By Tyler Yamin


The village of Kamasan, in the Klungkung Regency of Bali, houses the last remaining gamelan ensemble that sustains the semara pegulingan repertoire of the Klungkung court. A performance of its unique repertoire, featuring a provenance linking it to the golden age of Balinese monarchy, evokes the royal sonic atmosphere of this bygone era. The fall of the Klungkung court in 1908, however, saw this once-regal music relegated to a distant corner of the Balinese musical landscape. Resuscitated by Kamasan villagers, this individual gamelan style has overcome more than a century of threats to its very existence. This essay details the valiant efforts of Banjar Sangging, Kamasan, to defend its unique piece of Balinese cultural history from extinction, including the present-day struggle precipitated by the premature loss of the tradition’s major culture-bearer. As the only student of the late trompong player I Wayan Sumendra, I describe my own role in this ongoing effort, which includes the repatriation of previously unheard recordings from the early 1970s and the reconstruction of the original drum part for the 2013 Bali Arts Festival with several of the same musicians who were featured on the recordings made more than four decades ago.

Music in Kamasan

Map of Bali.
Figure 1. Map of Bali

The village of Kamasan, in the Klungkung regency of Bali (fig. 1), houses a seven-tone gamelan orchestra renowned throughout Bali as the last remaining expression of an ancient musical tradition. A performance of its unique repertoire, featuring a provenance linking it to the golden age of Balinese monarchy, evokes the royal sonic atmosphere of this bygone era. Centuries of political and cultural change, however, have relegated this once-regal music to a distant corner of Bali’s musical landscape. As it stands today, the sekehe (group) semara pegulingan1 of the Balé Batur Temple in Kamasan village (fig. 2) is the very last of its kind. Unaltered by modern Balinese musical innovations, its repertoire is uniquely devoid of those characteristically ubiquitous Balinese devices, such as angsel (articulated rhythmic break), nguncab (sudden dynamic change), and even kotekan (interlocking parts). Here I describe the distinguishing aspects of this particular gamelan, including its fascinating history of repeated resuscitation from the brink of extinction.

Sekehe Semara Pegulingan Balé Batur, Kamasan, performing at the Bali Arts Festival on July 7, 2013. Photo by Geoff Dent
Figure 2. Sekehe Semara Pegulingan Balé Batur, Kamasan, performing at the Bali Arts Festival on July 7, 2013. Photo by Geoff Dent

Although I wish to avoid such loaded terms as “evolution” or “progress,” it is undeniable that cultures tend to change over time—they are on some sort of trajectory, even if a particular trajectory only becomes apparent in hindsight. Musical traditions, as important aspects of culture, are not exempt from these transformative impulses. The social dynamics contributing to the trajectory of a musical tradition are of particular interest to ethnomusicologists; Peter Manuel and other authors identify and explore the various cultural forces operating within their case studies (see Manuel 2015). This essay, however, is instead focused on the musical tradition itself and on the numerous features that change, or resist change, as a result of historical events. That being said, this study would not be complete without some discussion of the cultural influences at work. These influences, the complex set of dynamics operating on the tradition that I describe here, are largely subsumed under the ideology of kemajuan (social progress). At once political, cultural, and aesthetic, kemajuan, in its literal sense of “moving forward,” has been a driving force behind Indonesian modernization, applying pressure on such far-off phenomena as traditional music genres (Rappaport 2004:391–92). Another important influence is the Balinese aesthetic ideal of wayah (maturity), which prescribes works of art to be as refined, yet as complex, busy, and energetic, as possible. Together, I would argue, these two concepts demonstrate considerable impact on the current state of Balinese music, which has reached an astounding, unprecedented level of sophistication, recognition, and dissemination, both locally and internationally (McGraw 2013aTenzer 2000Steele 2013).

That is all well and good, then, but what about the cultural traditions left in the wake of the engine of progress that is kemajuan? Do they remain relegated to a history de-emphasized by our synchronic ethnomusicological tendencies? Although processes of globalization and modernization can ultimately empower the musical traditions they shape (e.g., Hayward 2012), was there not merit to the original practices they replaced? With the prospect of “cultural grey-out” (Lomax 1968:4) looming large on the horizon, both academics and organizations are becoming increasingly troubled by the issues of culture loss and cultural sustainability. The advent of UNESCO-sponsored intangible cultural heritage preservation initiatives have raised awareness of these issues (Howard 2012). In rare cases, such as China’s “original ecology folksong” (Rees 2016), aesthetic preferences have begun to shift from those of polished, institutionalized music to those that refer to some sense of cultural authenticity through the use of local dialects and minority languages, coarse vocal and instrumental textures, and other non-institutionalized musical devices. All of these instances speak to this growing global concern regarding the fate of cultural traditions. In his essay on the sustainability of music genres, Jeff Todd Titon identifies, evaluates, and advocates specific approaches to the protection of musical heritage (Titon 2009b).

