The Handsome God of Selonding

As an ethnomusicologist and self-confessed gamelan geek, it’s fascinating to learn about villages in Bali that deify their ancient gamelan instruments called selonding. (Now that’s the sort of entity I could see myself worshipping!) These instruments are so sanctified that one must not refer profanely to them simply as ‘selonding’ (their particular genre of orchestra) but as “Ida Betara Bagus Selonding”, literally meaning ‘the handsome god of selonding’.

I’ve visited a number of villages where these ancient (in some cases perhaps a millennia or more years old) orchestras are found, including Terunyan, Tenganan, Bungaya, Selat, Bugbug, Asak, Timbrah, Ngis Manggis and a number of others. Even though selonding is an ancient type of predominantly iron-keyed gamelan orchestra once found all over Bali (except for Klungkung according to selonding researcher Pande Wayan Tusan’s book entitled ‘Selonding – Tinjauan Gamealn Bali Kuna Abad X – IX) and once in parts of East Java, today the most common pockets of selonding traditions are in the Bali Aga villages in Karangasem.

In contrast with the rest of ‘Hindu-ized’ Bali where the Hindu trinity of Siwa, Wisnu and Brahma are the focus of worship and ritual, for certain large and rare ceremonies known as ‘usaba desa’ the village’s maha-deity are their selonding instruments. There are certain restrictions surrounding such instruments in most of these villages:

1. They may only be played for certain rituals and to accompany specific dances;
2. They may only perform specific ancient repertoire;
3. They may only be played by men;
4. They may only be played by men who are from one particular family or descended from that family;
5. The musicians must undergo a special cleansing ritual called ‘mawinten’ before ascending to Selonding Pavilion (Bale Selonding) and before playing or even touching the instruments;
6. In some villages during a specific part of a ceremony, the selonding instruments may not even be seen by those outside of the group of designated musicians;
7. The instruments must not be transported in a vehicle but carried on the heads and shoulders of men – in some cases preceded by a white cloth placed on the ground as they are transported;
8. When transported, onlookers must sit on the ground (included non-locals and
tourists) and nothing must be placed higher than the instruments, including electricity and phone cables which must be taken down;
9. Special, large offerings must be prepared before any selonding music is played;
10. In some villages, a special oil lamp must be lit constantly while the instruments are being played.

The sound of selonding instruments is indeed uber sacred. There is no other orchestra in Bali that comes even close to their timbre, tuning and resulting soundscape. You can hear and see some examples of sacred selonding on Mekar Bhuana’s YouTube channel:

By Vaughan Hatch
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