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Malay Gamelan

The music and dance that developed in the Malay palace setting as an art or classical tradition is called the joget gamelan. The dance is accompanied by music played on the Malay Gamelan [Gamelan Melayu].

In the 18th century (and perhaps earlier) a dance tradition and its gamelan music was known to exist at the Riau-Lingga palace. In 1811 the royal family of Riau-Lingga and the family of a high court official (Bendahara) of Pahang celebrated a royal marriage. In this celebration the instruments of the gamelan and the dancers moved from the Riau-Lingga palace to reside in the Pahang court. By the middle of the 19th century the gamelan music and dance developed at the Pahang court and became known as the gamelan Pahang or the joget Pahang. Several gamelan instruments still exist from this period and are exhibited in the Palace Museum in the town of Pekan in Pahang.

Early in the 20th century the Pahang gamelan and the group of dancers at the palace were moved to the Trengganu court to celebrate another Royal marriage. In 1913 the Sultan Sulaiman from Trengganu married Tengku Mariam, the daughter of the Sultan of Pahang. The Tengku Ampuan Mariam was experienced as a dancer in the joget gamelan tradition and for her wedding the orchestra, musicians and dancers moved to the Maziah Palace in Kuala Trengganu.

From 1913 to 1942 both the king and queen of Trengganu were active in developing and patronizing the joget gamelan. It was during this time that certain aspects of the music and dance differentiated the Malay style from the original Javanese model of the 19th century. These aspects included the dance movements, costume, the change in the tuning system for the musical instruments, the instrumentation of the orchestra, and also the use of melodies not originating from the Javanese tradition. As a result of these changes the musical tradition changed its name to 'gamelan Melayu' and 'joget gamelan'. These terms are used to this day to refer to a music and dance tradition that developed in the context of the Trengganu court. In former times, under the patronage of the king, the joget gamelan functioned as entertainment for the nobility during the crowning of a new sultan, for birthdays, engagements, marriages and to welcome and honor official state visitors.

Although performances of this form stopped during World War II, it was revived in the 1960s and developed further, but outside of the palace and without the patronage of the Sultan. Today the joget gamelan is performed for a number of purposes including entertainment for the general public, during official state celebrations, and for new dance dramas and compositions.

The Malay gamelan along with new and old compositions may be heard today at most institutions of higher learning in the country including the National Arts Academy in Kuala earlier times the repertory of the joget gamelan consisted of about 50 musical pieces and dances, but today much of the old repertory has been lost and forgotten. All the dances are entirely interpretive in that the dance movements themselves explain the activity or intention in a given story. The stories, then, based on the Panji tales, epics and folk stories, are presented through dance with music.

Each dance has its own specifically named musical piece. For example, the dance called Timang Burung (which portrays a princess who catches a bird and her ladies-in-waiting who dance imitating the movements of the bird) is accompanied by the piece that is also called Timang Burung. A given dance drama may be created based on a certain story using several different dances and tunes from the repertory. In this tradition women are the dancers while men are the musicians in the orchestra. All performers are trained for many years before they are considered able to perform well. Today composers also compose tunes and new compositions for the Malay gamelan in the context of dance dramas, instrumental pieces and vocal pieces with instrumental accompaniment.

Joget gamelan dancers performing a traditional piece on a public stage.

The Musical Instruments

The basic Malay gamelan consists of eight different instruments. From the idiophone classification we find the Saron Demong (big size saron), Saron Barung(medium size saron) and the Saron Penerus(small size, also called the peking), the Gambang kayu, kerumong (Bonang), Kenong, Gong Keciland Gong Besar. The only membranophone in this gamelan is the double-headed barrel drum called Gendang.

Each of these instruments has a specific function in the music. For example, the medium-sized saron instrument plays the main, unornamented melody in the musical pieces. At the same time the small-sized saron, the gambang and the kerumong duplicate and enrich the main melodic part with ornamentation. The large gongs such as the kenong, gong kecil and the gong besar function as time-markers in the music system, and the gendang drum is used to play specific rhythmic patterns.

GongThe gong besar and the gong kecil are a pair of large gongs made of bronze (Figure 1). These two gongs hang vertically from a wooden rack. Both are knobbed and measure about 70-80 centimeters in diameter (this size is rather small when compared to the gong ageng in the Javanese gamelan). They produce specific pitches when hit on the knob with a padded beater. The gong besar (also called gong agung, [great gong]) has the lowest pitch in the orchestra while the gong kecil produces a pitch about a semitone or a whole tone above that of the gong besar. Both of these gongs play the colotomic unit, or gong unit, in the music and function as markers of time, signifying the musical forms of the various pieces.

KenongThe kenong also functions as a time-marker in the joget gamelan music system. This instrument consists of five large gongs, each placed horizontally in a wooden box resonator (Figure 2). Each gong is suspended from thick cord which is attached in a criss-cross pattern to the wooden box. Thus, the knob of the gong faces upward. When struck on the knob with a padded stick beater, each gong sounds out a specific pitch.