Who are we, however, to speak for a musical tradition? Do these practices not have as much right to change or grow as much as a television actor has the right to mature out of the role for which she is famous? It could be argued, along these lines, that a musical tradition even has the right to become extinct. After all, all traditions exist in a sociocultural context, and unless we are arguing for a complete halt to any sort of societal development, then it is entirely possible that this all-important context may likewise vanish, therefore eliminating or forcing a drastic transformation of the tradition’s entire raison d’être. Some scholars note that musical preservation projects do not achieve their intended consequences; instead, the ostensibly protected tradition becomes “fossilized” (Tenzer 2005:110) or “frozen in time and space, like a museum display” (Hesselink 2004:407). Musical authority, furthermore, changes hands from the musicians to distant government administrators (Hesselink 2004:407).

This essay, instead, offers a different rationale for the preservation or conservation of a musical tradition. That approach derives from the sheer weight of meaning it has for the people it envelops. In this manner, the argument for preservation comes not from politics or nationalism but from semiotics. How, though, is it possible to measure the symbolic importance of something? Although a semiotic justification for the safeguarding of musical heritage is inherently unquantifiable, it is indeed qualifiable. Turino, offering an ethnomusicological theory of semiotics based on the work of C. S. Peirce, describes three distinct ways in which an item can exhibit symbolism: as an icon (something that resembles what it represents), as an index (something that co-occurs with what it represents), and as a symbol (something represented through language) (Turino 1999:227). Icons and indexes receive the majority of attention in ethnomusicological analysis; this chapter focuses on the latter. Ethnomusicologist Megan Rancier theorizes the indexical capacity of musical instruments themselves. She conceptualizes these instruments as cultural “‘archives’ that contain layers of historical, social, musical, and emotional information” (Rancier 2014:379).

Here I principally focus on two of these “layers” indexed by the Kamasan gamelan: the historical and the musical. I offer this information not only out of scholarly interest but also to empathize with those who experience this music as an integral part of their lives. Although we may never be able to attain a fully emic understanding of the meaning of Kamasan’s gamelan tradition, this chapter is an attempt to at least approach this indigenous epistemology. By considering the significance of this music’s unique stylistic elements, and its implication in two distinct eschatological events, we might just appreciate the tremendous significance it represents and why it may necessitate, and even deserve, some protection.

Kamasan Style

Until the beginning of the twentieth century, gamelan semar pagulingan, which is usually translated into English as the “gamelan of the love god” or some variation thereof, could be found performing outside the king’s bedchamber to accompany whatever nighttime activities were occurring within (Tenzer 2000:158). While Balinese scholars I Made Bandem and I Nyoman Rembang believe that this type of ensemble dates to the sixteenth-century reign of Dalem Watu Renggong (Rai 1996:3), there is a dearth of concrete evidence. Jaap Kunst suspects that the gamelan described by a member of the 1597 Houtman Expedition was indeed a semar pagulingan (Kunst and Kunst-van Wely 1925a:72). If it was, it would have been the one belonging to the Klungkung court (Hanna 2004:36–41), the direct ancestor of the ensemble described in this essay. Julius Jacobs, a Dutch medical doctor, recorded his encounter with the gamelan semar pagulingan of the Gianyar court in 1881, emphasizing its aesthetic superiority over the Javanese ensembles he had previously witnessed (Jacobs 1883, quoted in Vickers 1985b:144). Early indigenous mention of this gamelan is found in a palm-leaf document known as the Prakempa (Bandem 1986), variously dated from the late eighteenth century to the early twentieth century. In it, gamelan semara pegulingan is described as one of four royal and sacred types of gamelan ensembles. Unfortunately, no scholarly tradition of research on gamelan semar pagulingan existed prior to the twentieth century. It begins well after the ensemble’s traditional function had already ceased, with the defeat of the last Balinese kings by invading Dutch colonists.2

Center close-up of a gamelan orchestra, showing trompong, kajar, gangsa, pemade, gangsa kantilan, jublag, and jegogan.
Figure 3: Front row: trompong and kajar. Second row: gangsa pemade. Third row: gangsa kantilan. Fourth row: jublag. Fifth row: jegogan. Photo by Geoff Dent

If Kunst was correct in his conjecture, then the semara pegulingan repertoire of Kamasan has been performed for more than four centuries. Although it would be naïve to claim that this music has not changed at all over this time, gamelan semar pagulingan nevertheless still exudes an aura of ancientness, linking it to the gamelan gambuhtradition of percussion and long bamboo flutes, which is older still.3 The underlying, generative melodic and rhythmic elements of gambuh compositions—their “inner melodies,” to appropriate Sumarsam’s conception of Javanese gamelan (Sumarsam 1984)—are present in the music of gamelan semar pagulingan. Each piece can be seen as a transcription of a gambuh composition for bronze gamelan. In many cases, the entirety of the original gambuh piece can be experienced intact in Kamasan’s semara pegulingan version. The only major areas of difference are found in the introductions and transitions. As the strict requirements of dance accompaniment were lost when these pieces were transposed to the purely instrumental gamelan semar pagulingan, their arrangements were adapted to suit this gamelan’s image of calm, introspective music.4 Consider the introductions played by the trompong (fig. 3), the horizontal row of gong chimes that plays the same melodic role as the bamboo flutes do in gambuh. The trompong’s melody is still the same as the gambuh original, but the drums begin their entrance relatively later in the gong cycle, providing a relaxed quality not felt in the equivalent gambuh piece.

