Balinese gamelan: a complete guide to a unique world of sound | Songlines
Saturday, August 1, 2020

Balinese gamelan: a complete guide to a unique world of sound

By Andy Channing

The Indonesian island of Bali resounds with the vibrant, often thunderous music of its gamelans – the ubiquitous percussion orchestras of bronze and bamboo. Andy Channing conjures up the magic of its many incarnations

bali gamelan adobe stock.jpeg

In a remote village in Bali on a warm, fragrant evening, there is a buzz of expectancy among the assembled crowd. Suddenly, the ugal player flourishes his wooden mallet in the air and BYYAARR!! 25 instruments resound as one and begin a shimmering cadence that sends a shiver up the spine. This is gamelan gong kebyar, by far the most popular form of gamelan in Bali today, heard in villages, temples and on radio all over the island.

Gamelan can be defined as the action of a hammer (gamel) and usually refers to an orchestra of tuned percussion instruments including gong-chimes (which look like upturned bronze pots), metallophones (xylophones with metal, rather than wooden, keys) and deeply resonant gongs. The musical tradition of gamelan appears to be an almost entirely indigenous development, and it is thought that the gongs and metallophones predate the Hindu-Buddhist kingdoms founded in the seventh century. The art of forging them in bronze is believed to have been developed in Java, where it is still practised as a highly skilled and respected profession.

Music is ubiquitous in Bali and forms an integral part of the daily life of the community. In fact, there is a greater concentration of orchestras and musicians in Bali than anywhere else in the world – about 1,500 orchestras to just three million inhabitants. Every event in the life of a Balinese is accompanied by music – the birth of a child, the filing of teeth, weddings, funerals – and the type of orchestra differs according to the ceremony. In religious temple ceremonies and village festivals, music is as necessary as incense, flowers and offerings to the gods, and often provides accompaniment to dance and drama. The richness of the island’s musical culture is characterized by the huge variety of different styles of gamelan music and ensembles, and it is common for many of these to play simultaneously at temple celebrations in glorious cacophony, contributing to the requisite atmosphere of noisy exuberance.

A unique and distinctive tradition

Bali is a small volcanic island off the eastern tip of Java in the vast archipelago that is the Republic of Indonesia. Over thousands of years successive waves of migration and cultural influence from mainland South Asia and India have been absorbed, with Hindu culture being introduced around the first century A.D. and culminating in the Hindu-Javanese civilization which flourished under the Majapahit Empire of East Java in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. When this empire finally collapsed in the late fifteenth century under the spread of Islam, the Hindu-Javanese courts fled to Bali, taking with them their priests, dancers and musicians. To this day the Balinese practise their own Hindu-Balinese religion, a unique blend of Hinduism and traditional Balinese beliefs rooted in animism and ancestor worship.

The gamelan traditions of central Java, Sunda (west Java) and Bali all derive from this common ancestry and share similarities of tuning, instrumentation and musical organization, while their separate development since has resulted in their present distinct styles. The difference between the music of Java and Bali is striking, as different as night and day: the soft, shockless resonance of the Javanese gamelan has been refined to create a mood of untroubled calm and mystic serenity; by contrast, Balinese gamelan is vigorous, rhythmic and explosive, with a bright percussive sound and feverish intensity. The Javanese find the music of Bali barbaric, whilst the Balinese complain that the music of Java sends them to sleep!

Until the turn of the century, Bali was divided into a number of small kingdoms, each a cultural centre, whose courts patronized large gamelan orchestras for ceremonies and recreation as well as dance and drama troupes. In the villages, too, gamelan thrived. When the Dutch finally invaded South Bali in 1906 the power of the palaces declined and most of the court gamelans passed into the villages where they continued to be used at temple festivals.

Music for every occasion

Now that the courts themselves no longer exist, musical life in Bali is centred around the village and the temples. Every village and every sub-division (banjar) of a village may have several music clubs (seka) whose members are traditionally exclusively male and who, on an almost daily basis, rehearse music, dances and plays to be performed during the periodic three-day temple festivals, as well as for secular entertainment. Instruments are usually owned by the banjar or the seka and may include a gamelan gong kebyar, which can play traditional ceremonial music as well as its own modern style, a gamelan bebonangan (or beleganjur) for ceremonial processions, and a gamelan angklung which plays for cremations and temple ceremonies and also sometimes for processions.

