The Gambuh Theatre

Gambuh 1


The origin of the Balinese Gambuh tradition and the tales portrayed in its theatre tells the story of a great Javanese civilization that began in the second half of the first millennium and vanished by the end of the 16th century. By a twist of fate, nearly all that we know of the traditions, literature, language, law, political structure, religion and arts of this civilization has been retained by the Balinese, the inhabitants of the small island to the east of Java.

Therefore, the history of the Gambuh tradition is actually the story of two cultures: that of the medieval Balinese (8th-16th centuries) and the civilization that is referred to by historians as “Indic” or “Indianized” Java. This latter culture having developed over a period of nearly a thousand years into a powerful and culturally rich civilization, has vanished long ago, leaving behind ruins of lavishly carved temples and shrines scattered over the jungles, plains and plateaus of Central and East Java. Indic Java met its fate when it was swept aside and ultimately subsumed by the Islamic influx of the 14th-16th centuries.

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prambanan_goddess PSFarther India

Farther India refers to various regions in Southeast Asia that came under the influence of Indian culture beginning early in the first millennium. It brought Sivaism, Vishnuism, Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism in their older form as well as a rich cultural heritage to this region. The general consensus is that the Indianization of Southeast Asia originated in the Brahmanic Dravidian culture of South India and there is evidence of influence from Orissa, Bengal and possibly Gujarat as well.

Indian civilization profoundly influenced the cultures of those peoples located in present-day Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Sumatra and Java. Indian influence in this region can be traced back to the second century. These were small kingdoms or small federations of organized states in Funan in the lower Mekong Valley and at around the same time began the earliest period of Champa in what we refer to today as Vietnam. In the Indonesian Archipelago, the earliest Sanskrit inscriptions that have been dated by historians come from around 450 in Borneo. Most of what we know of the early history of Farther India in Indonesia is concentrated on the islands of Sumatra and Java and is derived solely from epigraphic data.

The historiography of the entirety of Indianized civilization in Java is based exclusively upon inscriptions on temples and a few contemporaneous chronicles written by court scribes. These chronicles detail dynastic genealogies as well as important events such as wars, revolts, intrigues of importance, volcanic eruptions, important public works such as the building of a temple as well as occasional mention of social and religious activity in the court. Consequently, the history of Indianized Java that is known to us is, in the main, a story of feudal, princely court culture. Little or nothing is known of the history of this Javanese civilization from the perspective of the commoner. It is important to stress that Hinduism was an aristocratic religion, based upon the Indian concept of royalty in which the legitimacy of high caste (Satriya) rule was sanctified by Brahmanic authority, a religion not meant at that time for the masses.

The primary chronicles that detail the history of the Singhasari (1222-1292) and Majapahit (1293-1518?) dynasties, the last of the Indianized civilizations in Java, are the Nagarakritagama[1], written in verse by Mpu Prapanca in 1365, and the Pararaton[2]  written in prose and dated 1613. These chronicles were written in what is referred to as Old Javanese using the Sanskrit alphabet on palm leaf and bound into books (lontar). There is a third chronicle written much later, the Babad Tanah Djawi, which was published in three somewhat differing versions during the eighteenth-twentieth centuries and details the fall of the Majapahit dynasty.[3]

Balinese historiography from the earliest times is based upon temple and monument inscriptions, copper plate engravings and, later, Babad. Balinese lontar documents of the period paralleling and subsequent to the Majapahit Dynasty in Java, the most important of which is the Babad Dalem, are sometimes contradictory but have enabled historians to construct an account of the later medieval period on that island. There are two Balinese lontar dating from the nineteenth century, the Aji Gurnita and the Prakempa, that discuss the spiritual dimension of the music of Bali and do contain invaluable information relating to the types of orchestras and repertoire in existence at the time they were written.

[1] Robson, 1995, Pigeaud, 1960-1963
{2]  Phalgunadi, 1996
[3] Riklefs, 1972: 282-315, details three versions of Babad Tanah Djawi: the Meinsma Babad that is believed to have been written sometime in the Eighteenth century, the Surakarta Major Babad (1836) and the Babad Kraton (1777). Unfortunately, each version differs greatly and Riklefs believes they do not contain reliable historical information. Vickers,1990: 160-161, is of the opinion that Babad Tanah Jawi is less history than it is literature. It is possible that the court scribes who wrote these versions of Babad Tanah Jawi were reflecting the court’s view of this history. Nevertheless, for many decades during the twentieth century historians considered Babad Tanah Djawi as a primary source.

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Candi Belahan 300dpi901

Early Hindu-Buddhist Javanese civilization

The earliest clearly identifiable Indian-influenced empire in the Indonesian archipelago, Srivijaya, was located at Palembang, in Sumatra. This kingdom rose rather quickly during the eighth century and this was a Buddhist civilization. Srivijaya expanded both north and south to Malacca, the Malay Peninsula and to Sunda in West Java. Under Srivijaya’s control were two key passages that connect the Indian Ocean with the South China Sea, thereby assuring that Srivijaya came into contact with those who engaged in sea trade between the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea. Srivijaya maintained hegemony over Sumatra and part of Java for several centuries.

Apart from an inscription of uncertain origin found in West Java that dates from the middle of the fifth century, the first Javanese Sanskrit inscription is found in the ruins of a Sivaite temple in Central Java dating from 732 and this is credited to the king Sanjaya. It is believed that Sanjaya was the first of a long line of kings of Mataram, a Central/West Javanese kingdom that had contact with Sumatra, Cambodia and even China. The ascension of the Sailendra dynasty, having emerged around 778, paralleled the rise of the practice of Mahayana Buddhism in Java. The greatest Buddhist monuments of Central Java were built during the Sailendras, mostly in the second half of the eighth century. This would include Borobudur even though inscriptions on that monument indicate that it cannot be dated before the middle of the ninth century, when the Sailendra kingdom was already in decline. Borobudur and it’s subordinate structures are rich with bas-reliefs quoting from the epic texts of Mahayana Buddhism and depicting court life including court arts. Borobudur may have been the dynastic temple of Sailendra.

Sources clearly determine that by this time Mahayana Buddhism and to a lesser degree Theravada Buddhism had become firmly established in Java. In this context, Mahayana Buddhism’s principal characteristics, very broadly stated, were: [1] a leaning toward the Tantric mysticism of the Vajrayana, popular in Bengal during the eighth century; [2] a syncretism with Hindu cults as exemplified by later Siva-Buddha cults on Java and Bali; and [3] the significance attached to the redemption of the souls of the dead.

The advent of the Sailendras and their Buddhist beliefs may have provoked elements faithful to Hindu cults to migrate to East Java. These Hindu Javanese were evidently a prosperous culture as evidenced by the elaborate Hindu temples that they erected on the Dieng Plateau in central Java and elsewhere during this period.