Closeup of kendang and gangsa jongkok players.
Figure 4. Kendang in front of gangsa jongkok. Photo by Geoff Dent

The influence of gambuh in Kamasan’s ensemble is also seen in its instrumentation. Instead of the melody being carried by the bamboo flutes, it is played on the trompong. The trompong of the Kamasan gamelan is unique in having seventeen individual kettles, distinguishing it from the trompongs of all other semar pagulingan groups, which typically comprise no more than fifteen kettles.5 While the melodic component of gamelan gambuh is monophonic by design, realized by a number of suling (flutes) and possibly a rebab (spike-fiddle), all performing the same melodic line with minimal individual ornamentation, in Kamasan it is bolstered by a host of bronze metallophones, each either embellishing the trompong or stressing important nuclear tones. The pokok (base melody), derived from the trompong’s part, is provided by four jublag(twice as many instruments as other groups) and reinforced by two jegogan. Four gangsa jongkok (fig. 4), the only instrument type to feature keys sitting on the frames instead of hanging from a cord, play a doubled version of the pokok in a style comparable to the penyacah of more common ensembles.6 Four gangsa pemade and four kantilan, always acting in unison, perform an elaboration of the pokok at a rate twice as fast as the gangsa jongkok.

Closeup on kecicak, gumanak, suling, and gong players.
Figure 5. Kecicak (front left), gumanak (front right), suling, gong. Photo by Geoff Dent.


The fastest rate of rhythmic density—twice as fast as the gangsa—is the province of a collection of non-pitched idiophones that were imported directly from gambuh. These old-fashioned instruments (fig. 5) have become a hallmark of the few ensembles like Kamasan’s that still include them. They have faded from use in most other semara pegulingan ensembles. The instruments, known as gumanak (two hollow, split bronze cylinders struck with metal beaters), kecicak (a pair of mounted cymbals struck by two additional cymbals tied to wooden mallet handles, known as kangsi elsewhere), and gentorag (a bell tree), combine with the more popular ceng-ceng and klenang to provide constantly moving, shifting rhythmic undercurrents to the music.7 Two paired kendang krumpungan (drums), the ensemble’s rhythmic leaders, and a kajar (a small handheld gong with a sunken boss) that reinforces the kendang part and marks important points in the colotomic structure, are analogous to their gambuh ancestors. Interestingly, this ensemble makes use of only a single hanging gong for colotomic punctuation (the gong kempur). Although the ensemble possesses a smaller kemong as well, it is not employed in the traditional repertoire.

A striking feature of this music is the complete absence of interlocking figuration, known as kotekan, which is endemic to most genres of Balinese gamelan. All other documented semar pagulingan ensembles, furthermore, feature this interlocking texture. In Kamasan, however, polos and sangsih—the two components of kotekan—are absent.8 Compared with a gamelan semar pagulingan performing in the modern style,9 the simple texture of Kamasan’s music conveys the impression that it hails from several steps earlier in the development of the genre. Although it is dangerous to make such classically evolutionary assumptions (especially in the case of Balinese gamelan, where older genres are often much more complex in many respects than their successors), this particular assertion does have relevance. I Lunyuh, the semar pagulingan teacher of Colin McPhee, articulates the premise that this music originated with simple ornamentation, and it gradually gave way to increasingly complex interlocking figuration. In a description of I Lunyuh’s style of transmitting the traditional repertoire, McPhee writes that “he refused to consider the flowers [melodic ornamentation]. . . . In his time they were very simple. They had only to follow the melody. But now . . . [w]ords failed him” (McPhee 1946:210).

This statement implies that the melodic ornamentation styles of semar pagulingan experienced an increase in complexity during the life of I Lunyuh, which began circa 1876. (McPhee estimated I Lunyuh to be sixty years old in 1936 [Oja 1990:127].) The Kamasan style of ornamentation can be tentatively dated to this period, as the rules governing its derivation from the pokok agree with I Lunyuh’s description of the older style. Slightly more complex interlocking ornamentation styles, however, also “only follow the melody.” The silih asih style,10 as utilized by the ensembles of Banjar Titih and Besang-Ababi,11 could be described as a “kotekan-ized” version of the Kamasan style,12 possibly derived by treating the original unison line as polos and inserting a sangsih part rhythmically between each note of the polos.

Another contribution to the apparent simplicity of Kamasan’s style is the consistent use of this single, non-interlocking ornamentation style. In contrast to more modern genres, which make extensive use of ensemble texture modulation (Tenzer 2000:61–68), this particular semara pegulingan repertoire is rigidly consistent. Other traditional semar pagulingan ensembles, however, make use of a range of ornamentational textures. The gamelan of Pagan Kelod, which McPhee found to be the only other active seven-tone ensemble during his residency in the 1930s, when it was housed in Tampak Gangsal (McPhee 1966:14), employs both norot (for body sections) and ubitan telu (for introductions and conclusions). The argument for the relative modernity of Pagan Kelod’s music, in comparison to that of Kamasan, is bolstered by the fact their pengawak (body sections) are metrically augmented twofold to include double the number of pokok tones and therefore units of ornamentation.13 In this treatment, which is known as wilet (Rai 1996:215) and bears similarity to the Javanese concept of rangkep, the original gambuh melody is abstracted due to the two-fold reduction of its relative speed. This application, which could only have been achieved by intentional design, suggests a further degree of sophistication or development than the relative simplicity of the Kamasan style.

