I am sitting on a mat on the wooden floor, in my socks, facing a large xylophone-like instrument. In the windowless room, a dozen other people, ranging in age from 20 to 70, are also sitting, shoeless, in front of various percussion instruments that looks like xylophones or metallic drums. Despite the fact that most of us have only rudimentary musical notions, we are about to create a masterpiece of Indonesian music, under the direction of veteran gamelan musicians Rick Sacks and Andrew Timar of the Evergreen Club Gamelan.

Actually, I’m exaggerating a bit. A masterpiece we did not create, but the result was surprising. So, how did this come about you may wonder, and what on earth is gamelan?

Gamelan refers to an ensemble, or orchestra, of traditional bronze age Indonesian instruments, mostly from the islands of Java and Bali. It features metallophones, xylophones, drums, bamboo flutes, as well as bowed and plucked strings. The term refers more to the instruments than to the players. A gamelan is a set of instruments built and tuned to stay together. Instruments from different gamelan are generally not interchangeable. The wood bases are often sculpted into intricate shapes which makes each set unique. The gamelan predates the Hindu-Buddhist culture that dominated Indonesia from the first to the 16th century AC, and as such represents a native art form. In Indonesia, gamelan often accompanies dance, shadow puppet performances, rituals and ceremonies. It can also be performed by itself or for radio broadcasts.

When Rick and Andrew realized that the instruments were sitting unused in boxes between performances, they decided to open up the space to the public and give access to the instruments via a meetup group on Meetup.com. The original invite read: “Anyone can learn how to play just by sitting down at one of the instruments and playing! There are two facilitators to help with some basics but after that you are on a road to discovery and making new friends in the process“. Understandably, many people were doubtful that they could play music within a few hours, especially on such foreign looking instruments. But thanks to our teachers’s patience and simple instructions, we were up improvising in no time.

Here is a little video I put together to give you an idea of what the experience was like.

It was a fun way to spend a Saturday afternoon!

Over a two-and-a-half hour period, we got to play three different instruments, each time learning a simple sequence of notes (with perhaps a few variations) that we played repeatedly in an “improvisation”. After a while, it became almost hypnotic.

The gamelan scale is made up of only five notes, although the xylophone (gambang) and some of the metallophones span several octaves. The technique on most percussion instruments consist of hitting a note and then grabbing it to dampen the vibration as you hit the next note. This exercise in co-ordination is probably the most difficult part. Andrew improvised the melody on the flute (suling). There was also a string instrument called “kacapi” which looked like a horizontal harp.

The style that we’re learning is called degung, and comes from West Java. I really enjoyed this music when I travelled in Indonesia back in 1995. I was glad to be re-introduced to it, right here in my hometown of Toronto.

Here is a video of gamelan played by professionals.


What is your favourite kind of world music? Share in the comments.

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