Another inscription found near Prambanan [863] indicates the renewal of Hindu practices in Central Java which may have had a role in the eventual decline of the Sailendras in Central Java. The construction of a number of Hindu monuments in the area of Prambanan at the beginning of the tenth century may serve to underscore this theory. However, the ascension of Hinduism in this region by no means diminishes the importance of Buddhism as there is ample evidence to suggest a great tolerance between these two practices. Buddhist and Hindu priests are known to have been simultaneously present in the courts of later dynasties.

So, it is during this period that Hindu-Buddhist Javanese civilization began to bloom.

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Earliest known Balinese kingdoms

Although Balinese religion is today considered essentially “Hindu”, there is evidence of Buddhist influence on that island as early as the ninth and tenth centuries. The first dated documents in Bali are from the period just before the reign of Sindok on Java. Early inscriptions indicate a society that practiced Sivaism and Buddhism at the same time. Balinese inscriptions dating from 981 to 1011 are in the name of King Udayana, a Balinese king of the Warmadewa Dynasty, and his queen, Mahendradatta (Gunapriyadharmapatni), a Javanese noble and the great-granddaughter of Sindok. This union of Balinese and Javanese royalty is the first evidence of the introduction of Javanese culture in Bali. Up to that point, some historians tend to view the Indian influence in Bali has having come directly from India and not from Java. The marriage of Udayana and Mahendradatta resulted in the birth in 1001 of a son, Airlangga, who was eventually betrothed to the daughter of the king in East Java and ultimately ascended to the Mataram throne. Airlangga divided the Javanese kingdom, now known as Kahuripan (1019), into two regions, Janggala and Panjalu, and it remained thus until the end of the Majapahit dynasty, 5 centuries later.

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Candi Jawi 300dpi900

A succession of Javanese dynasties

The name Mataram appears for the first time [899-910] during the reign of king Balitung whose design it was to reinvigorate Sivaite Hindu tradition in Central Java. Mataram was a name applied to the kingdom of Sanjaya and intended to unite the East with Central Java under the same sovereign leadership.

Balitung’s reign was followed by three kings who also ruled over Central and East Java and it was the third, Wawa [927-28], who moved the administrative center of the kingdom to east Java. This move by no means suggests a break with the spiritual cults of Central Java. It was during the reign of Sindok, Wawa’s successor, that the Javanese Ramayana was written.

In the twelfth century there is an indication of two kings of Kediri. During the reign of the first of these kings, Kamesvara, the Smaradahana was written. Smaradahana is a work in verse form that traces the history of Love reduced to cinders by Siva. This text is important to the Balinese. Kamesvara’s wife was a princess of Janggala and it was perhaps this royal couple that served as the historical basis for the tales of the Raden Panji cycle which became very popular and, under the name Inao or Hino, spread to Thailand and Cambodia. Certain tales from the Panji cycle, the Kidung Malat, form the basis for the libretti of Gambuh Theatre.

With the leadership of Angkrok, the founder of the kingdom of Tumapel, Javanese historiography assumes a new character that it is to retain until the end of the Indian period.

The end of the thirteenth century is critically important to Southeast Asia because it was during this period that the region came under pressure from the Mongols. Indeed, by this time, all of Eurasia had been conquered by the Mongols. Kublai Khan had come to power in 1260 and was intent upon acquiring vassal states of those who had good relations with the Sung Dynasty including Cambodia, Viet Nam, Burma and Java.

Krtanagara, a Tantric Buddhist, was a Javanese king of the reunited Janggala and Panjalu and his reign marks the end of the kingdom of Singhasari. The period was marked by internal revolt and external expansion. Krtanagara, taking advantage of a weakened Srivijaya, sent a successful military expedition to Sumatra in 1275. He also established suzerainty over Sunda, Madura, part of the Malay Peninsula and conquered Bali in 1284. Krtanagara died under dramatic circumstances during a battle in 1292. In the very same year Kublai Khan launched an expedition against Krtanagara, not knowing that he had died. The Chinese captured the Javanese fleet of Jayakatwang, successor to Krtanagara, and moved into the interior. Vijaya [Kritarajasa], a prince who was a great grandson of Rajasa and who had married a daughter of Krtanagara, at first agreed to pay tribute to the Chinese and, afterward, in a skillfull turnabout killed the Chinese emissary and by military force compelled them to leave Java. Krtarajasa thus became the founder of the kingdom of Majapahit, the last and some consider the greatest of the Indic Javanese dynasties.

The last decade of the thirteenth century and the beginning of the fourteenth century were marked by wars and skirmishes between regents of Krtarajasa and this state of affairs continued under the reign of his successor, Jayanegara. Jayanegara is noteworthy for having prevailed over this internal strife and for having the political good sense to make allies of the Chinese. He died without sons in 1328, assassinated by a noble whose wife he had seduced. The crown reverted to the daughter of Kritanagara and first wife of Krtarajasa but she had entered a religious order so her daughter Tribhuvana ruled as regent in her name.

At this point Majapahit history enters what is generally considered the golden age of Indic Java, dominated by the King, Hayam Wuruk and his ambitious Prime Minister, Gaja Mada. Under the rule of Hayam Wuruk, Gaja Mada sent military expeditions to many parts of Southeast Asia and as a result Majapahit became a vast empire. In all, it has been said that Majapahit either annexed or converted to vassal state more than 100 countries.[1]

The earliest records of the Islamic influence that ultimately swept Java are Sumatran and dated 1321. This period marks the rise, decline and ultimate demise of Majapahit and with it, the ultimate disintegration of Hindu-Buddhist Javanese civilization. Majapahit nobles and their subordinates migrated – some say, “fled” – to East Java and to Bali as Islamist elements gradually assumed control over key regencies in Java. When this process was complete, Java was, in essence, “wiped clean” of the Indianized civilization that had taken root and flourished on this island over a period of almost a thousand years.

It is known that many Javanese nobles of Majapahit origin migrated to Bali during the earliest Islamist period and it is assumed that they brought their rich court culture with them. Therefore, Bali has often been viewed as a refuge for Majapahit. These colonizers found a culture in Bali that had its own nobility, dating back at least to the end of the first millennium. It is believed that these noble Javanese migrants came to dominate politically in Bali and, over time, they underwent an integration or process of “Balinization”, but always retained ties to their Majapahit ancestry.