With the exception of one anomalous piece, the entire Kamasan repertoire is performed in the metric form commonly known as tabuh telu pegambuhan (McPhee 1966:127), although the Kamasan musicians do not use terminology describing the general form. Typically consisting of several movements, including at least two pengawak with a 256-beat pokok, the complete realization of a single piece in this gambuh-style form can last as long as half an hour. A successful performance relies on the trompong player to remember the copious melodic contours and the drummers to know their fixed part and its relationship with the trompong melody.

The protracted musical form of tabuh telu pegambuhan, demanding constant focus and attention during performance due to the copious room for melodic twists and turns, is not an anomaly but instead a common feature of pre-twentieth-century court genres. A form defined by its 256-beat pengawak is encountered in the royal gamelan gong gede (tabuh empat [Tenzer 2000:359]), encompassing about 40 percent of the repertoire (Hood 2010:303). Gamelan pelegongan, a popular derivative of semar pagulingan, deals exclusively with pengawak of this length. This similarity of extreme length in palace music is almost certainly by design, as it symbolizes the majestic grandeur of established dynastic traditions. Listeners encountering these genres in their heyday would undoubtedly have been struck by the “weightiness” of the music, underscored by the remarkable physical size of the ensembles. Even today, Balinese are impressed by the evocation of sovereignty an ordinary performance cannot help but elicit. Renowned musician I Made Terip, an established specialist in many different genres of gamelan, acknowledges the indexical power of this music—its “special potential for creating emotional effects” (Turino 1999:232)—in a discussion of lelambatan(the illustrious repertoire of the gong gede orchestra) on the 1992 documentary film Bali, les Couleurs du Divin. Terip explains that “of all the groups that I know, only the sound of this orchestra gives me the shivers” (Caracache and Fassola 1992).

A Historical Perspective

The semiotic power of gamelan semara pegulingan derives not only from the indexicality of its sonic information but also from the “layers of historical . . . information” it also evokes (Rancier 2014:379). Listeners are affected both by nostalgia for a long-lost era and by knowledge of the events experienced within the hundred years since this gamelan was severed from its royal affiliation. For those who are aware of this history, it is the chilling recollection of these circumstances that represents an essential component of its complete contextual experience.

The history of the semara pegulingan ensemble of Pura Balé Batur in Kamasan begins in the year 1908, with the fall of the kingdom of Klungkung as the last to resist the invasion of colonizing Dutch forces. Vastly outnumbered and facing inevitable defeat, the Raja of Klungkung chose to stand up to the invaders through the defiant act known as puputan. On April 28, 1908, the king and his military forces, armed and accompanied by his family and all his court, met the invaders on the road outside the palace. Instead of conceding loss or recognizing the Dutch army’s authority, the Balinese turned their weapons on themselves. They set fire to their buildings, destroyed their own family heirlooms to prevent them from falling into the hands of their enemies, and walked directly into enemy fire. Through this act, which recurred in several distinct cases during the Dutch invasion, the Balinese sovereigns were able to end their lives on their own terms (Pringle 2004:103–108).

In her analysis of the factors involved in the puputan Klungkung, Margaret Wiener reaches past superficial, etic description to approach an emic, Balinese understanding of the events that unfolded (Wiener 1995). According to her interpretation, the significance of the puputan was not due merely to the act of martyrdom it depicted, or even to the regime change it entailed, but to the epistemological shift it mandated. After this event Bali was no longer a magical realm, protected by the spiritual energy of its paramount king. Instead, it was a secular place, defined by the cold, hard realities of life under foreign colonization. The puputan was more than just the destruction of the royal family, the palace, and the royal heirlooms—it was the destruction of the world (uug gumi) (Wiener 1995:277–87). This eschatological event—the shattering of a central characteristic of Balinese life—did not occur with the royal sacrifice but earlier, when King Dewa Agung Jambe had failed to summon his niskala (occult) power and destroy the invading army with a certain heirloom weapon. This moment verified that the Klungkung dynasty had lost the divine protection it had enjoyed for centuries. The Dutch invaders with their white eyes, furthermore, were viewed as reincarnations of the blinded Kebo Iwa, the mythical general who governed Bali before it was conquered by Kepakisan’s Majapahit compatriots. By defeating Kebo Iwa through deceit, the famed Majapahit general Gajah Madah had ensured a time limit on the divine grace afforded to the Balinese kings (Wiener 1995:301–303; Geertz 2004:89–92). The puputan Klungkung was, in this regard, inevitable. It was the bloody termination of an era, the culmination of events set in motion at the very moment of the dynasty’s inception.

So, then, what transpired after the end of the world? Ultimately, these eye-opening events, coupled with the two 1906 puputan in Badung that occurred just hours apart, inspired a sense of nationalist pride in generations of Balinese and steered the colonial Dutch administration to a governing style that was empathetic to Balinese concerns (Pringle 2004:108). In the immediate sense, however, elements of royal Balinese culture, and traditions such as its unique styles of music, had been sacrificed. As the only orchestra of musicians that played this music belonged to the palace, they were obliged to face the Dutch army and perish alongside their king. The burning of the palace’s instruments was almost certainly the work of the Balinese residents, as it was during the puputan at Puri Pemecutan, Denpasar, on September 20, 1906. As Made Hood observes, however, the regal gong gede orchestra of the Pemecutan court, unlike the doomed semar pagulingan of Klungkung, was rescued from the flames by court members unwilling to see it destroyed (Hood 2010:70). This act of saving the instruments, though, was not adequate to ensure the survival of its repertoire. Describing an event epitomizing the characteristic Dutch lack of respect for the conquered Balinese traditions, Hood relates the treatment of a 360-year-old gamelan in the aftermath of the 1906 puputan, as recounted by Cokorda Ngurah Pemecutan.

