THE SONOROUS ECHO OF JAVA, SUNDA & BALI: The three main gamelan ...

Text-only Preview

The three main gamelan styles of Indonesia in Vancouver
By Sutrisno Hartana

I would like to present briefly information about the traditional Indonesian music called
gamelan in Vancouver. Due to the constraints of time and budget, this paper must be
limited to discussing on the context, history, and its development since the World
Exposition 1986 to the current time. However, some relevant background from the
original places (Java and Bali) is included. I hasten to add that it is not my intention to
boast about a program with which I have long been associated. I hope however, to show
what we can learn by examining the long term existence of a non-Western performing
ensemble in the city of Vancouver.

There are at least three gamelan orchestras in Vancouver which are representative of the
Javanese, Sundanese, and Balinese gamelan, the three main gamelan styles of Indonesia.
Their growth and existence have developed rapidly in terms of performance and are
implicitly connected to and dependent upon education, counseling, and communication
among people within and between societies. The methodology used to develop this paper
is descriptive analytic, based on field study, interview and published literature in
relationship to the context, history and development of gamelan in Vancouver. This
paper is a historical overview, but also contains analysis and personal opinions that are
based on my own experience with gamelan and the music of Indonesia.


Culture is a strategy for facing the future. It is a human product resulting from the ability
to think, feel, and will, so that culture will evolve along with society and be relevant to
it.1 The arts are part of this, expressing the creativity of a culture. Society is a buffer
giving inspiration and context to artists to move, maintain, spread, develop, and then
create new arts.2 Arts live and develop side by side with society, so the arts feel the
positive impact of development and progress. Life and art are an inseparable unity. Music
as part of the arts is well known as a contributor to universal culture.3 Every society,
simple or complex, has some form of musical activity. In function, music is not solely
performance (tontonan): it is implicitly connected to and dependent upon education
(tuntunan), counseling (tatanan) and communication among people within and between

In certain way, gamelan is similar to other types of traditional music, in that gamelan has
its own characteristic identity. Gamelan is the traditional orchestra of Indonesia, which
consists mainly of percussion instruments which may be made of bronze, iron, bamboo,
or wood, as well as bronze and iron gongs, gong chimes, cymbals, bells, and drums
(kendhang), sometimes accompanied by singers (pesindhen) and a two-stringed bowed
lute, called rebab.4 The gamelan can range from a handful of portable instruments, played
by three or four musicians, to a large array with as many as twenty-five instrumentalists

1 Van Poersen C. A., Strategi Kebudayaan (Yogyakarta: Kanisius, 1976), 1.
2 Umar Kayam, Tradisi Masyarakat (Jakarta: Balai Pustaka, 1981), 39.
3 Bruno Nettl, “Ethomusicology,” In Musics of Many Cultures, ed. Elizabeth May (London: University of
California Press, 1980), 3.


and ten to fifteen singers. In a general way, the Indonesian cultural concept of the word
“gamelan” is that of an orchestra, or the music played by the orchestra, but it corresponds
to the Western sense of that word only in that it conjures up an image of a group of
people making music together. To be precise, gamelan refers to the instruments
themselves, which exist as an inseparable set, and not to a group of individuals who
gather to play them.5

Picture: 1. Javanese gamelan
Indonesian gamelan has two predominant scales called laras (tuning system) which are
slendro (division of the octave into five approximately equidistance tones) and pelog
(division of the octave into seven non-equidistant tones). The traditional gamelan usually
performs for a variety of events including accompanying dance or puppet shows and
sometimes playing compositions from ancient times through to current modern life. The
most famous gamelans are from Java and Bali. In some places within Indonesia, the
gamelan has been enjoyed and performed by Javanese, Sundanese, or Balinese from
social levels ranging from beggars in the streets to the kings. Typically, traditional
gamelan performances occur at family celebrations such as weddings, circumcisions and
birthdays, but in the twentieth century have also spread to radio broadcast, television,
recording, etc.

Brief Historical Overview

4 Hardja Susilo, “Toward An Appreciation of Javanese Gamelan,” (accessed 23 March 2004).
5 Michael Tenzer, Balinese Music (Singapore: Periplus Editions, 1998), 13.


Historically, the first time that gamelan instruments were recognized in stone carvings
dated from around the 9th century AD, many people realized that they must have been
used before that time.6 It is generally understood from stone relief carving on Borobudur
temple in Central Java, Penataran temple in East Java, and some old sacred scriptures that
indicate the origins of the ensemble as we know it today date back to roughly this period.
Bambang Yudoyono, in his book entitled “Gamelan Jawa” mentioned that Borobudur
temple was build in the era of Cailendra`s dynasty in the 8th and 9th century.7 Most of the
kingdom in the large empires based in Java from ancient times, such as the Hindu-
Javanese kingship which ruled in the 5th century has maintained a gamelan orchestra as
an important part of their cultural heritage. The gamelan not only influenced the “social,
political, and religious life” but also influenced the literary and artistic world which
includes music, dances, and Hindu epics, which were adapted for Javanese society.8

