Gamelan is a fully elaborated orchestra involving hanging gongs, gong rows, metal or bamboo xylophones, melodic instruments such as fiddles, flutes, as well as drums and vocalists. Wayang is a long-form play involving either shadow puppets or dancers, often in masks. The stories frequently derive from Indian epics, and all-night wayang performances are typically accompanied by gamelan music. The highly influential gamelan/wayang traditions of Java and Bali seem to have reached full flower only in the past 300 years. But they have many precursors and descendants, and this volume explores some of them.
In a lengthy overture to Wayang Sasak, from the island of Lombok, a wooden flute frets through snarly, growled vocals, over a lively, clangy bed of sound, anchored in a pulse-like, rhythmic gong ostinato. A dry drum dresses the sound more than defining its rhythm through the piece's many transitions. Two short selection that follow sample moments of "urgent travel" and battle that come later in the story. The Sasak people are Muslim, and their wayang survives heartily despite the controversy it periodically causes among Muslim authorities.
From Central Java, jemblung is gamelan-derived theatre performed by actor/singers, in this case rice farmers by day. Without instruments, puppets, sets or props, three men and one woman sit around a table at a domestic celebration and perform what is essentially an a cappella rendition of gamelan music, part homage and part parody. One piece begins with layerings of voices all doing very different things: claps and percussive "pah!" sounds, humming, nasal melodies, and the sweet, relaxed female voice of the psindhen threading slow, distracted melodies through the chatter. A cappella never sounded like this before.
In South Kalimantan, the mixed-race Banjar people find themselves caught between their old court gamelan tradition, introduced by the Javanese, and today's prevalent Islam, with its objections to the tradition. A long overture from a shadow-puppet play seems close to the Balinese sound with its fast and faster rhythms, and dense, clanging texture. The scratchy voice of the highly active dalang (puppet master) is present throughout. The volume's final piece from the Banjar's masked dance wayang has similar qualities. This is a somewhat dilapidated, even irreverent rendering of classical tradition.