The Java sound of music

2nd March 2007 at 00:00
Going, going gong, the gamelan strikes a chord with Year 9 musicians. Nick Morrison reports

There's a saying in Java: "It's not official until the gong is hung." As the rough equivalent of the fat lady bursting into song, it means no ritual or celebration is complete until the gamelan - invented by the god-king Sang Hyang Guru - has made its distinctive contribution.

More of a musical ensemble than a single instrument, the gamelan has played a key role in Indonesian culture for about two millennia and is now gaining a toehold in the West, with schools at the forefront.

Collingwood Special School, in Morpeth, Northumberland, bought its gamelan last term with the help of a grant from Creative Partnerships. Its version - all gamelans are different - is made up of about 15 percussion instruments, from gongs and drums to metallophones and gambangs - metal bars played in a similar way to a glockenspiel and wooden bars played like a xylophone, respectively.

Clare McStea, music teacher at Collingwood, says one of the advantages of the gamelan is that the entire class can play it at once. "We double up so two people play the same instrument but it means everyone can jump in and take part," she says. "It is a community instrument and you have to play it together. You can't play in isolation, it depends on having to listen to each other."

But it's one thing to have a gamelan, another to be able to play it. For this, the school turned to the Sage music centre in Gateshead where Sarah Kerkus, head of the schools programme, says although gamelan music can become very complicated, it is easy to learn the basics.

"Anybody can come to the gamelan, whatever their level of experience, and it is an inclusive instrument. You have got that instant success and you can move on quite quickly. You are also levelling the playing field because it is new to everybody and nobody knows what to expect. Even though it is lots of instruments coming together, it is still one instrument and you have to learn as one. It gives an orchestral experience that is not often available to a lot of children."

Sarah has been teaching the instrument to Collingwood's Year 9 students with the intention they will go on to teach other children next term, when the gamelan forms part of a school-wide project on Indonesia.

Working on either a five or a seven-note system, pupils don't need to be able to read musical notation to be able to play the instrument. "We introduce it through rhythm games, getting the pupils to sing the tune and then teach them the skeleton of a melody," Sarah says.

"We teach them the basic techniques of a simple Javanese form so they get the idea of the interlocking patterns and the way the pieces are constructed. It is a fantastic way to develop rhythmic ability, teamwork and self-confidence."

The gamelan traditionally accompanies dancing or puppet performances and teachers at Collingwood have been on weekend workshops to study shadow puppetry. Its use isn't confined to Indonesian music: pupils have also used it as part of topics on Egypt and to accompany Northum-berland stories


According to Javanese mythology, the god-king Sang Hyang Guru invented the gong to summon other gods to his palace on Java. To send more complex messages, he invented two other gongs, thus creating the first gamelan set.

The instrument, whose name comes from "gamel", to strike or hammer, is found on the Indonesian islands of Java, Lombok, Bali and Madura, and is said to have been used for about 2,000 years. The earliest surviving instruments date from the 12th Century.

The instrument is really a collection of mainly percussion instruments, but some also include bamboo flutes or stringed instruments and it can be accompanied by singing.

Gamelan music is built around a core melody, the balungan, with layers then building on this melody. It is generally used in religious or cultural rituals and gamelan concerts are rare.

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