In his celebrated book A House in Bali, Canadian composer Colin McPhee describes hearing a Balinese gamelan orchestra for the first time: the “metallic sounds of the music were like the stirring of a thousand bells, delicate, confused with a sensuous charm, a mystery that was quite overpowering.”
The gamelan is an ensemble made up of metallophones, xylophones, drums, gongs, bells, flutes, cymbals, rattles and sometimes strings, made with bronze and bamboo. The percussion-oriented music that emerges is certainly foreign for those unaccustomed to its speedy and complex rhythms, but few deny its mesmeric qualities.
The gamelan is played by at least 25 male musicians who perform sitting cross-legged on the ground.There are no stars in the orchestra; each instrument is seen as a key part of the whole. As in so many aspects of Balinese life, harmony between members is key. The musicians aren’t paid for their work and invariably have other jobs, but gamelan is nonetheless essential to village life and Balinese spirituality, being a key part of wayang performances, dance events, cremations and other ceremonies.
Gamelan Performances in Ubud
Ubud is a centre for gamelan performances, usually held after dark. See our ‘Events Calendar’ for details.
Leaning to Play Gamelan
It’s also possible to learn how to play in a gamelan orchestra. See our ‘Events Calendar’ for details on classes and workshops.
The other commonly heard musical form around Ubud is the kecak, a dramatic, rhythmic male chorus also known as the Ramayana Monkey Chant. Kecak is performed by at least one hundred vocalists without any instrumental accompaniment. Their chests are bare and they wear black-and-white checked sarongs, swaying and waving their hands in the air in front of open flames, while creating a complex system of repetitious, synchronised “chak-a-chak-a-chak” chants, as well as percussion through the slapping of hands against their chests and thighs.
Kecak was originally a trance ritual used to fend off troubles such as famine, disease and pestilence.