gamelan rindik. In addition to its compact size rindik is also unique in that the instrument keys are made from bamboo, not bronze. While bronze gamelans are more common in Bali, their sound is too overpowering for non-concert settings. Bamboo gamelan music, by contrast, has a light and airy sound which is perfectly suited for background music. It is very common to see gamelan rindik in the nicer hotels and restaurants in Bali.

While music in Bali very often accompanies sacred rituals such as tooth filings or cremations, the music and instruments of Gamelan Kori Mas come from purely secular traditions. As a material, bamboo is readily available and inexpensive in Bali, allowing practically any musician to own an instrument and play. In this way bamboo gamelans are part of a Balinese folk tradition, a kind of music which is kept alive by people who do not necessarily have formal or advanced musical education, such as from the STSI music conservatory in Denpasar. More than any other ensemble in the Balinese musical world, gamelan rindik evokes simplicity and the joy of casual music making.

Gamelan Kori Mas also performs many pieces from the gamelan joged repertoire. Joged is a type of gamelan common to northern and western Bali, which is used to accompany a flirtation dance often performed at wedding celebrations, festivals and parties. Dancers, usually young women, flirt with members of the audience, enticing a lucky few individuals to come up on stage to dance. The dance can become quite rowdy and humorous and is accompanied by a group of 12-20 musicians, mostly on bamboo instruments.

Gamelan Kori Mas - traditional Balinese music & dance in the San Francisco Bay Area
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