What is Gamelan?

by Cliff DeArment

Gamelan is the music of Indonesia (pronounced Gah-Meh-Lahn). Gamelan orchestras are usually percussion oriented, but some varieties may feature flutes, bowed and plucked strings, or vocalists in a prominent role. Many different islands, or regions within islands, have their own unique Gamelan instruments and traditions.

The most common types of Gamelan use bronze, iron, bamboo, or wood bars, as well as bronze and iron gongs, gong chimes, cymbals, bells, and two headed drums. Gamelan-like instruments are found in Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, and other Southeast Asian nations.

The word Gamelan comes from the ancient roots "gambel" (Bali) and "gamel" (Java). Gambel means to play, musically. Most Indonesian languages define gambel as to make a sound by striking or playing a musical instrument, such as a gong or a drum (in Indonesian Pukul Bunyi Bunyi. Bunyi means to sound. It also means to ring, to blow, or to pronounce. In other words, to make a desired and intentional sound.) However, earlier languages, such as Kawi in Bali and Jawa Kuno in Java, also define the term as to handle or hold, as a musician handles an instrument or a worker handles a tool.

The root word gamel is no longer used in modern Indonesian languages and gamelan has come to officially mean "an Indonesian orchestra."

Technically put, Gamelan is really just music. The suffix "-an" converts the word gamel from a verb to a noun. Today the word Gamelan is used to distinguish Indonesian music as a style. But, at one time, Gamelan meant all kinds of music. When new music came to the islands, it was called Gamelan. For thousands of years, the artistic tradition of Indonesian cultures was to absorb the best of music and arts from the outside. This accounts for many instruments, scales, songs, and aesthetic aspects of the music. For instance, in Kawi, the words Gamelan and Merdangga are synonymous. Merdangga is a drum from South India. There was never a need for the term Gamelan to be "style specific" until the western world introduced radically different musics and new exclusive names to go with them.

The term Gamelan is not at all "percussion dependent," as it might appear. For example, flute ensembles in Bali play gamelan music exclusively, yet percussion takes a secondary role. Gamelan Kacapi Suling from sunda consists of flute and zithers and no percussion at all. Gamelan is a particular way of playing and thinking about music. It can be done with a gong, a few slabs of lumber, a string, or a double reed horn. Percussion is merely preferred in some cases. Often this is for the purpose of projecting over a great distance.

Some definitions may suggest that the root word "gamel" means to hammer. This may be assumed because many instruments are struck with a wooden mallet. But, hammers are for nails. The word for hammer is Palu in most Indonesian languages. And gamel means more than to strike or hit something. The Balinese words for strike or hit include nglantig, ngemplang, and nyagur. Gamel only means to strike in the context of initiating a defined sound (bunyi). In other words, one would not gamel a nail. So, please don't hit a gamelan instrument. Play it.