[1] Due to Gaja Mada’s ambitions, Hayam Wuruk conquered the whole of Nusantara (the Indonesian Archipelago), Tumasik (Singapore), the Malay Peninsula and North Borneo (modern East Malaysia). Hayam Wuruk maintained good relations with Siam, Marutma (Burma), Cham (Vietnam), Kamboja (Cambodia), India and China. Much of this information is obtained from the Nagarakritagama. See Robson (1995)

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Ketut Madra

 The Gambuh Theatre in context

The stories of the Gambuh Theatre are, in essence, mythologized narratives set in the Indianized kingdoms of Java. They are not an oral history; rather, they are dramatizations of historical fiction. They are, in a sense, the convergence of Javanese myth, story and ideology. The highly refined court behavior found in the narratives enacted in the Gambuh Theatre served as a model for deportment in the Balinese court and an exemplar for inter-caste conduct in general. Balinese royalty, like their Javanese predecessors, were ardent patrons of the arts. The court as the traditional locus of artistic activity in Bali is supported by several sources.[1] The Balinese nobility employed sculptors, painters, poets, dancers and musicians within the walls of their palaces, following the Indic Javanese paradigm. Gambuh Theatre was an art form exclusive to the Balinese courts. Gambuh Theatre was one of many ways in which Balinese nobles expressed their esteem for and command of high culture. Gambuh ensembles employed many dancers and musicians, and this expense could only have been borne by the court. Further, it can be speculated that the stories of the Gambuh Theatre, in particular the Panji tales, had a special resonance for the noble families who may have viewed them as mythos of their Javanese past.

In Bali, nobles ruled, as in Indic Java, by divine authority. Social structure was based upon four varnas, a social class system with the priestly caste (Brahmin) [2] at its head and the aristocracy (Kshatriya) at the level just below. The palace insiders, the king and his royal family and ministers, major lords, high priests, bodyguards, servants, court artisans, commoners who achieved high rank (Jero) and various retainers all had direct exposure to court culture. Commoners (Sudra) living in the villages and not having any connection to the palace were outsiders. The Gambuh Theatre reflected these Indian values.

It was the duty of the aristocracy to build and maintain temples in villages within their regency and bear the cost of elaborate ceremony, often elevated to the level of spectacle.[3] Performance commissioned by nobles took place not only inside but just outside of the royal family compound, as well. These latter events were attended by low caste Balinese who, thus, came into contact with court culture. Further, although theatrical ensembles, dancers and orchestras owed their existence, in the main, to court patronage, and were often trained within the court walls by teachers retained by the court, many of the performers lived outside of the court and ensembles were therefore available for ritual performance (performance given as an offering) in the village temples on various religious occasions in which entertainment for the gods was prescribed. These events were attended by low-caste Balinese.

[1] The earliest Dutch colonial accounts on Bali verify this. In Java, this was very much the case in the Javanese courts of the Islamic kingdoms that succeeded Majapahit up to and including part of the twentieth century and, on the strength of this, it is postulated that this was the case in Majapahit. In the Islamic courts of Jogjakarta and Surakarta in Java, court patronage of the arts exists to the present.
[2] In point of fact, Brahmans have enjoyed great prestige in both intellectual and religious realms due to a tradition of rigorous education and the belief that their higher level of religious purity enables them to perform vital religious rites.
[3] The dominance and legitimacy of the artistocracy, demonstrably expressed and asserted through their use of spectacle in religious and court events, is an exemplification of the well-known concept of “the theatre state” as conceived by Geertz, 1980: 13-15.

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Raja Buleleng

Demise of the Balinese Court

Subsequent to the Majapahit influx, Bali enjoyed relative isolation for several centuries. The Dutch colonization of Bali began in 1846, and was at first limited to the northernmost province of Buleleng. The rest of the island was colonized beginning in 1906. The gradual demise of the old court system is considered to have begun in earnest from this latter date and was complete by 1946 when Indonesia obtained statehood although, to this day, certain courts still have political influence. Thus, the all-important traditional court patronage of the arts began to wane. The early part of the twentieth century saw the number of court orchestras, dancers and theatrical ensembles sharply decline. Some of these instrument-sets fell into the hands of villages. The instruments of many ensembles that performed older repertoire were sold or dismantled and their bronze melted down and recast to make keys for ensembles that performed more contemporary repertoire. The number of Gambuh ensembles dwindled over time to a handful and this condition has remained to the present, although there is recent interest in reviving and maintaining this old court tradition. Today, Gambuh ensembles are maintained by the performers themselves without court or government assistance.

Today, Balinese in general, regardless of caste, see themselves as descendants of Majapahit.[1] The contemporary Balinese view is that those cultural manifestations directly traceable to Majapahit influence are the highest expression of Balinese culture.  Gambuh is considered to be the origin of all classical forms of dance, music and theatre in Bali. The level of refinement of later forms of Balinese dance and music is often judged by the standards set by the Gambuh Theatre.[2]

[1] Today, Balinese refer to themselves as “wong Majapahit” (Eng: “Majapahit people”).
[2] Nyoman Kakul of Desa Batuan, arguably one of the most highly-regarded Balinese dancers of the second half of the twentieth century, performed Topeng repertoire for most of his career but received training in Gambuh dance from an early age. According to some of his contemporaries, it was his use of Gambuh technique that set him apart from many other practitioners.

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Origin of the Gambuh Theatre and its Music

The question of the origin of Gambuh Theatre and its music is not easily resolved. Was it a Majapahit art form that was brought to Bali in the form in which it is known today? Is it a Balinese form that developed in the court of the Majapahit colonizers of Bali? Is Gambuh an amalgamation of musical forms extant in the courts of Indic Java as well as the Balinese courts of that time? Is Gambuh a musical form that originated in pre-historic Bali? Was Gambuh music or an older form out of which the music developed brought directly to Bali from India?

Each Balinese musical form has its own ensemble, with instrumentation unique to that form. Each musical form contains a body of compositions (“the repertoire”) and these compositions are unique to a particular type of ensemble that usually bears the same name. Therefore, referring to an orchestra type is the same as referring to its repertoire.[1]  As an example, the Gamelan Gambuh performs gending Puhgambuhan, the body of compositions of the Gambuh repertoire, whereas the Gamelan Arja, a completely different ensemble in terms of size and instrumentation, exclusively performs gending Arja (or gending Geguntangan Arja), the music of the Balinese Opera.

It is possible to date an instrument or instrument-group according to epigraphic, iconographic and documentary data. It is also possible, in a very general sense, to establish a ranking of musical instruments or complete ensembles according to the level of technological expertise required to manufacture them, in particular the relative level of bronze technology employed in building them.[2]  The relative sophistication of playing style of specific instruments common to different orchestras can assist in placing these orchestras in a timeline. The type of tuning system used in a given repertoire can be a determinant in placing repertoire in an historical schema. Further, repertoire can be placed in a sequence based upon the dependence a given repertoire has upon another form on which that repertoire is based.

Information enabling the dating of the instruments used in Balinese orchestras is based upon the work of Jaap Kunst, author of the only significant scholarship in the area of dating of the musical instruments of the Indic Javanese period. Based upon epigraphic data as well as occasional mention of various instruments in Charters including the Nagarakritagama, literature such as the Malat, and contemporaneous reports by Chinese emissaries all the instruments common to the Gamelan Gambuh were extant in Java at least as early as the eleventh century.[3]

The Gambuh theatrical tradition is inextricably linked to the Malat cycle and the Malat is dateable at least as far back as the sixteenth century, and quite possibly further back in time. However, if we view the Gambuh musical tradition, or an earlier form of this tradition as having at one time existed separately from the Gambuh theatrical tradition we are free to consider that the music has come from an earlier time. We have only to look to the repertoire of the Gamelan Semar Pegulingan, to which the Gamelan Gambuh is the direct antecedent, for an example of Gambuh music that has been transposed for performance by a more modern set of instruments and performed in a purely instrumental context.