Dutch soldiers . . . “played” with the gong gede ensemble. Pemecutan was quick to point out he did not mean that the soldiers sat down with Balinese musicians and played drums and cymbals in the name of Balinese music. Instead the Dutch soldiers ideally passed their time by literally playing with instruments such as the trompong kettles, using them as bowling balls [and] rolling them across the palace grounds. Pemecutan referred to this as . . . “early morning sport” and according to the stories told among residents of the puri, the sound of rolling trompong kettles could be heard all throughout the palace! (Hood 2010:70).

Although the Pemecutan instruments survived these events and the subsequent Dutch occupation, it is a notable exception. The gamelan semar pagulingan of the Klungkung court, reflecting a more typical outcome, did not survive the battle and was never heard again (I Mangku Ketut Suradnya, interview, July 29, 2013).

In the years following this event, the absence of semar pagulingan was noticed, and lamented, by members of the Pura (temple) Balé Batur in the nearby village of Kamasan. This village, located equidistantly between the palace in Semarapura and its original home in Gelgel, had for centuries been home to the artisans of the various palaces. The long tradition of patronage by the kings of the region has given rise to the famous local style of painting known as lukisan wayang Kamasan, and even the very root of the village’s name (mas) refers to the gold used by the legions of goldsmiths working for the royal family. The Kamasan residents, having grown up around the music of the semar pagulingan, felt it was their responsibility to revive it.

The reconstruction of the semar pagulingan of the Klungkung court faced two major problems. The first was physical. A gamelan equipped with the particular tuning to play this music simply did not exist, as the only set had been destroyed a decade earlier. According to I Mangku Ketut Suradnya, the closest substitute was the six-tone semar pagulingan in the neighboring town of Gelgel.14 The Kamasan residents, however, wished to experience the original music, which required no less than seven tones to realize all the different melodic and modal combinations found in the repertoire. The congregation of Pura Balé Batur decided to sell their five-tone gamelan pelegongan and use the proceeds to build a new seven-tone gamelan. Having decided on a tuning created by members of the temple, who claimed to remember that of the saih pitu (seven-tone) original gamelan, and guided by the intervallic structure of suling gambuh, the congregation went to work building a new set of instruments. Under the direction of a pandé (gamelan smith) from the nearby village of Tihingan, they did all the work in the jeroan (inner sanctum) of the Balé Batur temple.15 A temporary forge was built to smelt the bronze for the keys, and the wooden cases were built on site. From this cooperation of the temple community, a unique gamelan was created, one ready to bring semar pagulingan Klungkung back into the world (I Mangku Ketut Suradnya, personal communication, July 29, 2013).

One nearly insurmountable obstacle remained: no one in the community knew the music they hoped to play. If any of the original court musicians had come from Kamasan, they had certainly perished in the battle with the Dutch. Fortunately, one of the palace musicians had in fact survived the slaughter of the puputan Klungkung. Years after he wielded a spear in the confrontation, the man who became known as Kaki (Grandfather) Gondol was called upon to teach this music, which only survived in his memory, to an eager group of new musicians (I Wayan Sumendra, personal communication, June 7, 2013).

Under the guidance of Kaki Gondol, the new musicians of Kamasan mastered the repertoire of the Klungkung palace in the early decades of the twentieth century. After passing on this musical tradition, Kaki Gondol left its responsibility in the hands of the Kamasan villagers themselves. Colin McPhee visited this group in the late 1930s. His unpublished field notes contain an analysis of their tuning and repertoire (McPhee n.d.). When he published his 1966 work Music in Bali, however, McPhee neglected to include a description of the Kamasan style in his chapter on “Gamelan Semar Pegulingan,” instead favoring the ensemble from Tampak Gangsal, Badung. The main attention given to “Kamassan” describes the gamelan as “badly out of tune” (McPhee 1966:140). This statement is completely plausible given the relatively young age of the gamelan and the tuning instability associated with new instruments. In McPhee’s analysis of the Kamasan gamelan’s tuning (McPhee 1966:42), as well as in the second volume of De Toonkunst van Bali (Kunst and Kunst-van Wely 1925b:484), its scale does not deviate from its current form more than the accepted range of detuning between paired instruments (umbang-isep).16 In his review of Panji in Bali I, Andrew Toth addresses this discrepancy by providing the further justification that “any paired tuning must stretch or compress at least half of its octaves if the beat rate of its ‘unisons’ is intended to be constant throughout the ambitus of the ensemble; octave deviations therefore cannot necessarily serve as criteria for mistuning” (Toth 1979:356).17 Furthermore, McPhee claims that the “musicians knew only a small repertory of compositions” (McPhee 1966:140). The incomplete list of ten individual pieces found among McPhee’s field notes, alone totaling more than five hours of continuous music, can only be assumed to have yielded inferior data compared to Tampak Gangsal, the only other contemporary, active seven-tone ensemble.

