Sounds of the Archipelago Echo in Gamelan Melayu

loading The Koromong.

This gamelan group in Penang does its best to keep various Malay traditions alive.

When I arrived for my first gamelan Melayu rehearsal at the Wak Long Music Centre in Penang, Mohd Jufry Yusoff, affectionately known as Cikgu Jufry, was already seated behind the gendang (Malay drums), absorbed in the scores of music before him, written in numbers rather than musical notes, over Western music stylised bars.

Later and in the following rehearsals, Cikgu Jufry led the group to play Ayak-ayak, Demi Cinta, Wong Chuen Fan and a range of traditional and upbeat new compositions, the sounds of the bronze keys ringing in our ears as we hit them with our mallets.

There is something about gamelan that moved renowned composers like Claude Debussy to remark, “There used to be – indeed, despite the troubles that civilisation has brought, there still are – some wonderful peoples who learn music as easily as one learns to breathe.” The mesmerising sounds of the metallophonic instruments continue to invite foreign musicians, composers and scholars to visit the Malay archipelago to experience the music orchestra as it lives within the cultures – and to some extent religious beliefs – of the communities here.

The Moving Sounds of the Archipelago

Gamelan Melayu is said to be of Indonesian origin as the massive bronze instruments arrived from the archipelago through the Riau islands in the early eighteenth century, to form two kinds of gamelan traditions in Malaysia.

The first gamelan sets were played in Johor, where the ensemble accompanied theatre and dances already found in Java. The Javanese community in Johor maintained the facade and tuning of the gamelan, displaying its deep-rooted connection to Indonesia.

When the gamelan was then brought to Pahang, it evolved into a tradition sometimes known as “joget gamelan”, “gamelan Pahang”, “gamelan Terengganu”, or “gamelan Melayu”, consisting of less instruments.

According to historians and ethnomusicologists, the gamelan came through royalty as it was performed at the royal wedding of Tengku Hussain Sultan Abdul Ahmad Shah and Wan Esah, the daughter of Bendahara Ali, in 1811. Gamelan in Pahang thus became mainly performed and purposed for the royal palace.

The gamelan Melayu ensemble.

Cikgu Jufry playing the keromong.

It did not remain there though. The gamelan continued to spread to Terengganu through the marriage of Tengku Sulaiman Badrul Alam Shah to the Pahang sultanah, Tengku Ampuan Meriam in 1913 whose mother had previously led one of the Pahang gamelan groups. Their marriage meant a major boost for gamelan Melayu with Tengku Sulaiman composing many of the popular tunes played in Malay gamelan groups today, including Perang Manggung. That era resulted in around 50 pieces being added to the repertoire of gamelan dance and music, such as the popular Timang Burung.

As a result of these movements, many gamelan Melayu sets today consist of eight instruments: gendang, keromong, gambang, saron penerus or peking (small), saron barung (big), gong agung (big gong), gong suwukan, as well as three kenongs (big kettle gongs).

According to Cikgu Jufry, who leads and teaches at the Penang Wak Long Music Centre, the keromong, which consists of a double row of small kettle gongs faced upwards, adds a unique sound to the gamelan, in fact providing the melody. Its sounds and style of playing are also what distinguishes gamelan Melayu from the Javanese and Balinese styles, which in some cases tend to predict the melody and are offbeat.

Gamelan Melayu is also unique for its tuning, which closely resembles the Javanese slendro scale, though with slightly different pitch distances. “One is able to tune to the base note that one prefers, but it is popular for the base note here to be G, B or C,” adds Cikgu Jufry.

Cikgu Jufry, who is originally from Kelantan, is no stranger to Malaysian traditional music and arts, having grown up with wayang kulit in addition to his later education in Western musical instruments such as the saxophone.

He was exposed to wayang kulit Kelantan from an early age as his grandfather, Mamat Semail, was a dalang, or puppeteer. As a six-year-old, he would accompany his grandfather for his performances. “I was a young child and I attended because I knew they would serve chicken at the beginning of the show – as offerings, and also for the musicians and dalang to eat,” he recalls with a laugh. His participation in the wayang kulit shows soon evolved into an interest in traditional arts.

However, wayang kulit Kelantan music and gamelan music are different in the types of instruments involved and in purpose and function. According to him, wayang kulit music follows the character of the puppets, while gamelan is usually instrumental or it can follow choreographed dance, not unlike the dance form tarian joget Terengganu created by Tengku Ampuan Meriam.

The gendang.

The gambang.

“I was drawn to pick up gamelan because I had experience in Western music, so it made reading notation familiar. I also found the sounds of the gamelan more alluring compared to the caklempong of the Minang community.”

When Cikgu Jufry started gamelan, he did not really know much about the music until he moved to Penang where his uncle, Che Ayub Ismail, taught him much about the music. “My uncle previously worked at the Ministry of Culture in KL before taking up an offer in Penang. I was studying traditional arts there in the early 1980s,” recounts Cikgu Jufry. “He would always talk to me about gamelan Melayu, the music and the composers, and he even went to Solo in Central Java to study the techniques of playing and making gamelan. While there, he stayed with a gamelan maker.”