Gambuh repertoire, specifically its melodic invention, compositional form and metric structure informs all pelog-based Balinese repertoire that developed subsequent to it. Gambuh is the earliest known Balinese secular musical form which exploits the use of kotekan. Some gending Gambuh are found in Gong, Pelegongan, Arja and Gong Kebyar repertoire. Indeed, the influence of Gambuh music upon the development of the aesthetics of Balinese music in general can only be considered to have been profound.[4]

Finally, in the discourse surrounding the derivation of older Balinese art forms there is a general bias toward Majapahit. I believe that this is based upon a view that Bali is a museum of Majapahit culture[5].  To a certain degree, the Balinese themselves share this perspective and this may be attributable to centuries of cultural hegemony by the Balinese court. This bias infers that pre-Indic Balinese culture was not capable of making a significant contribution to the development of these art forms, including the music. Vickers has an interesting theory: the Majapahit aristocracy who colonized Bali had a need to more clearly separate themselves from the Balinese over whom they ruled and, to do this, they emphasized their Majapahit origin.[6]  It is possible, however, that at one time there were two strong and independent creative streams: the pre-Indic, pre-historic Balinese and the early Indic Javanese cultures. Cultural interaction between these civilizations may have taken place, it can be argued, over a period of 8 centuries or more and the rich and varied musical traditions that resulted therefrom may have involved a greater contribution from the Balinese than envisaged.

[1] The Gamelan Semar Pegulingan and the traditional repertoire of the Gamelan Pelegongan are exceptions to this. These orchestras perform music that originated in Gambuh repertoire although the compositions have been reorchestrated for these larger ensembles. The other exceptions to this are the Gamelan Charuk and the Gamelan Gambang who share the same repertoire.
[2] Hood, Mantle, 2000: P.90-123. The Bronze Age is believed to have been in an “advanced” stage of development when it arrived in Java during the third century B.C.
[3] Kunst, 1968: 90-123
[4] The Aji Gurnita, the principal Balinese treatise on the subject of Balinese music states that “the Gambuh orchestra is the basis of all other ensembles”. Vickers, 1985: 147.   See also McPhee, 1966: 113
[5] See Geertz, 1980: 7
[6] Vickers, 1989: 65

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Wayan Bawa

Origin of Gambuh dance-drama

In examining the possible origins of Gambuh dance-drama a somewhat different picture emerges. Rassers, in speaking of the origin of the Javanese theatre, in particular the Indic Javanese forms, mentions various types of Wayang (shadow puppet play) as well as Topeng (masked dance). He is convinced of the Indian origin of Topeng but laments the fact that contemporaneous chronicles left no detailed account of a medieval performance.[1] Rassers does not mention any other early theatrical forms. Raffles cites a form of Javanese dance called Gambuh that was performed by men. It appears to be a ceremonial dance that has no relation to the Gambuh Theatre.[2]  Bandem and deBoer say that Gambuh is a direct descendant of the dance-dramas presented in the courts of the Majapahit dynasty. They state that local (Balinese) elements were absorbed into the inherited court culture of Majapahit in every artistic medium, suggesting that this was the case with Gambuh as well. They continue that Gambuh “seems to have been kept remarkably pure down through the centuries” although it was to some degree “Balinized” in the process.[3] Looking at Javanese dance forms of the period for evidence of Gambuh dance, Soedarsono lists three different forms of Javanese dance-drama: Sori-Tekes, Raket,[4] both no longer in existence, and Wayang Wong.[5] Raket is referred to in the Nagarakritagama.[6] Soedarsono suggests that Sori-Tekes and Raket are two names for the same dance form and this form was based upon the Panji tales, as is the Gambuh Theatre. What little is known of this form suggests that the essential difference between it and Gambuh is that it is masked dance and Gambuh is not. Based upon information that dates the Panji tales from the Kediri Kingdom of the eleventh-twelfth centuries, Soedarsono deduces that Sori-Tekes and Raket originated at that time. In connection with Wayang Wong, he claims that this was actually two dance forms with the same name: one, a masked dance-drama in which the Panji tales were enacted and another form that is based upon the epic stories of the Ramayana and Mahabarata.[7] Ariyanto states that Gambuh is derived from the East Javanese courts of the tenth century.[8] She has based this assertion upon Balinese lontar evidence that specifically mentions Gambuh Theatre as existing in the 11th century court of Udayana in Bali.[9] Susilo points out that it is not clear exactly when Gambuh Theatre in its present form emerged, but “it was probably between the fifteenth–sixteenth centuries”.[10] Clearly, there is no commonly held view among these scholars as to the origin of the Gambuh Theatre.

We may be able to understand how it is possible that no clear picture materializes as to the origin and dating of Gambuh Theatre and its music if we examine, as a possible analogue, the history of the large body of medieval Javanese literature known as Kekawin. Kekawin was composed in Old Javanese beginning in the tenth century by court poets in East Java. It is performed in prosody of ancient Indian origin.[11] After the fall of Majapahit it left no traces in Java. Kekawin is not known at all in contemporary Java, save for a few texts stored in a museum in Jakarta. Kekawin has been preserved entirely by the Balinese. In the same way, it is arguable that Gambuh Theatre or a dramatic, dance or musical form out of which Gambuh may have grown could have originated in medieval Java, simply vanished from there and reappeared in Bali, as did Kekawin. Another possibly comparable example may be found in the Kidung, the literature written by medieval Balinese in the Middle Javanese language.[12] The Kidung deeply exploits Indic Javanese epic tales but it is performed using meter that is a Balinese invention. The Kidung has never been known to exist in Java.[13] Can it be that Gambuh is a Balinese musical form based upon an earlier Indic Javanese form no longer in existence? Wallis offers the opinion that Gambuh appears to be the dramatic counterpart to Kidung literature, both having developed over approximately the same period of time in the Balinese courts.[14]