By the 1960s, the group was directed by I Ketut Bhuana, who led the performances on the trompong. Although semara pegulingan is played by a large group of musicians, the prohibitively long nature of the music has caused the task of its retention to fall to a single individual capable of remembering it all, thus making that person responsible for directing the twists and turns of the melodies during performance. Without a leader capable of this, realization of the music, especially the uncommon pieces, is almost impossible to accomplish. The Kamasan gamelan has always been fortunate to possess a leader with these remarkable qualities, but in late 1965 a particularly violent episode in Indonesia’s history targeted at suspected communists claimed the lives of thousands of Balinese, including Ketut Bhuana and the only musicians who were able to perform this repertoire (I Mangku Ketut Suradnya, interview, July 29, 2013).

On October 1, 1965, a subversive group formed within the Indonesian armed forces left Jakarta reeling from their attempt to overthrow the Indonesian government by assassinating key figures in the military. While this attempted coup was quickly thwarted by the army’s Strategic Reserve, the victorious generals, led by future president Suharto, were quick to blame the source of this event on the Indonesian communist party, their political rivals.18 What followed was a government-sponsored, countrywide witch hunt of suspected communists. People only remotely associated with the communist party or its ideals were rounded up and tortured or killed. By the time this frenzy of killings reached Bali, they were undertaken by groups of native Balinese acting at the instigation of military personnel (Robinson 1995:280–81). Kamasan was not immune to this bloodshed, and among the dead was Ketut Bhuana, the only remaining authority in the gamelan group (I Mangku Ketut Suradnya, interview, July 29, 2013).

After this anti-communist purge subsided, the semara pegulingan in Kamasan was unable to continue. The instruments still stood, but the organization lacked any individuals who were able to lead the group or teach the repertoire. Especially bothered by this was Pan Soka,19 the priest of the Balé Batur temple. He decided to seek out Kaki Gondol, the man who had led the revival of this music in the early decades of the twentieth century. In 1966 Kaki Gondol was in his nineties and living alone. Having agreed to return to Kamasan to reteach the music he had preserved in his head for many years, he walked several miles roundtrip each day by himself in order to ensure the survival of this music (I Wayan Sumendra, personal conversation, June 8, 2013).

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, a group of mostly young musicians learned the traditional repertoire of the semara pegulingan from Kaki Gondol. It was very difficult for them, and it took until the middle of the 1970s to master the long, slow compositions. Unfortunately, three days after teaching them their ninth song (“Gabor”), Kaki Gondol died (I Wayan Sumendra, personal conversation, June 8, 2013). From that point, the torch of leadership was passed to I Wayan Sumendra, a fifteen-year-old trompong player.

A son of Pan Soka, the priest who instigated this most recent musical revival, Pak Sumendra personified this musical tradition. Under his guidance, the group flourished. His excellent memory kept the music Kaki Gondol taught him unchanged. The pieces are remembered and performed today in nearly the same manner as they are performed on recordings from the 1970s.20 The reputation of the ensemble, performing this traditional music with an unparalleled degree of integrity, attracted interest from many contemporary Balinese scholars. Prominent teacher I Wayan Sinti’s 2006 article describes his own fascination with traditional repertoires and the influence of the Kamasan tuning on that of his own gamelan (Sinti and Sanger 2006:44). I Wayan Gandera, one of the first Balinese musicians to teach gamelan in the United States, observed rehearsals in Kamasan upon his return to Bali from UCLA in the late 1960s (Jan Steward, personal conversation, October 15, 2013) and conducted oral interviews with the musicians (I Wayan Sumendra, personal conversation, June 10, 2013).

As evidenced by recordings, the music of Kamasan has undergone very little change over the subsequent five decades. The long, non-repetitive melodies forming the body sections of each piece have not experienced any modification or suffered from any lapse in recollection, which is no small feat considering the body section of each piece contains at least 512 beats (two gongan of 256 beats each) of melodic material, and the musicians did not utilize any sort of notational aid. By contrast, the kendang part, practically identical for every song, had begun taking on influence from the drum styles of gamelan pelegongan.21 Possibly due to the monotony of playing the same slow, unchanging patterns day after day, year after year, pengaruh pelegongan (pelegongan influence) began creeping in. Gamelan pelegongan, as a direct descendant of semar pagulingan with faster, more intricate kendang patterns designed to accompany complex dances, was a logical and fitting choice for source material from which to enhance the simple patterns of the semara pegulingan. The changes may be subtle, but it is in fact these simple original patterns, already forsaken by every other group in Bali, that demonstrate the individuality and importance of the Kamasan style.

Current Events

In the summer of 2013, I was introduced to these musicians, their art, and their stories when Pak Sumendra accepted me as his student (and houseguest). Originally inspired by the single circulating commercial recording dedicated to semara pegulingan Kamasan (Sekehe Semara Pegulinan Bale Batur 1991), I was then intrigued by the dearth of available knowledge. I endeavored to learn more about this fascinating and neglected form of Balinese music. Although Pak Sumendra had never taken a student before, I was able to secure an introduction through Dr. I Nyoman Wenten, my instructor in California. What follows is a first-person narrative of my involvement in learning, playing, and eventually safeguarding gamelan semara pegulingan. Nevertheless, this section is not about me. As anthropologist Mark Pedelty so astutely notes, “We become anthropologists [or ethnomusicologists] because other people are infinitely more interesting than we are” (Pedelty 2012:8). I offer my own experiences here with this same deferential attitude, in the hope that my reflexivity can offer an informative perspective on these infinitely more interesting people and traditions.