His uncle brought back with him gamelan instruments that he had made in Solo, and taught people here to play gamelan Melayu. During these rehearsals, Cikgu Jufry would mostly watch rather than play. “It was only if they needed people did I sit at an instrument to play. That’s how I learned.”

Today, Cikgu Jufry continues to teach wayang kulit and gamelan at his music centre, at Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) and at Mara Junior Science College schools. The Wak Long Music Centre, located along Jalan Sungai Dua near USM, was conceived five or six years ago to teach and popularise gamelan Melayu and wayang kulit Kelantan.

Gamelan Melayu is slowly gaining momentum, and many like Cikgu Jufry are confident that with education and growing creativity in traditional music, the rich heritage and sounds of the gamelan ensemble will adapt and thrive.

Despite its connections to Malaysia and its historically unique characteristics, gamelan remains in the background and is hardly heard in the country. In Central Java and Bali, one can stumble into a rehearsal or easily find a gamelan-making refinery. It takes more effort to find such a community, rehearsing and performing regularly in Malaysia.

“There is actually interest in gamelan,” says Cikgu Jufry, “but this interest is not sustained at a professional level. For one thing, there are not many available places or specific centres for people to rehearse, more so in Penang. In schools, gamelan is no more than a past time activity. There is not much focus to learn the music in general,” adds Cikgu Jufry.

“Youths may consider gamelan ‘old stock’, or old fashioned,” says Cikgu Jufry, “but when I was about to retire, one of the reasons I wanted to start the Wak Long Music Centre in Penang was to promote traditional music and art, especially among the young.”

Today, the regular rehearsals have five to seven or more students, with some as young as six years old. There are classes for beginners, where first-timers are taught how to hit and damp the musical keys and familiarise themselves with each note of the gamelan. Wak Long also offers wayang kulit and wau-making classes for the public.

“It all takes time and is a learning process, says Cikgu Jufry. “Sometimes, some of our members, who we encourage to perform with us, do try to master some gamelan techniques. You learn as you go.”

Cikgu Jufry even hopes that one day they can succeed in producing certificates for their students – one that will be professionally approved so that graduates of the course will be certified to teach in schools. “We want to have more classes in music arrangement, composition, tuning and of course, technique, and we want to provide classes and training for that.”

On the production side, Cikgu Jufry and his team regularly performs for functions, including a weekly stint at Shangri-La’s Rasa Sayang Resort & Spa in Batu Ferringhi. The group lineup usually consists of Cikgu Jufry himself, Farhan Jufry, Kang Su Kheng, Nurin Wanie Qistina, Fara Dayana, Muhamad Rayyan Rizqin and Nik Mohd Husyaidie. The music centre has also performed at events such as "Malay Music in the Park” at Armenian Park last August for the George Town Festival. Recently, they showcased a short wayang kulit show at the In-Between Arts Festival 2017, drawing attention to the unique sounds and art of Kelantanese wayang kulit.

Mallets for the different gamelan instruments.

One of the younger members playing the saron.

Moving to A New Beat

There is a growing movement towards new compositions in gamelan – internationally and locally. In Bali, new recording labels such as InsituRec and event spaces like Bentara Budaya offer platforms for musicians to share their new compositions, which transcend conventional gamelan arrangements, through recordings, performances and discussions with young as well as established gamelan musicians.

Festivals in Malaysia such as the World Gamelan Festival serve to not only display traditional gamelans from South-East Asia, but also offer the chance for new compositions. Rhythm in Bronze is also an increasingly famous contemporary gamelan group that has caught the attentions of many with their inventive ways of approaching gamelan.

To this, Cikgu Jufry says he prefers the traditional Malay style and aspires to delve deeper into that aspect. “I am not an expert to comment much on this matter, but my main aim is to introduce people to the traditional aspect of gamelan, with some new compositions played in a traditional sense.”

While there is focus on traditional pieces, the centre occasionally plays new compositions by their member, Kang Su Kheng, who has been involved with gamelan since her undergraduate years at USM. She has composed as well as notated popular Chinese tunes such as Shanghai Beach and newer pieces for the gamelan.

Indeed, gamelan Melayu is slowly gaining momentum, and many like Cikgu Jufry are confident that with education and growing creativity in traditional music, the rich heritage and sounds of the gamelan ensemble will adapt and thrive.

For enquiries on their class schedule, contact Wak Long Music Centre at +6019 510 6945. For more information on their performances, visit www. Centre-806603226113214.

Liani MK is a gamelan enthusiast, first transfixed by Javanese music as an undergraduate. Fresh from a year immersed in Balinese gamelan, she continues to dabble in traditional music, art, capoeira, history and languages.

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