[1] Rassers, 1959: 121-123
[2] Raffles, 1817: 383
[3] Bandem and deBoer, 1978: 115-116
[4] Raket is also mentioned in the chronicle, Wangbang Widea. Vickers, 1986: 51
[5] Soedarsono, 1969: 498-500
[6] Robson, 1995: 92 – Canto 91. Raket is mentioned in the Nagarakritagama in the context of a performance in which King Hayam Wuruk himself participated as a principal performer. Further, the Pararaton mentions special titles given to Hayam Wuruk when he acted as puppeteer (dalang, or dalan in Kawi) and when he took the role of a female character in dance. See Phalgunadi, 1996: 120-121.   Evidently, the active participation of royalty in performance was not uncommon. Later sources indicate that Balinese royalty occasionally performed high-caste roles in the Gambuh Theatre.
[7] A Wayang Wong theatre that enacts stories from the Ramayana exists today in Bali.
[8] Ariyanto, 1985: 221-223
[9] This is also mentioned by Vickers, 1986: 276, 311. According to Vickers, this information comes from a lontar allegedly in the possession of I Ketut Rinda.
[10] Susilo, undated: 10
[11] Wallis, 1980: 11
[12] Middle Javanese: the same language as is used in the Gambuh Theatre. Vickers believes that it may have been the language spoken in Java around the time of Majapahit. Vickers, 1986: 111. Contemporary Balinese simply refer to Old and Middle Javanese as “Kawi”.
[13] Wallis, 1980: 43
[14] Ibid. 76, Vickers is in agreement on this. Vickers, 1986: 133

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kidung-malat PS 2

The libretti of the Gambuh Theatre

The principal themes of the libretti of the Gambuh Theatre are the stories of Prince Panji, Rangga Lawe´and Amad Mohamad. Of these three characters, the stories of Prince Panji are the most often performed. These are mythical tales set in the courts of medieval Java. The principal protagonist is Panji, a heroic prince of great virtue. The plays abound with characters of various stations within Panji’s court as well as the courts of his adversaries. The characters follow strict and highly stylized behavior as defined by their caste and court rank. Interestingly, titles used follow the schema of the Indic Javanese courts.[1]  These stories reflect the ideology, costumes, language and refinement of these courts. The plot lines, of which there are many variants, tend to focus on the amorous adventures of Prince Panji and relations of varying complexity with the nobility of neighboring kingdoms.

It is difficult or maybe impossible to identify or date the emergence of the Panji tales but there is general agreement that they were originally written by Javanese. According to Vickers, the earliest dated Malat lontar is 1725 but, since this particular document is not considered an original, it is not possible to definitively date the Malat chronicles.[2] He goes on to say that he believes that Gambuh probably predates this period. He mentions that there is clear evidence in the Malat that a wayang form based upon an oral tradition and drawing from the Panji cycle or other Kidung text had existed before the written (Malat) text.  Coedés and others suggest that the kakawin Smaradhana, a 12th century text in verse form written by Mpu Dhamaja, was used as a prelude or precursor to the Panji Tales.[3]

There are many different stories presented in the Gambuh Theatre but the tales of Prince Panji of Janggala and his betrothed, the Putri Candra Kirana (Rangkesari, Sekartaji or Putri Kencana [4]), the princess of Kediri (Daha), are today the most favored. The Gambuh libretti utilize a retinue of “stock” characters connected in most cases by court rank to the main roles. The number of characters in each play can be quite large and the size of the cast is somewhat dependent upon the resources of the particular ensemble. Therefore, each royal character has its own retinue of servants, ministers, heralds and lords. Each of these characters must enter the stage in a specific sequence, according to rank. For example, the Condong, the personal servant to the Princess, will make her entrance alone. She will perform a solo dance and this will be followed by the entry of the 4 Kakan-kakan, the ladies-in-waiting to the Princess. The Kakan-kakan then perform their dance and they are joined in this by the Condong. At the conclusion of this dance and ensuing dialogue, the stage is set for the entry of the Princess who, when she enters the stage, performs her own solo dance. As with the foregoing example, each noble character is assiduously preceded by court subordinates linked to that noble.

The characters are presented as being divided into two categories: “alus” (highly refined) and “keras” (rough or unrefined). This dualistic division of characters is not related to caste. For example, there are high caste kings such as Terate Bang and Mataram who are given keras attributes. In practice, the alus/keras view is an oversimplification. Differences between characters are much more subtly expressed. Within the category of high caste characters, for example, there is the prince, princess, prime minister, priest, lords and others and even the condong is a servant of high birth. Subtle differences are observable in the characterization of each role, and this extends to the style of dance and vocal style linked to each character.

In the Gambuh Theatre, great emphasis is placed upon the particular voice, style of speaking, costume and form of dance movement of each character. Performers usually specialize in a particular character type and master the timbral quality of the voice, singing style, gestures and movement of that character as taught to them by an elder performer of the same role. Those who teach are always themselves practitioners.

[1]  Throughout the Pararaton there is mention of important positions and titles in the Majapahit and Singhasari court. Titles used in the Gambuh libretti follow the Javanese.
[2] Vickers, 1986: 50
[3] Coedés, 1968: 179
[4]  Bandem and deBoer, 1995: 32

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Gambuh Kakan2


Gambuh dance movement contains highly ornate detail unequaled elsewhere in the classical dance tradition. Movement can be exceedingly languorous, stately and elegant, executed with a certain exactitude not exploited to the same degree in other dance forms, alternating with interludes of faster movement having a more sinewy character. Every eye movement, gesture, gait, pose and mudra has its own name.[1]  It has been said that Gambuh movement is the highest expression of the classical dance tradition and the lexicon of movement found in this tradition is exploited in all other classical forms.[2]

[1] Private communication – Nyoman Kakul, Desa Batuan
[2] Private communication – Nyoman Pugra, Desa Sumerta (Denpasar)

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Male Dancer

Languages, speaking styles and roles

Noble characters speak in Middle Javanese, known as Kawi by the Balinese, and subordinates speak in High Balinese or a mixture of Kawi and High Balinese. Kawi was the language of the medieval Javanese and Balinese court and is not generally understood today by most Balinese. Certain characters such as Semar, the personal servant of Prince Panji, are given the role of translating into High Balinese the Kawi spoken by Panji. This is not done as a direct translation but in the context of the dialogue. In other words, in the dialogue between Semar and Panji, for example, the former, speaking in High Balinese, will repeat the essence of Panji’s preceding lines in the context of his response to Panji.[1] Certain characters such as the Patih Tua and the Prabangsa are found to occasionally switch from Kawi to Balinese.

The range of pitch of the various voices in the drama is linked to the status of the characters: for example, high characters speak in a very high, nasal, thin falsetto whereas ministers speak in a lower pitch using chest tones. Gambuh characters perform in a highly stylized, somewhat strident recitative style containing glissandi that is absolutely characteristic of this theatre.

The principal characters in the Gambuh Theatre are:

Condong                                           Maidservant to the princess.

4 Kakan-kakan                                  Ladies in waiting to the princess

Putri                                                   Princess

Demang and Temenggung                Ministers to the king

4 Arya-arya                                        Princes to the king

Patih Tua                                            Old prime minister to the king

Panji                                                   Lead protagonist; king

Semar and Togog                               Servants of the king

Prabu                                                  Antagonist king [2]

Prabangsa                                          Minister to antagonist king

4 Kade-kadehan                                 Heralds

[1] Bandem and DeBoer, 1995: 37
[2] The entrance of the Prabu, just as with Panji, is always preceded by his retinue of subordinates.

