Originally posted on January 16, 2008
In the bitter winter [I wrote this in the middle of January] it might be hard to imagine a tropical “paradise” in full bloom, but that is more or less what it’s like on the island of Bali, just at the tip of Indonesia. It’s not entirely a paradise—no place is that. Historically and I hope through to today it has been a center of beautiful music and dance, in the complex called gamelan. The music first gained some attention in the Western world through a series of 78s made by Dutch Odeon in the ‘30s. It attracted the attention of Colin McPhee, who spent a number of years in Bali before WWII and wrote some important books and monographs on the scene, bringing the genre to the attention of many music people in the West. With the advent of high fidelity recordings, educational programs in Ethnomusicology and a new audience looking for expanded sounds Balinese Gamelan music began to get pretty good coverage with recordings released here in the States and Europe. Nonesuch Records was one of the labels to cover the music intelligently and in some depth.
Here on my desk is a CD copy of one of their later releases Gamelan and Kejak. Recorded around 1986, it has a good sampling of the various ensembles. Gamelan orchestras consist of a number of metallic instruments, something like gongs and vibraphones, plus percussion and flute. The music is of incredible complexity. Each orchestra instrument plays a characteristic role and the result can be thought of as one monstrous musical organism. Included on the CD is an excerpt of a Kejak, a vocal piece notable for the imitation of the sound of monkeys chattering, only transposed into something very percussive and musical. If you’ve never heard gamelan music, you could learn much by listening. Then figure out what you would do on guitar or bass in the orchestra!! Or don't. Just listen.