Learning How to Play Gamelan from Portuguese Musicians

Javanese Gamelan (in Portuguese: Gamelaõ) is a set of traditional music instruments from Java. Indonesia also has Balinese Gamelan. To understand more about what gamelan is, I put an excerpt taken from “Introduction to Javanese Gamelan” by Prof. Sumarsam, an Indonesian professor who teaches in the Music Department, Wesleyan University, US.

“Java also has rich musical traditions, traditional as well as westernised genres. One of the forms of well-known traditional music of Java and those of neighboring Bali is

gamelan. Gamelan, derives from the word “gamel”, to strike or to handle, is a generic term referring to an ensemble which comprises predominantly of percussive instrument.”

“Gamelan instruments are mostly metallophone and gong type instruments which produce tones when struck with mallets (tabuh). Other types of percussion instruments included in the gamelan ensemble are: a wooden xylophone (gambang), and a set of two headed drums (kendhang) played with the palm and/or fingers. There are a few instruments in the gamelan ensemble which are not percussion instruments: they are a two-stringed bowed instrument (rebab), a plucked zither-type instrument (celempung or siter), and a bamboo flute (suling). A female singer (pesindhèn), and a male chorus of two or three singers (penggérong) also participate in the gamelan ensemble.” – Sumarsam. Middletown, October, 1988. Revised for Wesleyan’s gamelan webpage, Fall 1999. Last revised, Fall 2002.

Find the full paper here.

Java itself is an island with the most population in Indonesia and our capital city, Jakarta, is located in Java Island. I come from a small city namely Surakarta, Central Java. Most people know more about Jogjakarta than Surakarta. In fact, both come from the same kingdom before: the Mataram kingdom. I learned how to play gamelan when I was in elementary school. 17 years ago, huh? In addition, I also learned aksara jawa (Javanese letters), Javanese dances (I should tell you: I was so bad in this, haha), and Javanese songs. I am a big fan of Javanese songs, especially a song called “Lir Ilir” because of its deep meaning.

Casa da Musica

My friends and I participated in a gamelan workshop at Casa da Musica, Porto. Casa da Musica is a famous concert hall in Porto and also famous for its eccentric design. I found out about this workshop when I randomly looked on their website. My friends and I were so ecstatically excited about this. We, the Indonesians, were going to learn how to play gamelan. and it was taught by Portuguese musicians! I felt so happy knowing that foreigners love and even able to play Gamelan that Indonesians are really proud of.

Jorge Queijo (right) , the Musician who Taught Us Gamelan. (Courtesy of Mbak Sandra Tjangkung)

Mas Ariel (left) with Jorge Queijo (right). Jorge is  the Musician who Taught Us Gamelan. (Courtesy of Mbak Sandra Tjangkung)

When we entered the room, Jorge recognised me & Mbak Sandra as Indonesians. He had been studying gamelan for 2 months at ISI (Institut Seni Indonesia) and mistakenly thought Mas Ariel as an Indonesian because he wore batik shirt on that day, LOL (he is a Portuguese, fyi). Before we started playing gamelan, Jorge and Maria gave us instructions to warm our legs up because the silo (a rule of sitting position while playing gamelan) and Maria taught us her hand movements for gamelan instruction (like the number that we should hit). Most of the participants were families with kiddos and grandpa! wow! and they were so excited.

(Courtesy of Mbak Sandra Tjangkung)

Firstly, Jorge and Maria assigned us to different instruments. Then we tried to play it. Just random play. Then, Maria said we need to pay attention when Jorge played the kendhang (as pictured with Jorge). We hit the notes based on Maria’s hand movements. In a minute, playing gamelan seemed not so difficult for beginners (and even for some participants who just seen gamelan for the first time). After some minutes, we could change the instruments to play. Jorge and Maria showed an animation video on the screen and after on, we figured out that the song we learned few minutes ago was the song for that animation. Cool! Participants were so immersed in playing gamelan.

At the end of the session, Mbak Sandra and I got the opportunity to sing Javanese songs (yeay! thank you Jorge!). We sang “Gundhul Gundhul Pacul” and “Rek Ayo Rek”. I was a bit sad because I did’t remember the notes for those songs. It would have been more attractive if we could play the gamelan while singing those two songs. Ok, maybe next time? :p

Kind of Nervous, haha! (Courtesy of Mbak Sandra Tjangkung)

KANJENG LOR | Ensemble de Gamelão [Ensaio] from Casa da Música on Vimeo.

Jorge said they had a gamelan concert in January and will have one in November. I will keep you updated about this 😉 Looking how cool foreigners played gamelan made me think that it is our duty as an Indonesian to maintain the cultural heritage we have. We have 17. 508 islands with 1.340 ethic groups and 546 different languages in Indonesia. We are so colourful, aren’t we? Yet, sadly, there are still some people who don’t really respect these differences. So, rather than saying which group is the best or which group is better than the others, it’s better to know and understand more about the traditions we have in our country. imho.

i am an Indonesian. A native of Javanese. Yet, i learned how to play gamelan from Portuguese musicians. How did i feel? Instead of feeling ashamed, I feel proud. They appreciate our Javanese gamelan and are really keen on playing gamelan. I know I am late in learning gamelan. But, it’s better being late than never, right? Why would I be ashamed? If I feel ashamed, I would never have the courage to learn. Imho.

To sum up this post, I will recommend a video performed by one of Indonesian legendary bands, Krakatau Band, who combined Gamelan with modern funk music. Enjoy!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s