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gambuh_ensemblemcphee 2

The Music of the Gambuh Theatre [1]

The orchestra that accompanies the Gambuh Theatre is known as the Gamelan Gambuh. It is an ensemble that is led by the drums. The body of musical compositions of the Gambuh theatre is known as the gending Pehgambuhan.[2] To the Western ear, this music may tend to have a ‘primal’ sound, attributable to the unusual timbre, wide range and unique playing style of the suling (flutes) and rebab (bowed lute), the melodic instruments. The net effect of the distinctive attributes of these instruments, played in unison, is a unique timbral quality and the orchestra in general has an unusual suspended character,[3] grounded only by the drumming. Compositions consist of long drawn out melodies. The modern Balinese tend to consider gending Pehgambuhan to be an acquired taste. Balinese musicians in general regard the music of the Gambuh theatre as the origin of all Balinese classical music.

The music of the Gambuh Theatre is the music of a highly literate and ancient civilization. The study of Gambuh music, therefore, follows along the lines of musicologists who study older forms of Western music. The essential difference is that the study of Gambuh follows an unbroken living and oral tradition.

The aesthetic issues of art music in general are essentially the same in all cultures. The differences relate to the lines of musical logic chosen by each society and the way in which it shapes its own compositional principles. The chief challenge with the analysis of Gambuh composition, therefore, comes as a result of the lack of any codified, conscious music theory. It is, as stated, a completely oral tradition and, while theory forms a basis for composition in Gambuh, one is completely on one’s own in extrapolating such information. The performers know very well what they do but spend precious little time wondering why they do it. In modern Balinese music, the composer is also a performer, not a theoretician, and although I cannot support this notion, I believe this may have been the case in Gambuh as well. Certainly, in the study of Gambuh, one is not comparing contributions of various composers, as in the West. The composers of gending Pehgambuhan are nameless and long dead.

The typical instrumentation of the Gamelan Gambuh:

Melodic Instruments

4 Suling Gambuh

1 Rebab

Percussion – Lead Instruments

1 Kendang Lanang

1 Kendang Wadon

Percussion – Primary Punctuation

1 Kajar

1 Kempur

Percussion – Secondary Punctuation

1 Kelenang

1 Kenyir

1pr. Kangsi

1 Set Rinchik

4 Gumanak

1 Gentorag


1 Juru Tandak

Melodic Instruments

The most distinctive instruments in the Gamelan Gambuh are the suling Gambuh. These are end-blown flutes made of bamboo that measure approximately 1 meter in length and have a diameter of about 4 cm. In Bali, flutes of varying sizes are used by different ensembles but these long suling are found in no other orchestra. The Gambuh suling has six holes and the range of this instrument is slightly more than 2 octaves.

The suling performers are seated cross-legged when they are performing. Because of the length of the suling Gambuh and the fact that it is end-blown, the bottom of the instrument is placed on the ground when playing and this requires the players to extend their arms with their fingers at an angle to the centerline of the instrument, allowing the fingers to effectively cover each hole. A technique of continuous breathing is employed, enabling the musicians to play the long sustained notes and unbroken phrases that are characteristic of Gambuh music. Four suling Gambuh are found in an ensemble and they play in unison without improvisation.

The other melodic instrument, the rebab, is a bowed lute played vertically with two strings tuned approximately a fourth apart. This instrument is found in Java as well. The traditional Balinese rebab was slightly smaller than its Javanese counterpart, typically using half a coconut shell for the body of the instrument with a thin membrane made from the stomach of a buffalo stretched across it. Today the Javanese variant is sometimes used by the Balinese and this instrument has a body carved from wood. The tuning pegs are very distinctive and long. The bow is made of wood strung with horse hair and the tension on the hair is maintained by the player’s bowing hand. Depending upon the skill and degree of articulation this instrument can have what the unexposed occidental ear might consider a somewhat forlorn quality and slightly abrasive timbre. If the tension on the bow hair is loose, note attack will be indistinct and have a raspy tone. The Balinese tend to lean toward this style whereas the Javanese prefer to achieve greater articulation by maintaining higher tension on the bow hair. The Balinese also tend to generously use portamento as well as vibrato, and the net effect is quite striking. Unlike the suling Gambuh, the rebab is free to add occasional ornamentation and, in practice, does not precisely follow the playing of the melody by the suling. Talented rebab players will sometimes provide fascinating counterpoint to the melody played by the suling.

The Drums (Kendang Gambuh)

The kendang are a pair of conical-shaped, two-headed drums made of nangka wood with heads of calf skin. Kendang lanang is the “male” and kendang wadon is the “female”, higher and lower pitched, respectively. The kendang are played by two musicians, the instruments straddling the player’s lap while seated cross-legged, using the hands alone and are capable of producing a wide variety of accents of varying pitch. Kendang Gambuh are smaller than the kendang used in later repertoire. The smaller size of the drum heads enables the notes produced by these instruments to have a more well defined pitch. Therefore, a greater number of distinct pitches can be produced as compared with larger kendang. The increased number of playable and audible notes on these instruments is exploited in the part-writing and therefore yields kendang parts that have a different complexity than that of kendang parts composed for the larger kendang employed in Lelambatan and contemporary repertoire. Notes are achieved by the use of the full hand, the thumb alone, finger tips and fingers at different locations on the drum skins. The drums are tuned by means of leather strips that connect the ring or collar that maintains tension on the skin of one drum head with the other. The instruments are usually retuned prior to each performance and, occasionally, during a performance. The lowest note of the kendang wadon (Bal.: dag) is tuned approximately to the note of the kempur (gong) and the lowest note of the kendang lanang (Bal.: dut) is tuned approximately a third or fourth above. The kendang lanang is capable of producing a few more notes than kendang wadon and is considered the “leader” of the two drums, although the role each drum part plays in the music is equal and interdependent. The kendang parts are fixed, which is to say that there is no improvisation, and the drum parts are composed specifically for each composition. Each drum accent has a name to which it is referred and this solfege is used in reciting the notation, as with certain types of Indian drumming, commonly used when studying drumming.

The role of the kendang can be described as one instrumental part played by two musicians. In Gambuh music, the drums always play in interlocking parts, a highly unusual and striking technique requiring great skill, referred to as kotekan. Kotekan is a famous Balinese technique that is found in several different forms of Balinese instrumental music, and not only on agogic instruments. Gambuh is the oldest musical form on Bali in which this technique is found. The technique is also known in Javanese gamelan music in which it is named imbal. Imbal is performed in pairs by bonang or saron. There are other forms of music in which a similar technique is found. For example, in early French vocal polyphony from the ars Antiqua period, a technique known as hocketing (from the Fr. “hoquet”) is found in the singing of motets and organa. It is also found in Italian madrigals of the fourteenth century. Some believe that this technique was exploited by Mozart in the fifth of his twelve keyboard variations on the theme of “Ah, vous dirai-je, Maman”. There are other forms of hocketing that are known to exist in Pygmy music (Mbenga and Mbuti), certain Southern African forms (Basarwa, Khiosan), Rara music of Haiti and it is found in several other cultures as well.