I participated in an effort to reintroduce these original drum patterns during the preparations for the group’s performance at the yearly Pesta Kesenian Bali (PKB, or Bali Arts Festival) on June 17, 2013. The involvement of the Kamasan ensemble in the PKB, recognized with substantial support from Klungkung’s local government, had not occurred since 2006 and was therefore cause for much attention by the musicians. Beginning a month before the performance date, nightly rehearsals helped to refine the performance material and bring the many new members up to speed. My interest in and study of the kendang parts outside rehearsals led to an invitation for me to join the group as a drummer, an offer I enthusiastically accepted.22 The part I learned, however, was not the original pupuh kendang but was instead rife with pengaruh pelegongan as proliferated through the 1991 CMP recording. Just three days before the performance, Pak Sumendra’s offhand comment of “tidak boleh pakai pung” (you may not use the pung stroke), referring to the distinctive pelegongan style drum stroke used to direct the music’s flow,23 opened my eyes to those subtle differences lost over the years. I was shocked to discover that, except for a single anomalous section of “Unduk,” the pung stroke is not used at all. Without the availability of this stroke, the vocabulary of drum patterns used to signal tempo changes and transitions becomes drastically different. In turn, the differences between these patterns represent another degree of distinction from pelegongan-inspired repertoire. Hurriedly working with my drum partner I Wayan Sedana Yoga, an original member of the group who studied kendang with Kaki Gondol in the late 1960s, we reconstructed elements of the original style and successfully presented them at the televised PKB performance. While the changes we affected probably went unnoticed by most of the audience, this recovery was a major source of personal satisfaction for the group, and it was just one aspect of a growing sense of awareness and nostalgia for the old repertoire that was partly activated by my inquiries.

Prior to my fieldwork, I was principally familiar with the music through the group’s 1991 recording, the only commercial release dedicated to Kamasan’s semara pegulingan group. This well-recorded work provides clear, effective documentation of the four pieces that comprise the album (Harnish 1993/94). Having studied these recordings incessantly, I was eager to expand my knowledge of the music beyond the capabilities of an American resident with access to the Internet. Upon my arrival in Kamasan village, however, I was dismayed to find that my familiarity with only these four pieces was paralleled by the majority of the Kamasan musical community. In the two decades since the release of the album, these digital tracks have permeated every level of musical life in Kamasan. With an absence of any other easily obtained recordings, an entire generation of the Kamasan community has grown up hearing only these four pieces played on home stereos, temple loudspeakers, and more recently on cell phones and perpetually shared via Bluetooth. The opportunity to experience them outside the boundaries of rehearsals and sporadic performances, while the physical instruments are locked inside the temple, has even influenced the older generation, whose recollection of the documented pieces is undeniably better than that of the remaining undocumented repertoire. This pervasiveness is easily seen in the choice of repertoire for the 2013 PKB concert. Three of the four pieces rehearsed and performed are found on the CMP recording, and the remaining piece was a dance from outside the traditional repertoire, one designed to meet audience expectations for variety in the performance. Aside from the two sections of “Unduk” cut from the CD (due to time constraints) and certain minor stylistic changes, the traditional component of Kamasan’s PKB performance was a direct reproduction of the recorded work. On the surface, the unrecorded aspects of Kamasan’s unique repertoire were in great danger. At the time of my fieldwork, only four active members in the group had firsthand experience learning the repertoire from Kaki Gondol.

Hope of fostering the revival of these disappearing pieces still lingered, despite the neglect of over half of the repertoire. Even the musicians unfamiliar with the unrecorded pieces felt much pride in possessing such a unique repertoire and in their corresponding interest in studying and preserving it. Outside of rehearsal I was regularly approached by individuals wishing to discuss the music, each of whom would invariably identify one of the more uncommon pieces as their personal favorite. My attempts to learn these pieces were received favorably by the Kamasan musicians, who would often devote portions of their precious PKB rehearsal time to my personal enlightenment. Faced with the difficulty of accessing the instruments, I habitually arrived early to the nightly rehearsals to work on the rare pieces with the more experienced members of the group, who were also in the habit of appearing early. Together, we played through such pieces as “Gabor” and “Sembung Radas.” As the younger members of the ensemble trickled in, they would join in on their respective instruments and follow along, and eventually the entire ensemble would be present, playing these pieces that most of them had never before encountered. Even for some seasoned musicians, these ventures at the beginning of rehearsals were a good review of this subject matter. Attempts to record “Sembung Radas,” with musicians who had performed it as recently as during the Bali Arts Festival of 2006, were blemished by one prominent performer’s regular cries of “jarang, ini!” (this is unusual!). Evidently, the common performance repertoire was on its way to being “fossilized” in a similar manner to Tenzer’s description of the Gunung Sari group from Peliatan, which has been performing the same concert weekly since the mid-1960s (Tenzer 2005:110). However, no consternation over the fate of these pieces was then evident. None of the participants in these revival sessions, including myself, was aware of it at the time, but these efforts would soon prove invaluable when an unanticipated event changed the course of the Kamasan gamelan’s future.24