As the Balinese are Hindu, every village has three main temples linked to an elaborate temple system: the ‘Temple of Origin’ for the ancestors, the central village temple and the ‘Temple of the Dead’ with its graveyard. There are also many smaller temples and every household has a family shrine. In addition to the many religious festivals that occur in temples across the island, each temple holds an anniversary festival called odalan every 210 days, when the temple blossoms with floral offerings, towers of fruit and sweets, banners and parasols. It is surrounded by makeshift stalls selling food, sweets, drinks, bric-a-brac and the ubiquitous kretek (clove cigarettes). There are also the old women dispensing jamu (herbal medicine) and the young men gambling away their daily wages.

The odalan usually lasts for three days during which the temple is crammed with the people of the village who go during the day to pray and then return in the evening for the entertainment, which traditionally involves baris, a ceremonial dance accompanied by gamelan, and wayang kulit, a shadow play with its own distinctive musical accompaniment. Other performances may include topeng (a masked dance), legong (a classic dance for young girls) and arja (a popular sung play that lasts until the early hours of the morning). Music for the Balinese is a form of religious expression; no ceremony or temple festival is complete without it. Indeed, the primary purpose of the festival is to propitiate the spirits and entertain the gods, who occupy special shrines for the duration.

In the days before they were dissolved, the greater courts each boasted at least five different gamelan orchestras. The great gamelan gong gede, involving over 40 musicians, played in the outer courtyard every morning, its majestic sound filling the air. The lighter, sweet-toned gamelan semar pegulingan (named after Semar, the god of love) played in an inner courtyard in the afternoons and evenings while the prince was in his bedchamber. For official spectacles there was a gamelan gambuh theatrical troupe, a gender wayang to accompany the shadow puppet theatre, and a gamelan bebonangan, comprising gongs, cymbals and drums, for processions. The gamelan gong played ceremonial music and accompanied dances such as baris and topeng. With the demise of the palaces at the turn of the century, some older forms of court music became exinct. Indeed, many older gamelans were melted down and recast when the modern gongkebyar style became all the rage. But though the courts themselves no longer exist, music derived from their traditions is still played at ceremonies and festivals.

A colourful, shimmering musical tree

The basic organization of all Balinese gamelans is the same, comprising an instrumental stratification spanning over five octaves. The way the Balinese think about the music is as a tree, with some instruments representing the trunk, some the branches and some flowers. One group of instruments plays the pokok, the core melody, in one octave. Another group stresses this core melody at regular intervals, generally one note in four. A third group expands the core melody into a full melody with a range of two to three octaves. A fourth group doubles and paraphrases this an octave above. A fifth group plays an ornamental figuration of the melody. The various gongs provide punctuation and structure, and the drums conduct the gamelan and provide a propulsive rhythmic undercurrent.

There are two main groups of bronze instruments: those with keys, and gong-type instruments. Other types of instrument include drums, bamboo flutes, cymbals and the bowed rebab (an upright fiddle). Most important of all is the ‘great gong’, up to a metre in diameter, which marks the strong structural points in a piece of music, such as the end of each section or cycle. The true sonorous sound of a great gong is an enriching experience that no amount of recording technology can convey, and it's no surprise that certain gongs are considered to have magical and supernatural powers. Often there are two great gongs: a larger (female) and a smaller (male), which play in alternation. Then there are other smaller gongs, that further divide the cycle, such as the medium-sized kempur, the small, chiming, slightly dissonant kemong and the kempli, which provides the heartbeat of the music.

There is also the trompong, a row of ten gong-chimes set along a wooden frame. In ceremonial music it is played by a single musician to embellish the melody. A similar instrument played by four people with three pots each is called reyong and is used in the modern gamelan gong kebyar to play jazzy chords and syncopated rhythms.

The keyed bronze metallophones come in different families and sizes, each with a different function. In the gender family the bronze keys are suspended over bamboo resonators. The largest and deepest-toned gender are called jegogan and have five keys (covering one octave) played with a padded beater. An octave higher are the calung, then the penyacah, which are higher again – these play the core melody of a piece. The largest group of gender are known as gangsa and are all played with hard wooden mallets to get a bright, percussive sound. The largest of these, known as the ugal, is the leader of the gangsa section of the orchestra; there are also four pemade an octave higher and four kantilan, higher again, which flesh out the core melody with elaborate ornamentations. Often these ornamentations take the form of a pair of interlocking parts which unite to create lightning fast intricate patterns called kotekan. Generally the metallophones are played using one hand to strike the keys with a mallet while the other hand damps each key after it is struck to prevent the reverberation from clouding the overall sound, though sometimes a special two-handed technique is used where each hand both plays and quickly damps the keys.