Saron The instrument that plays the melody in the joget gamelan pieces is the saron. In the Malay gamelan there are two sizes: the medium size instrument with a middle register is known as the saron barung (Figure 3), and the small size with a high register is called the saron panerus or the peking (Figure 4). The saron barung plays the main, unornamented melody in the musical pieces, while the saron panerus produces the same melody in an ornamented form (usually by playing double notes per beat).

All the above metallophones consist of six bronze keys that are tuned in the 5-tone pentatonic scale shown below. The keys are laid on top of a hollow, wooden box that serves as the resonator of sound. The bronze keys are struck with a beater in the shape of a hammer made either of wood or water buffalo horn. The playing technique for this instrument involves striking a given key, then hitting another key while simultaneously dampening the first key with the other hand (the two hand movements of damping and striking the keys occur simultaneously).

Figure 1: Gong Kecil, Gong Besar

Figure 2: Kenong

Figure 3: Saron barung

Figure 4: Saron penerus (peking)

Figure 5 Kerumong (Bonang) Figure 6 Gambang

Figure 7 Gendang.

KerumongThe kerumong gong-chime is made up of 10 small gongs laid horizontally in a wooden rack (Figure 5). All the gongs are suspended on thick cords strung in a parallel arrangement and attached to the wooden rack. The small gongs are placed in two parallel rows with the lower octave of gongs closest to the player, and are tuned to the 5-tone joget gamelan scale. When struck with a pair of padded wooden stick beaters, each small gong produces a specific pitch, in low or high octaves.

GambangThe gambang is a xylophone made of a hard wood (Figure 6). About 28 wooden keys (made of woods such as jackfruit, belian and so on) are laid across the top of a hollow, wooden box that serves as the resonator of sound. The tonal range of this instrument is about three and one-half octaves, which reflects the low, middle and high registers found among all the instruments in the gamelan.

The wooden keys are struck with a pair of beaters in a special shape. The beaters consist of a long, thin straight handle made of water buffalo horn with a small wooden, padded disk at one end that is struck against the wooden keys. When hit with these beaters the wood keys sound out the specific pitches of the tuning system for the joget gamelan. The gambang plays an ornamented form of the main melody in the music.

GendangThe gendang is basically the same as the gendang found in the wayang kulit and makyung ensembles. In the gamelan, however, the single gendang is often propped up on a stand while it is played (and see Figures 7 ).

Joget Gamelan Music

Tonal system Historically, it is possible that the tuning system for the Malay gamelan originated from the slendro (5-tone, equidistant) tuning system found in the Javanese gamelan. Hence, the notation system used to write down the joget gamelan tunes is based on the kepatihan notation system from Indonesia. In this system the successive pitches in the slendro scale (from the lowest to the highest tone) are numbered 1, 2, 3, 5 and 6. This numbering system is used today to notate joget gamelan pieces.

The tuning system for the Malay gamelan may be illustrated using the tones found on the oldest gamelan in Malaysia today (some of the instruments of this orchestra date from the Pahang period of the early 19th century). The instruments of this gamelan are still to be seen in the Palace Museum in Pekan, Pahang and exhibit a 5-tone tuning system, which has probably been adapted from the slendro parent tuning system from Indonesia.

The Malay gamelan has a pentatonic scale consisting of specific intervals. The nearly major 2nd intervals (200 Cents) are found between pitches 1 and 2, 2 and 3 and 5 and 6. Between pitches 3 and 5 there is a neutral 3rd (about 350 Cents, that is, a 3rd that is not major (400 Cents) and not minor (300 Cents). The special distinguishing characteristic found in the tuning system for the Malay gamelan is the use of the neutral 3rd interval between the pitches 3 and 5.

This interval is sometimes found in some slendro gamelan, and occurs in many kinds of folk music throughout the world.

The Pentatonic Scale of the Malay Gamelan.

The 5-tone scale found in the Malay gamelan serves as the tonal basis for all melodies in the repertory. Often the pitches 2, 3 and 5 of the scale are used as the pitch centers and as the ending tones for the various pieces. The particular pitch centers for given pieces is noted below in the discussion of the respective pieces.

Melody In general the melodic motion is conjunct in joget gamelan tunes. To develop a melody, a melodic phrase in a piece is sometimes repeated several times with variation, or the melodic phrase may be repeated at a different pitch level from its original rendition. These two techniques to develop a melodic line are found in nearly all joget gamelan pieces.

The smallest colotomic unit in the music consists of 4 beats marked by the kenong and the gong kecil. Both of these instruments are played on beat 4. The gong besar (lowest tone) is played only in the final gong unit when the music comes to an end.


1, 2, 3, 5, 6 = pitches in the Malay gamelan tuning system

n = one stroke on the kenong

u = one stroke on the gong kecil

O = one stroke on the gong besar

[ ] = repeat sign

. = rest sign

. 3 = a rest sign and pitch in quaver note values

t = a tembre tak for gendang

d = a tembre dung for gendang

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