The role of secondary percussion instruments in the ensemble liberates the drumming of the singular responsibility of maintaining tempi. The drumming parts are “purpose-composed”, utilizing all the notes capable of being produced by these two instruments to precisely accompany the melodic line. Gambuh drumming, as compared with other Balinese instrumental music in which kotekan is used, represents a particularly unique challenge to the musician not only because of its distinctive complexity but, equally, due to the particularly long metric intervals[4] found in Gambuh music and the slow, drawn out and unhurried gending that are unique to Gambuh music. Faster tempi are interspersed between long, slow melodic passages, requiring periodic increase/decrease in amplitude, deft use of rubato, accellerando and ritardando and it is the responsibility of the drums to lead the ensemble as well as the dancers through these changes in dynamics while at the same time maintaining assiduous control over the inner logic in the melody to which the drumming is inextricably entwined. Consequently, kendang Gambuh require a high level of expertise usually found among the older, more experienced musicians who play these instruments. Unlike all other Balinese musical forms associated with dance, the Gambuh dancer diligently follows the drumming in Gambuh Theatre.[5]

Gambuh drumming is a prepared part for two instruments, fully composed and committed to memory.  If heard individually, either of the two interlocking drum parts would make little sense in the context of the composition or as a standalone rhythmic statement.  Gambuh drumming is conceptualized as the sum of the two distinct parts, yielding a complete and cohesive rhythmic statement with some melodic content.  Lanang and wadon drum notes never overlap. Interestingly, Gambuh drumming can be said to maintain the dynamic tension in the music whereas in other Balinese musical forms the drumming can be said to enhance the dynamic tension in the music. Therefore, unlike many other forms of percussion, Gambuh drumming is not percussion accompaniment in the conventional sense.

Other Instrumentation

The kajar is a small bronze kettle gong with a flat boss played horizontally, usually sitting in the musician’s lap. It is played with a wooden mallet in one hand and the other hand is used to damp in various ways in order to create different accents. Notes are created by hitting the kajar on different locations in combination with various damping techniques. In some other classical forms where this instrument is found, its role is strictly colotomic. However, in Gambuh, in addition, it has the role of accentuating, underscoring and frequently doubling the kendang parts such that the instrumentalist must be intimately acquainted with the drumming notation. The kajar is also used to signal specific points in the rhythmic cycle in certain compositions.

The kempur is a medium sized bronze gong suspended vertically in a gong stand and played with a large, soft mallet. The kempur is used to mark the end of a metric period. The kelenang is a small bronze gong, similar to a kettle gong, mounted horizontally on a gong stand and played with a mallet. It is heard in conjunction with the kenyir, a very small instrument with three bronze keys, pitched identically and played using a three-headed mallet. The kelenang and kenyir are colotomic instruments that are played in alternation and provide secondary punctuation. The kelenang plays on “off-beats”.

The kangsi are two sets of very small bronze cymbals that are attached to wooden dowels and are struck on the ground. The rinchik are also a small set of bronze cymbals, the upper pair affixed to wooden dowels and the lower pair loosely mounted on a small wooden stand. Both of these instruments provide secondary punctuation.

The gumanak is a unique instrument not found in any other Balinese orchestra. Kunst considers this to be among the older instruments to come from Indic Java.[6]  It is a small cylindrical instrument of bronze that has an integral handle and is struck with a small metal rod to produce a high-pitched ring. Two or four such instruments are usually found in the Gamelan Gambuh, tuned in pairs. These instruments are played in alternation.

The gentorag, a bronze bell “tree”, is played by one musician on main accents.

The Tandak, or Juru Tandak, is a singer who sits together with the orchestra and sings poetic phrases, often from the Malat, and relevant to the narrative. The terms “tandak” and “sendon” don’t have fixed meanings to all Balinese but, in general, they refer to solo vocal parts set within a musical (heterophonic) context that also includes instrumentation. “Tandak” refers to the spoken narration and dialogue provided in such dance-drama forms as Gambuh and old-form Pelegongan. The vocalists are themselves often called “Tandak” or, more accurately, “Juru Tandak”. When the Juru Tandak sings fragments of poetic text as part of a heterophonic gamelan texture, as in Gambuh or old-form Pelegongan, that singing is referred to as (se)sendon. Such fragments and phrases most often come from Kidung, Geguritan and Kekawin poetry and are chosen spontaneously to describe a particular scene, atmosphere, tableaux or character in the dance-drama. A link with the Javanese terms “sindhen(an)” and “sendhon” used in the context of Javanese gamelan is clear. As in Java, the structure of the music often indicates to the Balinese vocalist where to insert (begin and end) the sung phrase.

Singing is therefore performed in two different but related contexts in the Gambuh Theatre: the singing that is performed by the actors/dancers themselves and the singing or recitative performed in Kawi by the Juru Tandak.

[1] This section, unless otherwise noted, is based upon field notes from extensive interviews and observation of rehearsal and performance while conducting research on the Gamelan Gambuh in Bali over a two-year period.
[2]  Gending is the Balinese word for composition or melody.
[3] Borrowed from, “..the strangely suspended character of the ensemble..”. McPhee,1966: 123
[4]  Gambuh music typically, but not always, contains 32 beats to the gongan or “stanza”, a movement consisting of several gongan, as compared to the more typical 16/8/4 beats in other musical forms.
[5] In certain unrelated dance forms, dancers “signal” specific events in the music and the lead drummer is constantly watching for these cues.
[6]  Kunst, 1968: 52

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Gambuh Suling

The Gambuh Scale System

The Gamelan Gambuh is a 7-tone ensemble playing in the 7-tone scale known as pelog (see Fig. 1). This statement notwithstanding, the music can be said to be “somewhat” 5-tone in nature. The Balinese have their own form of solfege for the 5-tone pelog scale, giving the notes the names ding, dong, deng, dung and dang.[1] There are 5 permutations or five, 5-tone scales, or tetekep,[2] derived from the 7-tone pelog scale.[3]  In practice, only four such tetekep are used in Gambuh orchestras and one of the four is very rarely used (See Fig. 2). Each Gambuh composition is played in just one mode, or tekep. The four tetekep in use are: tekep lebeng, tekep bero, tekep selisir and tekep tembung.

Scales copy

As stated, the suling Gambuh are capable of a range of nearly two octaves. However, in the process of overblowing to achieve the upper range, pitch can drift slightly. This contributes to the unique sound of the ensemble. On occasion, modified fingering will be employed to make adjustments when pitch is deemed to be too compromised. This is more the exception than the rule. Modified fingering to make a note more sweet (Bal.: manisan) is also part of the practice. The musicians suggest that they have no problem with what we might consider to be certain inconsistencies in intonation resulting in what some Westerners might characterize as a somewhat “atonal” sound achieved in this orchestra.[4]  As the suling Gambuh are relatively quiet instruments they are most often heard in their upper register during tuttis.[5] In this range, the suling Gambuh are more easily audible above the drumming and percussion instruments. In each 5-tone tekep, there are two tones (Bal: penyerog and pamero) from the original 7-tone pelog scale that are not in use. However, occasionally one of these missing tones may be used in a particular passage in a melody to add a dramatic or colorful tinge to the modal sensibility of the tekep.

