Gamelan is character building

Embie Tan Aren

1 June 2023


Embie Tan Aren rediscovers Indonesia’s communal values in Pardiman Djoyonegoro’s gamelan performances.

After recently dropping my brother off at the international airport for a holiday in Indonesia, I am suddenly reminded of how I haven’t been back in 10 years. The annual visits we took as a family growing up don’t feel too far away in my mind. It was how we ended every year; spending downtime with our extended families in each of my parents’ hometowns located in Central Java. Given the festive season during most of our visits, it would be a usual occurrence to come across large social gatherings or busy night markets in our area. As we would approach a site, hearing the distinctive sound of gamelan instruments playing, alongside the ringing of bells, the clanging of cymbals, and the chanting of singers always sparked waves of familiarity and excitement.

Traditionally played in both religious and secular ceremonies, gamelan performances are now common across many occasions in Indonesia. The gamelan refers to an ensemble usually consisting of percussive instruments such as bronze gongs (kempul/bonang/kenong), which are produced in varying sizes for different pitches, as well as metallophones (gambang/saron barung), double-sided hang held drums (kendang), and sometimes string instruments (rebab/celempung). It is divided into two main groups, one providing the main melody and the other providing the rhythmic and harmonic foundation. All the instruments are crafted in a meticulous and time-consuming process by highly skilled artisans. The ones that stood out to me most were always adorned in shimmering gold leaf or carved with detailed floral patterns reflective of traditional Indonesian designs.

Pardiman Djoyonegoro with saron barung. Image courtesy of Pardiman.

Thinking back to my younger self observing the gamelan performances, I recall being unable to fully comprehend or grasp the complexity of it. I would stand still as I watched fascinated by the precise movements of each musician in the ensemble. They worked together in a highly synchronized and coordinated manner, contributing to interlocking and highly adaptable melodies. It was easy to be lulled in by the hypnotic, trance-like effects created by the unique progressions. Through my father, I am introduced to Pardiman Djoyonegoro, an accomplished gamelan musician based in Jogja, Java. We speak over the phone, and I am eager to learn more about how the gamelan resonates with its practitioners. Pardiman shares with me his reason for undertaking the gamelan during his high school years where he taught himself in his home. “When I was growing up, my family house was always crowded and busy, but playing the gamelan brought us a sense of enrichment. It became a rhythm in our lives,” he says.

By first learning the two tuning systems slendro and pelog, Pardiman then developed a layered understanding of how to play each instrument involved. The slendro and pelog scales can be used with a variety of instruments depending on the ensemble’s region and style. It is often played with metallophones or xylophones, also known as saron barung which are made of brass bars mounted on a wooden frame and struck with mallets (tabuh) to produce sound. Each bar on the saron barung corresponds to a specific pitch in either the slendro or pelog system. Motivated by the fulfilment the music brought to his family, Pardiman furthered his career by founding a gamelan orchestra in his community.

Now, Pardiman, alongside his group, continues to travel within Indonesia and globally to perform at various cultural and informational events for institutions.   Groups often require financial support for instrument maintenance, training, travelling, and productions. Securing consistent funding can be challenging, particularly for smaller groups. It is also made more difficult for those located outside of Indonesia due to its niche following beyond cultural enthusiasts and the limited reach within contemporary music. In efforts to broaden the audience and to integrate accessibility, Pardiman facilitates creative workshops in his studio called Omah Cangkem where he teaches gamelan including other traditional practices to help foster the passing of knowledge.

From our conversation, I learn how the gamelan is quite difficult to master and can take many years of dedicated practice. Unlike other Western musical traditions, gamelan music does not follow a traditional notation system, which means that players must learn through a combination of oral instruction, imitation, and memory. It is also beneficial for the player to build a comprehensive knowledge of each instrument involved in their ensemble, amounting to an undoubtedly lengthy process as this can be up to 15 instruments. Despite these challenges, learning the gamelan as a beginner is still highly inclusive due to its emphasis on communal bonding, especially for younger generations. Pardiman’s gamelan workshops aim to bring people of different socio-economic backgrounds together by promoting collaboration. “When I am guiding the children on how to play, they are communicating through sounds with the other kids they’re with, eliminating any differences in their backgrounds. The gamelan is a character-building activity,” Pardiman says. “It’s more than just about the music. Within every performance, there is always an interpersonal communication between the players and the listeners.”

I recognise how my childhood memories of witnessing gamelan music as an audience member during my time in Java formed many of my core associations with Indonesia, and as a result deepened my connection to my heritage, despite not having returned in a decade. In retrospect, I must have been intimidated by the sounds. It was unlike the music I usually heard in Australia. It was only there, with my family gathered amongst the community in bustling environments that I would get the chance to experience it as a live performance. Listening to it also meant witnessing the years of practised precision, the dialogue shared between each musician, and Indonesia’s deep-rooted communal values embedded in the act. For a well-seasoned practitioner like Pardiman, sustaining the tradition’s vitality by continuing its cultural engagement in the region and beyond is what matters the most. “Memulai kebersamaan” is what Pardiman says, which means for us to eventually reach togetherness”.

 About Embie Tan Aren

Embie Tan Aren is a Meanjin/Brisbane-based arts worker and emerging writer. She has experience supporting exhibition programs and marketing in non-profit and commercial gallery spaces. Embie is currently Gallery Manager at Jan Manton Gallery. Her interests lie in exploring identity, memory, and cultural practices in art, particularly within Asian art.

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