In a Balinese gamelan group, equality and democracy are paramount. To avoid the sticky issues with caste, musicians used to always sit on the ground at the same level due to the possibility that a musician of low or non-caste could be at an instrument which may require an elevated seat or platform (think a jegogan instrument with those low base tones which may be more than a metre high). These days, chairs or stools are used for these instruments and consequently the position of these high instruments has been relegated to the back of the ensemble.
If we look at the photos of Bali as recent as the late 1950s, we still have these instruments placed at the front and you can only see the headdress of the musician, not even his face. If they were placed at the back and the musicians were low down like this, they would not be able to connect so well with the leaders of the ensemble who are at the front. It also changed the technique of hitting the jegogan instrument from being a softer hit due to the mallet being held from a low arm position, to the flashy, baton-twirling hard hit resulting from a dominant above striking angle.
Now with chairs and small stools being used for playing of most of the instruments in a common ensemble like gong kebyar, you not only have people of caste at different levels, but you also have a different formation of the orchestra. What I’m saying here is that a concept of equality actually led to a closer connection between musicians on particular instruments. As a gamelan player, teacher and researcher who learnt gamelan after this change, I can see that there is definitely a disconnect between these instruments and the lead musicians – they often make mistakes or forget to hit notes due to the distance from the back to the front of the ensemble. In fact, the musicians on these bass instruments rarely come to practices and rely on peeping at other musicians in front of them instead of memorizing their part.
By Vaughan Hatch
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