In the 14th century, the influence of Islam helped incorporate changes in the
fragmentation into smaller kingdoms and created specialized sub-groups of gamelan
music, for example Balinese, Sundanese and Javanese gamelan which developed
different characters. This fragmentation came about because of political and religious
changes within the area, such as the increased link between gamelan and specific
religious celebrations and the pressures of colonial domination.
In 1954, the Indonesian government under President Sukarno developed a formal
education system based on the study of traditional performing arts including gamelan

6 Jennifer Lindsay, Javanese Gamelan (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992)
7 Bambang Yudoyono, Gamelan Jawa: Awal Mula, Makna dan Masa Depannya (Jakarta: PT. Karya
Unipress, 1984), p. 22.
8 Sumarsam, Gamelan (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994).


called KONRI (the Indonesian dance conservatory) and later known as SMKI (High
School of Indonesian Traditional Performing Arts). There are eight similar regional high
schools where the curriculum is based on teaching traditional performing arts located in
Java, Bali, Sumatra and other cultural regions. Soon after the establishment of the high
schools, several colleges dedicated to the study of traditional arts were established. In
1986, under the government of President Suharto, some colleges joined together to
become the Indonesian Institute of the Arts, a degree granting university. Today, the art
of gamelan is a cultural support of Indonesian society.

Gamelan Abroad
There is an increased demand for gamelan instruments worldwide due to the growing
popularity of Indonesian traditional music. Almost every embassy and the consulate of
the Republic of Indonesia in neighboring countries have complete set of gamelan
instruments as a symbol of the richness of Indonesian culture. Some universities in the
United States of America, Europe, Asia, and Australia also offer gamelan as part of their
academic courses. According to the information from American Gamelan Institute
(, currently there are more than five hundred gamelan groups spread
through North America.

The first gamelan course in America was introduced by Mantle Hood, then the director of
the Institute for Ethnomusicology at UCLA in 1958. He purchased a central Javanese
gamelan and brought to the U.S. the first resident Javanese gamelan teacher, Hardja
Susilo (a UCLA graduate, now retired from his position as professor at University of


Hawaii). His motivation was to teach graduate students in ethnomusicology to become
“bi-musical” in the same way that people are “bi-lingual.”9

Picture: 2 Sundanese gamelan

Gamelan in Vancouver
The gamelan has become increasingly important in Vancouver since the World
Exposition in 1986. It was the first time that a gamelan orchestra performed in
Vancouver, bringing a number of highly respected musicians who were available for
teaching purposes. Sardono W. Kusumo and his wife, Amna Sahap Kusumo, were two of
the important artists who brought together an international community of artists and
scholars at the first International Gamelan Festival in Vancouver during Expo.10 There
had been previous gamelan festivals, in Indonesia and elsewhere, but this was the first to
explicitly recognize the international gamelan movement and the new gamelan music
composed and performed throughout the world. The festival brought together nearly 200
scholars, dancers and performers from Europe, North America, Japan, and Indonesia. The
members of the Indonesian group for Expo ’86 stayed in Vancouver as artists in
residence for the entire five months. Three groups of approximately seventy extremely
talented and hardworking artists presented several well attended daily shows of the best
of the traditional music and dance of the many islands and culture areas of Indonesian
nation. One of the important reasons for holding such an exposition was commercialism
and tourism. A display of exotica, gamelan performance was meant to attract audiences
to the exposition. It was economically, culturally, and politically a positive impact not

9 Judith Becker, “Asian Music”, Vol. 15, No. 1. (accessed 27 October 2004).


only for some Indonesian artists who came to Canada, but also for the Indonesian and
Canadian governments, as well as many individual and groups who were involved in
Expo 1986. This is not the first time gamelan has attracted people to a large exhibition in
the West, for example, gamelan ensembles appeared in Western exhibition halls and at
early world fairs, such as the 1889 Paris Exposition Universelle and the 1893 Chicago
Columbian Exhibition.11 J.B. Sumarlin, former Indonesian minister of the National
Development Plan, and one of Suharto’s ministers who was responsible for the
Indonesian group in Expo `86, said in justification report to the president that:
…berdasarkan pertimbangan bahwa Expo dapat merupakan sarana dan
kesempatan untuk: (1) Menjalin persahabatan antara Pemerintah Canada
dan Indonesia pada khususnya, dan rakyat Canada dan Indonesia pada
umumnya, dan (2) memperkenalkan hasil-hasil dan perkembangan
pembangunan Indonesia yang telah dicapai selama ini serta potensi yang ada
bagi peningkatan kerjasama di bidang ekonomi dan bidang-bidang lain
termasuk seni budaya, pariwisata dan perhubungan yang dapat menunjang
pembangunan Indonesia…
(J.B. Sumarlin 1987)

…according to the consideration that Expo can be the way and opportunity to:
1) guarantee the friendship between the respective government of Canada
and Indonesia especially, and the society of Canada and Indonesia in
general, and
2) introduce the results and the increasing development of Indonesia that has
been reached so far, along with the potential of the growing cooperation in
economical and other terms, ncluding arts, tourism, and transportation that
can support the development of Indonesia…]

