Indonesian Instrument – Gamelan – in the UK

This post has been in my head since another blogger Fe posted something about Indonesian things abroad. I mentioned that in one of my favourite places to go Southbank Centre, there is an Indonesian Gamelan, and there is a person in charge of these gamelan titled: Gamelan Manager.

Gamelan, for those who are not Indonesian is a traditional Indonesian percussion instruments, that mainly originate from Java and Bali. I would say that Gamelan is almost an orchestra because there are several instruments that makes up a gamelan set. The instruments are mostly made out of metal that is hit by a mallets, there are drums made out of animal skin too as part of the set. Gamelan is usually used as a orchestra behind traditional a Wayang (shadow puppet) Performance, dancing or Nyinden (singing).

Now going back to the one in Southbank Centre, it was a gift from the Indonesian government to the centre in 1987. Since then on it has been a part of many festivals, events and activities at the centre. It even has its own room, the gamelan room. Here is a bit of history about Gamelan in the UK from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland.


Let me give you a background why this is special to us Indonesian. I ( pretty sure plenty others like me, Jakarta born and bred) personally have little contact with the instruments, I used to think that it is old-skool, the sound of it sounded very boring and long winded. There is no such things as 3 minute songs on a Gamelan. hahahha. A Wayang performance could go for hours. I doubt that many Indonesian find it at all interesting instrument. Do correct me if I am wrong reader, come on be honest. So to find a big UK institute having a dedicated space and programme for it, made me slightly embarrassed of myself.

You can learn to play gamelan at Southbank, they have 4 levels of classes, Novice, beginner, intermediate and advance. What I love most is the idea that they have gamelan for 3 – 5 years old – Dragon Babies. Even the name is cute.

I heard from a reliable source that there are more gamelans in the UK than any other country (except Indonesia of course) in the world. Here is a map of where there is gamelans, I am not sure whether this website is updated regularly or whether it is valid. Cool eh? The reason the gamelan is so popular is that it is an instrument most people can participate to play straight away. In the country like UK where music is used for education, mental development, engagement with the public, is a perfect fit. Whereas a western orchestra people have to learn to play violin for years, or piano, or flute to be able to join in and make music.

Here is a clip of when the gamelan and Indonesian things were included in the David Bryne Meltdown Festival in August this year 2015.

Where all players are British, including the singer. The singing is a very traditional Indonesian way called Nyinden, the singer is called Sinden. If you are into music you’d notice the way they sing is very different to the western way of intonation etc. Also if you are used to western orchestra you would notice that there is no conductor, in Gamelan there is no conductor as it is a rhythm based music. If you are also into music, you know that music instruments have to be tuned right? guess how they tune a gamelan with all the different instruments.

Is there a gamelan near you? Can you play gamelan? Should I join the Gamelan class despite my horrendous ability to get almost always the incorrect rhythm?