Each tekep is associated with specific characters or tableaux in the Gambuh Theatre and each character is linked to a specific composition. For example, gending in tekep selisir are used for the maidservant to the princess (Condong) and the ladies-in-waiting (Kakan-kakan) and tekep bero is used for Demang and Tumenggung. Tekep tembeng is used for strong, refined characters such as the prime minister. Tekep lebeng is used for Panji, sometimes for his noble adversaries, for the princess, and for the Patih Tua. It is important to note that there is some slight variation among orchestras as to the tekep used for particular characters. Within a specific orchestra’s practice there will be found some variation in connection with the relationship between scale and characterization.[6] Other important criteria that determine the gending to be used for a particular role/tableaux are the character of the melody, tempo, compositional form and especially the drumming required for the dance. In summary, choice of tekep and gending for a role/tableaux is a matter of long-standing tradition, dancers having been trained for generations to perform a role to a specific gending, with drumming that has been long ago composed exclusively for that gending, the dance movement linked to the smallest level of detail in the drumming.

[1] Balinese musical notation, or grantang, is based upon a single Sanskrit character for each of the notes thus named and other symbols are used to indicate information relative to metric structure. The notation is written on lontar.   Notation is fairly common in Balinese classical music but the music of the Gamelan Gambuh is a completely oral tradition. None of my informants had ever heard of a lontar of Gambuh compositions.
[2] Bal. tekep=literally ‘to cover’, as in covering a hole on a bamboo flute.
[3] Gamelan Gambuh is the only form in which the names of the notes in the 5-tone scale are applied or “shifted” to different notes in the 7-tone pelog system relative to tekep, or mode. By comparison, the solfege used by the Gamelan Gambang provides a fixed name for each note of the 7-tone scale.
[4] Private communication with Gusti Putu Geriya, Denpasar and others. See also McPhee, 1966:139
[5] Suling Gambuh typically exploit their lower register during unaccompanied introductory passages.
[6] In other words, not all characters associated with a specific tekep share the same station in the court and other dramatic attributes.

Compositional Structure

The fundamental metric unit that forms the basis of the gending Pehgambuhan is the gongan. The gongan is essentially a metric “stanza” and represents one complete rhythmic cycle. This metric unit is sometimes also referred to as a palet. It can be of varied length, but always divisible by 2 or 4. In all Balinese music (and Javanese music as well) the stress is at the end of the metric period. Therefore the gong stroke, or kempur stroke in the case of Gambuh, comes at the end of the metric period.[1] The broadest metric unit found in Balinese music is expressed in the Gamelan Gambuh.

Compositions can be divided into two general categories: Tabuh 1 (tabuh besik) or tabuh 3 (tabuh telu). Tabuh telu compositions consist of a broad, expanded movement in slow tempo known as a pengawak followed by a faster second or final movement that is called the pengachet. The pengawak is preceded by an introduction, known as gineman or sometimes referred to as a jumunin, performed in free meter in unison by the suling and rebab alone. The suling part in the introduction is not improvised. Tabuh telu compositions are so named for the three kajar accents that indicate the commencement of the second, third and fourth gongan of the pengawak.

Tabuh besik compositions consist of a pengawak and a pengachet, usually performed in the sequence: pengachet, pengawak, pengachet.

No dance is performed during the pengawak. It is usually reserved for the voice. The pengachet is reserved for dance. Tabuh telu are typically used for halus or leading high-caste characters. Tabuh besik compositions are reserved for keras or “coarse” characters as well as action scenes.

Tabuh Telu

In the tabuh telu form, the pengawak always consists of a melodic statement repeated several times and the pengachet is always a complete musical statement played once. The pengawak typically consists of 4 gongan of 32 beats. In this case, the melody, from beginning to end, will span one complete cycle of 4 gongan. This cycle can and is often repeated and therefore the pengawak melody is heard played more than once in its entirety. The pengawak can also consist of a single unit of 128 beats or two units comprised of 128 beats each, each 128 beat unit containing four gongan placed at intervals of 32 beats.

In tabuh telu form, the pengachet is a compression of the pengawak structure played at double the tempo. If, for example, the pengawak consists of one 128 beat cycle, the metric length of the pengechet will be 32 beats divided into 4 gongan of 8 beats each. There are other variations in the metric structure of the tabuh telu. The foregoing are the most often used.

Tabuh Besik

Tabuh besik compositions begin with a pengechet in a fast tempo consisting of 16 beat units and the pengachet can be repeated in accordance with the needs of the particular choreography. This is followed by a pengawak during which dialogue takes place. The pengawak is played at half the tempo of the pengachet and usually consists of a melodic unit of the same length as the pengechet. The pengawak is repeated as necessary relative to the needs of the dramatic tableaux. In this form, the composition usually ends with a repetition of the pengachet.

There is also interlude music, music that connects gending during the performance. Thus, gending can be joined during a performance into a seamless flow of music that follows the various tableaux of the libretto, announcing the entrance of specific characters, underscoring the drama and leading the dance.

There are two other forms that are very much unlike tabuh telu and tabuh besik. The first one, called bàtel, is a repeated metric phrase of two beats and it is used for certain action scenes. The second, unclassified by the musicians, are ostinati of varying length that are used to accompany the dance of specific characters.

[1] This stress on 4 is a very different orientation than in Western music in which the stress is usually on 1.

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Gambuh Desa Batuan

The Gambuh Theatre – The Performance Tradition

The Gambuh Theatre is a completely unique multidisciplinary experience. The dancers typically assume the responsibility of a specific role in the theatre and studying the vocal and dramatic technique as well as the highly complex dance movement begins from a very young age. Mastering a role is typically considered the work of a lifetime. All vocal parts are sung in a unique, “recitative” style and much of the dialogue is performed in Kawi, a dead language. The musicians are similarly trained and completely dedicated to the form. Gambuh dance movement can be characterized as highly detailed, deliberately slow and stately. Costumes, headdresses and make-up are very elaborate, yet every performer, regardless of their caste or station in the drama, dances barefoot on hard ground. For the audience, listening to the continuous musical accompaniment, shifting scale from one gending to the next, the relationship between the scale used and the constant kempur (gong) note shifting from gending to gending in the sustained musical accompaniment, is a unique musical experience. The long, drawn out compositions, written by composers whose names have been long forgotten, can vary greatly in character. These compositions have been maintained and cherished in the repertoire not only because they have stood the test of time, but precisely because the inner logic in these compositions is somehow still capable of resonating for the musician, dancer and the listener.

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