Most gamelans are led by a pair of double-headed drums which signal changes of tempo and dynamic contrast. The drums are tuned in pairs – a lower-pitched female and higher-pitched male – and are described as being like blood running through the veins. They contribute the rhythmic vitality of the music, as do the ceng-ceng cymbals which in modern gamelans consist of a small hand-held pair used to strike others set on the back of a small carved wooden turtle. All the instruments are intricately carved with floral motifs painted in bright colours, such as scarlet, and decorated with gold leaf.

In most ensembles, instruments are arranged in pairs, with each instrument tuned slightly apart from its partner to create a vibrant acoustical ‘beating’ sound that makes the music come alive and gives Balinese gamelan its characteristic pulsating, shimmering quality so different from Javanese gamelan. Most gamelans ‘beat’ at a rate of between five and eight beats per second, although older gamelans are usually slower and the modern trend is towards faster beating as well as faster tempos. In addition, every gamelan has its own distinctive overall tuning, hence its own tonal personality, yet each conforms to one of two tuning systems, common to Bali and Java, called pelog and slendro. Pelog is a seven-note scale with a series of unequal intervals, though it is used to play a number of five-note ‘modes'. Slendro is a five-note scale with relatively equal intervals, in theory if not in practice. Actual pitches, however, vary enormously from one gamelan to another, from one village to the next, as do names for pieces, instruments and instrumentation.

Sacred gamelans of temple rituals

There are more than 20 distinct types of gamelan, each with its own tradition, repertoire and context. The sacred gamelan gong gede (literally ‘great gong’) at Batur temple in the north is possibly the oldest gamelan in Bali, said to date from the fifteenth century. It is huge, with massive bronze keys and gongs, and requires 40 players. It conjures up an atmosphere of stately grandeur and nobility, the majesty of the ancient courts. The basic structure of most pieces of music played by gamelan gong gede is a progression from a slow-paced, broader gong-cycle (the period between sections marked by the great gong) at the beginning, to faster tempos and shorter cycles at the end; a gradual building of momentum to powerful effect. A good example of this can be heard on Ocora’s Bali: Musique pour le gong gede.

The ancient gambuh court dance theatre is considered to be the ancestor of most forms of classical music, dance and drama of palatial origin, and tells stories about the legendary Hindu/Javanese prince Panji. It still exists in only a handful of villages, like Batuan in central South Bali where there are in fact two groups! The gambuh there is an essential part of temple ceremonies. The core of gamelan gambuh is made up of four or five deep-toned suling (bamboo flutes), which are so long that the ends have to be placed on the ground in front of the players, and a rebab (bowed upright fiddle) that together play ghostly, ethereal melodies. These are underpinned by drums, small punctuating gongs and various small percussion instruments whose sounds seem to hover in the air. There are no tuned metallophones but the principles of modern gamelan music are already present in this ancient ensemble. Gambuh is slow and very stylized. It uses the seven-note pelog scale and modes which are associated with particular characters, rather like in wayang kulit. Buda's Anthology of the Music of Bali, Volume 4 provides a taste of gambuh and also of arja which is a very popular kind of ‘operetta’ directly derived from gambuh and accompanied by drums, flutes and percussion. Performances last until the early hours and involve much clowning around!

Gamelan semar pegulingan is a seven-tone pelog gamelan whose repertory derives from gambuh, with the suling flute melody transposed to the trompong gong-chimes and including several members of the gender family. The semar pegulingan found in Kamasan, Klungkung, in eastern Bali, is one of the very few remaining. The orchestration is higher-pitched, lighter and clearer than gamelan gong gede and has inherited some of the lighter percussion of the gambuh, such as the gentorak bell tree, to replace the heavy cymbals. Gamelan Semar Pegulingan Saih Pitu (saih pitu refers to the seven-note tuning) on CMP is a particularly sweet-sounding and ethereal recording; Anthology of the Music of Bali, Volume 4 includes recordings by the same group, from Kamasam, described as one of Bali’s rarest and most beautiful orchestras. Gamelan semar pegulingan can also use a five- or six-tone scale; a fine recording of it in this form can be found on Music of Bali: Gamelan Semar Pegulingan on Lyrichord.

