NK’s Genre Journeys – What Is Gamelan Music and Is This Finally Enough Cowbell?

Welcome to NK’s Genre Journeys, where the Negative Kitty shares her thoughts on genres that catch her fancy. This month’s genre: Gamelan!

Heya everykitty! It’s Negative Kitty here to bring you the lowdown on a genre of music you’ve likely never heard about – gamelan!

Wait, what’s gamelan, you ask? If you’re ever in the mood for a genre of music that scratches all the right bits of your brain, look no further. Gamelan is the ancient and traditional ensemble music of the Javanese, Sundanese, and Balinese peoples of Indonesia.

Ya hear that? This is not a pedestrian genre you can simply dip your toe in, no mere permutation of 20th century innovations! I’d go as far as to say that many modern listeners wouldn’t even COMPREHEND gamelan!

But you, you’re no scrub — you’ve got a refined palette and a thirst for broadened horizons when it comes to music. Well okay then, young scholar. Get a load of THIS:

How that make you feel? Calmed? Spooked? Disoriented? Centered? All of the above?

That’s natural! Gamelan music has this ethereal, possibly introspective quality that’s hard to pin down precisely. Dating back to nearly 2000 years ago, gamelan had many uses, being employed in dance, theater, concerts, and religious rituals. It’s a style of music that miiiiiiight have some technical commonalities with what’s on you youngsters’ FM radios today, but in many ways feels very much out of time. The popularity of the art form has natural declined since its heyday, and it’s not by any measure a “throwback” that you’ll find the TikTonk zoomers buzzing about. But there are still many around the world practicing gamelan music and even releasing contemporary gamelan tracks, and there’s just something special about taking a step into the past and exploring this unique and complex style of music.

But let’s back up a bit! How is this music made, like, physically?

Gamelan ensembles are largely percussive, filling different sonic ranges with the sounds of the different instruments. We essentially have gongs, metallophones, drums, xylophones and more filling out the percussive. Drum and bass could never! You may also hear some other instruments like certain types of fiddles and flutes, for instance.

But talk is cheap — here’s a video that runs down the most common gamelan percussive instruments!

Part of what makes gamelan so cool is that it’s not about one cat stealing the spotlight — it’s a group effort, a well-synchronized show! But going even further, there’s something more interesting at play in the team dynamic — you’ll actually see multiple instruments play melodies that interlock with one another, complimenting and elaborating on each others’ parts. This creates rhythms and rhythmic patterns that go beyond what we’ve come to know and love in our modern era; it isn’t always easy to fully keep track of everything that’s going on in a gamelan piece, nor to predict where a piece may be going. Straight up, the intricacies of this delicate mamba are still mysterious to me, but ain’t it nifty?

Oh, and another asterisk for ya before you dive in — did you know that there are multiple sub-genres of gamelan? That’s right! For starters you’ve got Javanese, Balinese and Sundanese gamelan. But what’s the difference? Well apart from having to do with geography, here’s what I’ve heard: Javanese gamelan is characterized by softer and slower tones, whereas Balinese gamelan has fast musical rhythms with loud and dynamic tones. Sundanese gamelan stands out by the prevalent usage of flutes, which make this type of gamelan delicate and mellow.

Actually, there are around 50 known varieties of gamelan and gamelan ensembles. If you look at them all you’ll see differences in themes, moods, and instruments being played.

But don’t let that scare you! Let’s start nice and safe at the tippy top of the iceberg. Here’s some soft and soothing Javanese Gamelan for you to get your toes wet:

Now let’s take a look at Balinese Gamelan. It shouldn’t take you long to spot some of the key differences between Balinese gamelan and it’s Javanese cousin!

This piece is by the US-based Gamelan Sekar Jaya, a group considered to be the greatest example of Balinese Gamelan outside Indonesia!

Now let’s get serenaded by the sweet sounds of Sundanese Gamelan!

Ah, there’s that flute! Delightful. This next track is an example of the music commonly used in Sundanese weddings!

This next track has gotta be my absolute favorite Gamelan track. I just loooove that pensive, mysterious sound! It’s a vibe for sure.

Just when you thought gamelan couldn’t get any cooler, its important to know that gamelan in its heyday was rarely ever performed on its own like a concert. Instead, it normally was the accompanying music for religious ceremonies and rituals, traditional plays, dances and dance dramas, singing, and even the spectacular Wayang puppet performances!

I love the next video because you get a glimpse into the behind the scenes of shadow puppet shows, while also seeing gamelan as you hear it!

Here we get a glimpse into a Javanese wedding, while hearing how gamelan is a key accompaniment to it.

You may or may not be surprised to learn that gamelan has influenced and been appreciated by many western artists, from classical composers like Debussy, Glass and Cage, to Don Cherry, Robert Fripp and Sonic Youth.

Check out a couple of these gamelan-inspired tracks!

Frankly it would take a real gamelan scholar to teach you all the ins and outs of this unique music. But hopefully you picked up a thing or two and maybe added some tracks to your daily rotation! Whether it’s Gamelan Wednesday or any other day of the week, it’s never a bad time to throw on some of this good stuff.

So what do YOU think? Let us know!

Until next time…

Nkmeow<3

i started listening to gamelan jegog after that one fight scene in Bakemonogatari episode 8 : r/okbuddybaka

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