The gamelan orchestra in its different forms is indigenous to many parts of the archipelago and once was so much a part of community life that most villages, in Java at least, would be the loving caretakers of at least one set of instruments. Poor villages had small sets, forged out of iron; wealthy villages had bigger ones, forged of bronze. The best and biggest sets were kept in the palaces.
Since the misty past when metal work was considered akin to magic, gamelan sets have been handed down through generations. Many were believed to have special powers and certain sets are to this day only played on auspicious occasions, such as during the Sekaten ceremony to celebrate the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad in the palace of the sultan of Yogyakarta.
The sets used in the Sekaten ceremony are venerated not only in the way they are handled, but also in their given names: the Foremost and Venerable Honey Thunder and the Foremost and Venerable Harmonious Dragon. These sets are said to have the power to compel people to pledge the syahadatain , the bearing of witness that each Muslim must take — that there is no God but Allah and Muhammad is his prophet.
The Javanese of the first Islamic sultanate in Demak pronounced the Arabic word “syahadatain” as “sekaten.” The Sekaten ceremony to this day is still the main celebration held annually by the sultan, believed to be blessed by the wali, or saints, who spread the word of Islam in Java. The gamelan instruments played during the celebration have become a symbol of a valuable legacy for building and maintaining community values and resilience.
Unlike the instruments of the Western orchestra, gamelan instruments can be played by musicians of any skill level, allowing anyone to fully participate in the creation of music. For most instruments in the gamelan orchestra, players do not need to possess advanced musical skills, but rather are expected to be reverent and strive for harmony by listening to their hearts, the collective music of the instruments and their fellow worshipers.
Gamelan instruments cannot really be played solo. While solo piano can be as full and expressive as an entire orchestra, solo gong would not really make sense. Only the gifted few can listen to their heart and produce half an hour of amazing piano music, but with a set of gamelan instruments, any group, including people of any age, gender or ability, can be guided in worshipfulness and harmony within half an hour to help produce gamelan music fit to play before any dignitary, from a magnificent sultan to a merry King Cole.
The worship aspect of gamelan is further directed by the word used for the action of striking the instruments. The simple hit of the various mallets is not called “nuthuk,” but “nabuh.” While both words mean “to hit,” the former connotes the usual meaning and the latter means to hit with reverence, as if to hit but not force something — it is a hit intended to politely coax the instrument’s voice out to present it to God. All one needs to take part and contribute meaningfully in a gamelan composition is the ability to maintain harmony and worship with heart in the practice of hitting the instruments in a sincere manner.
The central function of the gamelan in village life died out with the industrialization of Javanese agriculture that totally transformed the countryside in the early 1970s. As rice production became part of the global business of genetically modified seeds and chemical fertilizers, village communities found they had no more time for lengthy ceremonies that involved the practice of gamelan.
While gamelan itself did not die out, the teaching and learning of gamelan began to follow the logic of an industrial culture instead of the logic inherent in the gamelan instruments themselves. If one goes to learn gamelan nowadays, most teachers will present written music for the students to follow. But the fact of gamelan as an instrument of communal worship is lost in the effort to follow the notes of written music.
Inevitably, this approach alienates the non-musical, because whoever cannot follow the written music will feel inferior, something that gamelan music-making should never do. This development is a cultural loss, because right now we desperately need more sensitivity and harmony in our communal lives.
Just how far we have strayed from the truths that our hearts guide us to and the gamelan hones for us can be seen in the recent violence against Ahmadiyah followers in Banten. Videos of the incident show thugs beating dead men with sticks and stones, but after each strike the thugs can be seen to quickly retreat in fear, as if the corpses may come back to life and attack them. The fear felt by the attackers was actually the voice of their conscience, but it was too weak to stop their descent into satanic brutality because their hearts were never honed to truth, never considered in their daily lives.
In this respect, those murderous animals in the video are also victims — before they killed their victims, they too had been dehumanized, not only by religious figures like the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) cleric Sobri Lubis, who hysterically calls for the killing of Ahmadis, but also by the technocratic changes imposed upon them by the political powers that be.
I think it is time to bring back the gamelan to our daily lives and let the genius of our ancestors guide us through these times of darkness.
Bramantyo Prijosusilo is a writer, organic farmer and broadcast journalist.