Gamelan pelegongan is similar to gamelan semar pegulingan but uses only a five-tone scale and with the trompong substituted by two gender of 13-15 keys each, played with an elaborate two-handed technique. The style is more fluid and lyrical, the tempos are very fast and the kotekan interlocking patterns are highly complex, requiring frequent rehearsal. This type of gamelan is used to accompany the famous court dance legong kraton and can be heard played by the group Tirta Sari of Peliatan, south central Bali, on The Music of Bali, Volume 2 on Celestial Harmonies.

Buda’s Anthology of the Music of Bali, Volume 4 includes a recording of gamelan pelegongan playing bebarongan music to accompany the Barong or Calonarang trance dances, as well as an example of gamelan pejogedan, a sort of bamboo pelegongan using bamboo xylophones instead of bronze gender, and used to accompany the social flirtation dance joged pingitan, similar to joged bumbung and other dances of seduction. Gamelan pelegongan can also be heard on Ocora’s Bali: Hommage a Wayan Lotring, a double album devoted to the brilliant composer Wayan Lotring, who was one of the most influential figures in Balinese gamelan. He can be heard directing gamelan ensembles on The Roots of Gamelan on World Arbiter.


The sound of the century – gamelan gong kebyar

Gamelan gong kebyar is the modern ubiquitous style, the twentieth-century Balinese gamelan. Around 1914 in Buleleng district in the north of Bali, musicians were experimenting with traditions, forms and styles, and this resulted in a fusion of gamelan gong gede and gamelan pelegongan. It was notably in the villages of Jagaraga and Bungkulan that this explosive style was born, and there arose much competition between gamelan clubs in different villages and regions.

‘Kebyar’ is an onomatopoeic word which can mean ‘lightning’ or ‘like the flaring of a match’, both terms that describe the abrupt bursts of sound, strange stops and starts, wild and angular orchestral tuttis. With its rapid tempos and restless energy, this new musical style was charged with the feeling of momentous change that engulfed the island around the turn of the century. Many groups of musicians melted down the ponderous keys and gongs of the old ceremonial instruments and re-forged them into lighter, faster-reacting and more wide-ranging instruments needed for the brilliant kebyar style. New dances and choreographies were created in the same spirit – for example, ‘Kebyar Trompong’, in which the dancer actually plays the trompong gong-chimes alongside the rest of the gamelan musicians.

For over 50 years kebyar dominated Bali’s musical life, absorbing the repertoire and freely adapting aspects of other musical styles. The vast majority of present-day gamelan orchestras are gamelan gong kebyar. The music is rich in orchestral colour and melodic shape, intricately patterned in an elaborate system of interlocking rhythmic parts and kaleidoscopic in mood as it changes from dazzling outbursts to a whisper of metallic shimmer – a music of extreme virtuosity and complexity. You can hear where it all began on World Arbiter’s The Roots of Gamelan, which includes the very recordings, made in 1928, that inspired Canadian composer Colin McPhee to devote his life to Balinese music. (It was McPhee who introduced Benjamin Britten to Balinese music, and they can be heard playing McPhee’s piano transcriptions of gamelan on The Roots of Gamelan.) The Earth Greets the Sun on Deutsche Grammophon is a particularly good recording of gamelan gong kebyar, with crystalline sound quality; it’s the record that started me off on my particular path. Bali: Les grands gong kebyar des annees soixante (Ocora) features classic kebyar recordings from the late 1960s by top gamelan orchestras of the time. There are more classic 1960s recordings on the Auvidis Unesco disc Bali: Court Music and Banjar Music. For a more modern recording try Clash of the Gongs on Long Distance, where both the recording and the playing is notably slick in comparison to the 1960s tapes.

Gamelan to go

Gamelan bebonangan, otherwise known as beleganjur ( ‘walking army’), is a processional orchestra of gongs, hand-held gong-chimes (1 reyong pot per person), drums and several pairs of ceng-ceng cymbals. It is basically a gong kebyar played on the move, for example at a cremation ceremony, in a religious procession or to drive away evil spirits. In ancient times this orchestra was played whilst marching into battle and it still reflects its martial origins. A pair of gong-chimes called ponggang play a melodic pattern that mimics the call of the frogs in the rice fields when it’s about to rain, an example of Balinese music reflecting nature. The reyong, ceng-ceng and drums all play interlocking parts and the interplay between these groups contributes to the excitement of this highly rhythmic style, with its hypnotic beat and thunderous dynamics. Buda’s Anthology of the Music of Bali, Volume 3 includes two tracks contrasting old-style and modern beleganjur.

