An intricately designed gold gong, one of the main instruments in a gamelan orchestra. Courtesy Recreation & Heritage Design Unit.
Gamelan refers to various types of orchestra found in Indonesia and is the main element of Indonesian traditional music. Hampshire’s Willis Museum is currently running a family friendly gamelan exhibition that incorporates a number of drumming and gamelan workshops. It runs all summer, finishing on September 3 2005.
In Indonesian traditional thinking, the gamelan is sacred and is believed to have supernatural power. Both musicians and non-musicians are humble and respectful before this spiritual set of instruments.
The mysticism behind the gamelan perhaps makes it an unusual choice for a small community museum like the Willis, yet the museum’s curator, Sue Tapliss, chose it especially as a family friendly exhibition that would bring a musical theme to the summer holidays.
A group of gamelan instruments from Bali. Courtesy of Recreation & Heritage Design Unit
Gamelan ensembles are percussion-based and all slightly different; however, they are all organised in the same way, based on the different instrumental groups and specific orchestral functions of each instrument.
The instruments in a gamelan are composed of sets of tuned bronze gongs, gong-chimes, metallophones, drums, one or more flutes, bowed and plucked string instruments, and sometimes singers.
It is believed that spirits guide each instrument in the gamelan with some gamelan believed to have so many powers that playing them may exert power over nature.
This unusual instrument looks like an enormous xylophone but has its own unique sound. Courtesy Recreation & Heritage Design Unit.
Musicians have to remove their shoes when playing the gamelan and it is also forbidden to step over any instrument in a gamelan, because it might offend the spirit.
Anyone worried about upsetting the karmic balance of Hampshire need not fear, a professionally trained gamelan musician from Hampshire Music Service is on hand to guide and teach use of the instruments during workshops.
Clearly, while it is anticipated that great fun will be had using these exotic instruments steeped in spiritual mystery, children and adults alike will also learn how to respect the sacred instruments “through the interpretation provided by the workshop”, adds Sue.
This instrument, designed in the form of a dragon, illustrates the colourful and lively decoration of gamelan instruments. Courtesy of Recreation & Heritage Design Unit.
Although gamelan music is still used for ritual ceremonies and for the royal family, it is also performed as concert music, at social and cultural gatherings, to welcome guests and audiences.
“It’s nice to get sounds into a museum.” says Sue. “It creates a different atmosphere and livens things up!”
The number of people visiting Basingstoke's Willis Museum increased last year by 21 per cent to more than 47,000 visitors. With fun interactive exhibitions such as this one, it’s little wonder that the Willis recently received the Creativity award in Basingstoke and Deane's 'A Place to be Proud of Awards' for setting up a variety of children's workshops.
To get your own slice of gamelan spirituality get along to the Willis museum this summer - workshops will be held on July 12, 19, 27 and August 11. Contact the museum for more details.
Zoe Adjonyoh is the 24 Hour Museum Renaissance Student Writer in the South East region. Renaissance is the groundbreaking initiative to transform England's regional museums, led by MLA, the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council.