In this regard, Sumarlin was able to take the opportunity to support President Suharto`s
“New Order.” Meanwhile, Suharto was successful in legitimizing his own political role

10 Jody Diamond, “An interview with Sardono Kusumo: A word without boundaries”. In Balungan III.
Berkely: American Gamelan Institute, 1997.
11 Sumarsam, “Opportunity and Interaction: The Gamelan from Java to Wesleyan,” in Performing
Ethnomusicology: Teaching and Representation in World Music Ensemble
, ed. Ted Solis (Berkeley, Los
Angeles, London: University of California Press, 2004), 70.


by using the plurality of Indonesian traditional cultures. Since the Exposition 1986,
Vancouver has been comprehensively developing its arts scene including the arts of
gamelan. In the mean time there are at least five gamelan groups in Vancouver which are
representative of Balinese, Javanese and Sundanese gamelan, the three main gamelan
styles of Indonesia.12

There are two major universities in Vancouver which have been actively supporting the
gamelan groups in Vancouver. The School for the Contemporary Arts at Simon Fraser
University has offered a Javanese gamelan course every spring and summer semester
since 1990. The School of Music at University of British Columbia has, since 1996,
under direction of Dr. Michael Tenzer, professor at the UBC School of music and the co-
founder of the Sekar Jaya gamelan group in San Fransisco Bay Area, been developing
Sekaha Gong Gita Asmara, translated as the “Gamelan Club of the Sound of Love”.

Gita Asmara plays a Balinese-style music
that is fast, fiery, and extremely powerful.

The Vancouver Community College music department under direction of John Siddall
has also a Sundanese gamelan called Si Pawit, or “The Beginning” which is now in use
for their course.

12 Diane Yee, “Sound of Unity: The Music of Gamelan.” Pacific Rim 2 (2004), 42.


In light of this, it is worth reviewing the activity of performing gamelan ensembles in
Vancouver. In order to get information related to the field, on October 11, 2005, I
interviewed Kenneth Newby and other members of gamelan Madusari in their house.
Newby is a well known composer, performer, teacher and computer specialist, and the
founder of Javanese gamelan in Vancouver.

Sutrisno Hartana (SH): What was the genesis of Gamelan Madusari?

Kenneth Newby (KN): Well, it really happened on the instigation of the late Martin
Bartlett, who was one of the professors of music composition at Simon Fraser
University. When I returned from a period of study for a year and a half in
Indonesia in 1986, and went to talk with Martin Bartlett, who had been a teacher
of mine, and said; “…we have learned about the Javanese gamelan in Solo,
Surakarta, Central Java...”

Newby ‘s conversation with Martin Bartlett was the beginning of the idea to establish a
gamelan orchestra here in Vancouver. That was in 1986, when a significant number of
Indonesian artists were present in this city. That year, Martin was enthusiastic about
creating some kind of activity in the gamelan scene in Vancouver.

SH: What did you think of his idea?

KN: His idea was just perfect. He told me once: “If we could maybe obtain a gamelan
out of it and be able to continue, that would be wonderful.” Martin was always
interested in Indonesian music since probably early 1970 when he was a graduate
student at Mills College, in California.

SH: What happened next?

KN: So what we did is, we planned a summer workshop which was sponsored by
Simon Fraser University. We borrowed the small gamelan ensemble from the
Indonesian Consulate here, and brought up a very esteemed teacher, Pak Cokro,
who was teaching at Cal Arts in California. We offered a month long workshop.
This was happening while Expo was going on, and then we used that basically, as
leverage, to justify the Indonesian government giving us the full gamelan which
was in residence at the Indonesian pavilion at Expo.


Before the end of the Exposition, it became clear that the Javanese gamelan and Balinese
gamelan that had been brought from Indonesia to support the daily performances by the
resident artists would not be taken back to Indonesia at the close of the event. J.B.
Kristiadi, the former head of the financial department of the Indonesian government, was
responsible for the donation of two gamelan ensembles. A suggestion was made by
Martin Bartlet that, given that the first step in instruction in Indonesian music and dance
had already begun at SFU, it would perhaps be appropriate if the Central Javanese
gamelan were left in the university’s custody with a commitment to continuing to
promote its use through teaching and development of a community gamelan group of
local practitioners.

In the fall of 1986, the School for the Contemporary Arts at Simon Fraser University
received the Javanese Gamelan. Under the guidance of Pak Cokro (K.R.T.
Wasitodiningrat), Martin Bartlett, Kenneth Newby, Loraine Thomson, and some student
members of the group, a selamatan (ritual and communal feast) was held to
ceremonialize the gift. The name Madusari was given by Pak Cokro for the big gong in
Javanese gamelan. After the selamatan, the group held an intensive gamelan workshop at
Simon Fraser University. The group also invited I Nyoman Wenten (a well known
musician, dancer, composer, now the head of the World Music Program at Cal-Arts
University of Valencia) and his wife, Nanik Wenten (one of Pak Cokro`s daughters, who
is now teaching the Javanese and Balinese dance at Cal-Arts University of Valencia) to
dance and teach the group. I Nyoman Wenten also tought gender wayang, a four-pieces