Another portable ensemble is gamelan angklung, another indispensable element of temple ceremonies and village festivals. Considered to be one of the oldest forms of gamelan, it is still very common today and is used in most areas for cremations, tooth-filing and purification ceremonies. The name derives from the shaken bamboo rattles (angklung kocok) which were once included but are now rarely found. The modern gamelan angklung is bronze and uses a four-note slendro scale (though five-note gamelan angklung are common in the north) and has the familiar instrumentation of metallophones, gongs, gong-chimes and drums but on a smaller scale, like a miniature gamelan gong. Being small, it is often carried and played in procession, for example to the cremation ground. Although seemingly playful and charming in character, to the Balinese it is sentimental and bittersweet, and creates an essential ceremonial atmosphere. Pieces show a great variety of structure and flexibility of form, similar to gender wayang from which some repertoire is drawn. Like all Balinese music it is an oral tradition, and consequently playing style, instrumentation and repertoire varies from one region to another, even from one village to the next. The sacred gamelan angklung of Sidan, Gianyar in south central Bali is said to be 200 years old and has a unique style and sound revered all over Bali. An excellent recording of this gamelan can be found on Buda’s Anthology of the Music of Bali, Volume 3. Volume 2 of the same series features some stunning examples of other unusual angklung, including the modern angklung kebyar style. Angklung repertoire is also drawn from genggong, a folk style using Jew’s harps made from palm wood that plays interlocking patterns derived from frog calls, as does enggung.

Ancient and sacred rarities - selonding, gambang and gong luang

Gamelan selonding, or salunding (meaning ‘sacred place’), is an ancient ritual orchestra of the Bali Aga people of eastern Bali, the so called ‘original’ inhabitants of Bali who probably arrived from Java long before the fourteenth century. They live in villages almost shut off from the outside world, where pre-Hindu rituals and distinctive domestic and religious architecture survive, such as in the village of Tenganan Pegerinsingan. The few selonding that exist are used only in a ritual context and are very unusual in construction. The only instruments are metallophones in varying sizes with keys suspended over trough-like wooden resonators (the possible ancestor of the modern gender), and selonding is unique in that the keys are not made of bronze but iron, a magically charged material. There are no gongs, no drums, and optional small cymbals. The functions of the instruments, and the number of players, depend on the piece being played, but no more than seven players are ever needed; it is a very intimate gamelan with a softly chiming resonance rather like church bells. The scale is also very strange, using seven notes but with unusual intervals. Until recently, no profane copies were allowed to be made of the sacred instruments, and even now recordings can only be made of the profane copies, such as those made by I. Nyoman P. Gunawan in Tenganan. Buda’s Anthology of the Music of Bali, Volume 3 includes seven excellent tracks of selonding, Bali: A Suite of Tropical Music and Sounds, on World Network, contains two tracks.

Gamelan gambang is another ancient ritual ensemble, used almost exclusively for cremations and comprising four wooden xylophones called gambang and two bronze saron metallophones that play in a distinctive irregular rhythm that has been used in gamelan kebyar and pelegangan compositions. Pieces use the seven-note pelog scale and are derived from classical sung poetry called kidung. Caruk is a similar ensemble with just one xylophone and one saron.

Gamelan gong luang, also known as gong saron, is another ancient and very rare ensemble, used for funeral rites and related to sung poetry (though only its metre remains part of the music). Like the other sacred ensembles it uses a seven-tone scale, but unlike them it includes gongs and drums, though the drums are used only to cue the gongs. Indeed, the instrumentation is like a reduced version of gamelan gonggede. Gamelan gambang and gamelan luang can be heard on Buda’s Anthology of The Music of Bali, Volume 3.

Music for entertainment – spiritual and profane

Gamelan jegog is a modern type of gamelan used for popular entertainment, specifically in west Bali, where giant bamboo grows plentifully. It is comprised entirely of bamboo xylophone-like instruments in differing sizes, some so large (jegogan keys can be three metres long) that the players must sit on top of the elaborate frame to play the instrument! The lack of resonance of the bamboo is compensated by striking the keys incredibly fast, creating a sound like thunder rolling round the mountains, a great wind rushing through the trees and fat drops of rain falling in the rice fields. Often, two or three groups play in a competition called mabarung to see who can play fastest, loudest and longest. And when they play simultaneously, a gloriously shifting pulsating wall of sound is set up such as Steve Reich could only dream about! Jegog can be sampled on Jegog: The Bamboo Gamelan of Bali on CMP and Buda’s Anthology of Music of Bali, Volume 1.

