various artists,
Gamelan of Central Java I,
Classical Gendings

(Felmay, 2001)

Gamelan of Central Java II,
Ceremonial Music

(Felmay, 2002)

A gamelan is a percussion ensemble that primarily uses gongs. This music from Bali has ancient roots and is startling to hear for the first time with ears tuned to Western music. It is like a number of wind chimes being played at once, or many xylophones tuned to a scale unlike any that you have heard.

These discs are two of a series of gamelan recordings issued by Yantra Productions. The first, Classical Gendings (gendings are melodies), is different than most gamelan recordings. Two of the three tracks have female vocals, which is unusual. The first track also features the rarely used kemanak, hand-held curled bronze plates that must be played by two musicians. The instrument gives the music a "tick-tock" effect. And the third track features the not often heard rebab, a two-stringed violin-type instrument.

For these reasons, this first disc is not a good introduction to gamelan, but it is valuable for showing a different side to the music.

On the second disc, the first two tracks are recorded live. They are music for Sekaten, a week-long Islamic festival. This uses a special group of instruments, all gongs that are larger than the usual gamelan ones, and a large barrel-shaped drum called a bedug. The music is louder than for other gendings, but it is not at all raucous with its undercurrent of deep meaning and power.

The gamelan on the second CD is a bit more clanging, with the various gongs having a more metallic tone. The five tracks, which vary from six to 20 minutes, have soft and loud passages depending on which gongs are emphasized.

The third track on the second disc is interesting for being the oldest known music on Java. "The Gending Munggang" is quite sparse, just being the repetition of a hypnotic four note melody played at varying speeds on a gong backed by a few percussion instruments.

That track and the last two were recorded at the Great Mosque of Surakarta. They have the slow, stately feel you might expect in such an environment. The melodies are again minimal, but the repetition draws you in if you let it carry you into a peaceful frame of mind.

Gamelan music is challenging for Westerners. It is not easily understood. But even without knowledge of the various instruments, scales and musical formats, its beauty is immediately apparent. The beauty may even be enhanced by the feeling of mystery it imparts to listeners on this side of the world.

Whether it is with these or other gamelan CDs, anyone who professes to follow world music should explore this wonderful art form.

- Rambles
written by Dave Howell
published 25 September 2004

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