Sunday, January 22, 2012

No rehearsal, just get it done

At midnight I was pretending to pray along with the small gamelan geguntangan accompanying shadow puppet-like singing at a Tilem ceremony. It was a mixed gathering of locals and Balinese from Jakarta; a dalang, or puppetmaster, took turns with family members to sing from books in Kawi and Balinese. It was neat to see the simplified, unpitched gamelan (keyed gong, cengceng, three metal and bamboo kempli plus kajar and tawatawa) follow kendang (double-headed drum) at intervals and in phrases determined by the texts. The suling (vertical flute) had to follow not only melodies chosen by the singers but in keys that fit their registers; there was much heroic shuffling of instruments and alternate fingering.

The singing was intended to invite taksu, but the magic happened for me when my teacher picked up a suling after the regular player had given up matching one singer's key. Bending over the kendang in his lap, he sent flickering bamboo melody like stones skipping from the singer's notes, quick and true, spontaneously dancing over vocal ripples. There was no rehearsal, no precedent, only the resonant meeting of  living fluency and long vocal lines of texts older than memory. Voice and breath; characters sometimes refined, other times monsterous; accompanist at once submissive and flying high between lines; together secure in the carriage of pulsing gamelan.

At a signal from the dalang or the regular flutist, or from the content of the text itself he would drop the flute and rouse the gamelan with lightning-quick drumming. A nod to the gong player for shorter cycles, a subtle glance in his son's direction and the ensemble leaped and cruised as one. I had been sitting with him barely an hour before the start of the ceremony when he got the call inviting him to play; they wanted him there immediately and he protested that he had no ride -- the house was a ways across the village. Similarly last week the village gamelan sprang it on him to drum the sacred Rangda dance just before it was beginning.

So it goes in a town with four fluent drummers: my teacher and his sons. Welcome, year of the dragon.


  1. It reminds me a little bit of what clergy get expected to do- where people will go "oh, someone forgot to prepare? I'm sure X can do it", whether you were expecting to have a quiet morning praying for only yourself (or not trying to learn a Torah reading at the last minute, or whatever it is) or not...

  2. Yes, something about a rich, tight culture lends to this practice... maybe that there's a shared volume of knowledge and long-term interdependence.