Kecak (or cak), often called the ‘Monkey Chant’, is one of the most popular tourist attractions, usually taking the form of a theatrical performance enacting the rescue of princess Sita from the demon King Rawana by an army of monkeys, an important episode in the Hindu Ramayana epic. Its origins lie in certain exorcistic trance rituals called sanghyang which were accompanied by a male chorus chanting in a seated circle around a flaming torch. The modern version was created in the 1930s, when the chorus was increased to 100-150 men in concentric circles and a narrator was introduced along with dancers. The chorus imitate the rhythms and textures of the gamelan with their voices – there are melodies, a pulse and punctuation, but mainly a cloud of percussive vocal effects: the syllable ‘cak!’ (pronounced ‘chak’) spat out repetitively through clenched teeth in a set of interlocking staccato patterns. The cak rhythms are similar to the ceng-ceng cymbal patterns of the gamelan gong gede and beteganjur – there are up to seven parts, none more than four beats in duration. The combined effect is electrifying, especially when all the performers’ hands start trembling into the night air as they all fall backwards and the circles open out like a flower in bloom. A complete kecak performance can be heard on Kecak: A Balinese Music Drama on Bridge. Other examples can be found on Celestial Harmonies’s three-disc set The Music of Bali and Buda’s Anthology of the Music of Bali, Volume 1, which also includes a recording of janger, a form of vocal entertainment also derived from sanghyang.

The shadow puppet theatre wayang kulit is popular both as drama and as ritual. A night-time performance is an essential element of a temple festival, where a coconut-oil lamp casts flickering shadows from the delicate two-dimensional leather puppets on to a screen, and the puppeteer (dhalang) tells stories from the Hindu Mahabharata epic to the accompaniment of a quartet of ten-keyed bronze metallophones called gender wayang. The five-note slendro scale is used. Although it is one of the smallest ensembles, it plays some of the most complex and technically demanding music in Bali, intricate yet intimate. Often the two hands of each musician play independent parts that interlock with another player to create a four-part polyphony, doubled in the octave above, a perfect counterpoint to the voices of the ancestral silhouettes that the shadow play presents.

An enthusiastic crowd surrounds both sides of the screen, especially for the scenes featuring the clown servants who translate the other characters’ speech into everyday speech, as they do in most forms of Balinese drama. For daytime ritual wayang lemah only one pair of gender is used and there is no screen, and for performances of Ramayana stories and wayang wong, in which masked dancers play the part of puppets, various gongs and percussion instruments are added. Good recordings of wayang music can be found on Gender Wayang Pemarwan and Gender Batel Wayang Ramayana, both on CMP.

In addition to all these types of music on Bali are the sounds of everyday life: the frogs and cicadas, kulkul (wooden slit-drums used for signalling in the villages), rice-pounding music (whose interlocking patterns have influenced many gamelans), bamboo rattles used to deter birds from the rice-fields, the sound of cockfighting and the tall bamboo poles called sunari which are played like flutes by the wind and represent the voices of the ancestors. These can all be heard on Bali: a Suite of Tropical Music and Sounds (on World Network), an enjoyable journey though the sounds of the island.

The real gamelan experience

Despite the wonderful range of excellent recordings available, nothing compares to the experience, late at night, of watching a performance of the Calonarang drama. The entire village seems to be thronging the temple courtyard, pressed together as one. Suddenly, Rangda the evil witch lets out a blood-curdling scream, the music of the gamelan intensifies, the gong cycles condense and several people flip into a trance, every muscle tensed as they endeavour to pierce their chests with their kris (long wavy-bladed daggers). The atmosphere is electric. The crowd presses forward. Pandemonium reigns.

Rangda returns – people flee in terror and sleeping babies are hastily awakened. Then Barong appears: a magically charged mask with a body like a Chinese lion animated by two dancers. The gamelan play his music, the atmosphere changes and Rangda stalks off. The trancers are still trying to stab themselves but they’re protected by being sprinkled with holy water and things return to normal. The crowd disperses into the night, the excitement over.

In this perennial conflict between Barong and Rangda, Good and Evil, neither side wins; everything is left in balance and harmony – sun and moon, mountain and sea, male and female. This union of religion and everyday life gives music, dance and drama on Bali a deeply religious significance and serves as confirmation – if any were needed – of the strength and vitality of traditional Balinese culture.

This article originally appeared in the summer 1999 issue of Songlines. For complete access to our digital archive consider becoming a digital subscriber today!

Subscribe from only £5.53

Start your journey and discover the very best music from around the world.


View the Current

Take a peek inside the latest issue of Songlines magazine.

Find out more