On July 7, 2013, just weeks after the group’s successful performance at PKB, I Wayan Sumendra, the trompong player and the tradition’s principal culture-bearer, suddenly passed away of an apparent heart attack. This came as a complete shock, as the sixty-two-year-old man was in excellent health, and there were no outward signs of any health problems. His passing spelled disaster for the semara pegulingan ensemble. Pak Sumendra had been the guiding light of the gamelan for many years, and no one else felt the need to step up to his role in the group. Concern over the future of the gamelan dominated the days following his death. While the ensemble consented unanimously to continue, the exact method of sustaining the music without the man who had dominated its perpetuation for the past forty-seven years was less clear. Only the four pieces recorded by CMP were playable with any conviction by the surviving members. The leadership of the ensemble decided to make several prominent members each responsible for the trompong part of two pieces in an attempt to avoid the unfortunate historical precedent.

I therefore found myself in a remarkable situation, one where my research could be turned around quickly to benefit the subjects. As the only formal student of Pak Sumendra, I was privy to the details of the unrecorded pieces, those compositions unfamiliar and unknown to the rest of the group. After Pak Sumendra passed, I was the only remaining person to know “Brahmara,” a song that had not been played for decades. Engaged to pass on this disappearing music, I spent the last of my time in Bali at Pak Sumendra’s home, helping to prepare the remaining members of the group to continue without him.

Three weeks, however, was not enough time to train the ensemble fully. The young musicians have more than enough drive to sustain the music, but it is a challenge for the two remaining members of the original group. These elderly men had never needed to assume a leading role. Scattered recordings of the group made over the last four decades, unearthed on far sides of the globe, will help keep the repertoire from fading away. My personal efforts in America to raise awareness of this music and perform the rare pieces, in an expression of my newfound responsibility as a major culture-bearer for this tradition, will hopefully inspire the Kamasan group to do the same and provide a framework for future interaction.25 Under the direction of Pak Sumendra’s eldest son, I Wayan Suhardi Yasa, the story of the Sekaa Semara Pegulingan Balé Batur, from Kamasan village, has entered a new chapter.26

Music and Regeneration

Has this essay, thus far, illustrated the lives of people involved in the semara pegulingan tradition of Kamasan village? Or has it narrated the life of the gamelan itself? Whether one chooses to view this gamelan in terms of an emic Balinese, anthropomorphic understanding of objects (Eiseman 1990:9) or chooses to accept the motivational power of its indexicality, it would be hard to deny its “curious ability . . . to animate, to act, to produce effects dramatic and subtle” (Bennett 2010:6). While this is not the proper venue to argue for or against the various qualities of material agency, it is nevertheless useful to envisage this musical tradition as something tied to, yet distinct from, human agency, even if our attention only remains at the level of “methodological fetishism” (Appadurai 1986:5). In her study of language revival projects, Maori linguist Margie Hohepa speaks of language “regeneration.”

Regeneration speaks to me more of such growth and regrowth, development and redevelopment. Nothing regrows in exactly the same shape that it had previously, or in exactly the same direction. The way a new shoot of a fern, a koru, grows might be used to symbolise the return and regrowth of a language. The koru first circles back towards itself, then, unfurling from itself spreads . . . out in different directions, the frond connected back through the strength and stability of its trunk into the nurture of Papatuanuku, our Earth Mother (Hohepa 2000:294–95).27

As Hohepa demonstrates, a regenerated language (or musical tradition) will not grow identically to its originator—nor should it. It is still a metaphorical koru (or the Balinese equivalent, paku [diplazium esculentum]), however, it exhibits the same “dynamic permanence” (Titon 2013:10) as its predecessors and its progeny. Although these individual, diachronic manifestations take on new symbolism as they grow and unfurl into the world, they are nevertheless linked to a synchronic, fundamental concept of paku, distinct from its earthly materializations. The semara pegulingan of Kamasan, in this way, is like paku. It simultaneously exists independently of, because of, and despite human agency. Indigenous rights advocate Linda Tuhiwai Smith explains that “a language does not die and need to be brought to life; rather, the generations of people who speak the language die, and the new generations need to make the language live by speaking it” (Smith 2012:149). The Kamasan gamelan tradition also functions exactly in this regard. We may help it live by replanting its seeds and cultivating its unfurling shoots—perhaps even pruning as necessary—but we humans are mere gardeners, custodians of something greater than any one of us.

Looking Forward

In the first week of November 2013, the Pura Balé Batur held its anniversary ceremony. As one of the most important annual events for the gamelan, a ngayah devotional service is provided each of the nine days of the ceremony. This one marked the first major performance in almost half a century without I Wayan Sumendra at the helm. Endeavoring to preserve this music that has survived for so long, this successful effort was certainly inspired by the gamelan’s forefathers, including Pak Sumendra, who has already entered the group’s pantheon. The surviving members are fully aware of the importance of their music and its unique place in the continuum of Balinese music. If the events of the last century are any indication, there is no doubt that the music of the Sekehe Semara Pegulingan Balé Batur, of Kamasan village, will endure.