Gamelan Rains

After weathering a number of stormy days in Bali during Indonesia’s rainy season, I'm beginning to draw some conclusions about the weather's effect on the culture. The rains pound here with tremendous force, beating on roads, thatched and stone and metal roofs, bridges and temples. The sound of the deluge is alarming, and will drown out any conversation with ease. During a cloudburst, it is best simply to hunker down beneath a tree or in a cafe, let go, and listen to the maddening roar of the rain. I find this mesmerizing, and am grateful I’ve ventured here during the wet season.

It has also brought to mind a correlation between the weather and music of this place. The traditional Gamelan is played by an ensemble of men pounding hammers on metallophones, which are similar to curved metal xylophones, but make way more of an impression. In combination with gongs, drums, and a bamboo flute, the sounds produced are rhythmically and tonally challenging for the Western ear. This primal yet refined cacophony lays the stage for the brilliantly graceful and controlled dancers. It occurred to me, while being swept into trance by the rains yesterday, that the pinging and pounding of raindrops alludes to the pitching banging of the Gamelan, and it struck me that these unique percussive instruments could easily have been informed by the rhythmic presence of such powerful rains.

It may seem like a stretch, but If I have learned anything in Bali, it is that the people here have very strong relationships to the natural world. Many large trees, often Ficus and Banyan trees, have stone altars built at their roots, and are wrapped in black and white checkered cloths, called Saput Pelong. These represent the dichotomy of light and dark, good and evil, and the spirit residing within these natural beings.

In a land where the traditional culture maintains such a strong connection to the natural world, it seems befitting that the music would also reflect this. It takes little time to feel the songs of the rain in the chorus of the gamelan.

The dancers themselves enact the dramas of humans, the gods, and the forces of good and evil, represented often by the characters of Barong, the giant dog-like masked creature, and the Rangda, a terrifying witch figure. The soundscape of the gamelan lends a syncopated rhythm to the dramas, which the dancers either counter-act with their grace, or amplify with their ferocity. As a whole, the performances are rather raw, and confront basic themes about existence in an overwhelming exhibition of power, spirit, and life.