Gong in Javanese Theological Thought and Way of Life

Gong in Javanese Theological Thought and Way of Life

By Aris Masruri Harahap

Exclusively written for Le Bel Objet (www.lebelobjet.be)

Indonesia has a wide variety of types of music which are a combination of local musical creativity and foreign musical influences that shape the character of Indonesian musical instruments. One of Indonesia's most famous pieces of music is perhaps produced by a set of traditional musical instruments widely known from the islands of Java and Bali, gamelan. Gamelan belongs to Javanese, Sundanese (a tribe concentrated in West Java and Banten Provinces), and Balinese. If you want to listen to the stunning sound of Javanese gamelan, you can enjoy its live performance in Java Island in cities like Yogyakarta, Sukoharjo, and Solo.

When you visit Bali, you may also hear Gamelan music in Ngurah Rai Airport, Balinese traditional restaurants, and lots of other places on the island. Bali has its own gamelan characteristics although the set and the music produced are not so different from the Javanese in general. The Javanese gamelan was created based on a reflection of Javanese human life and is based on pentatonic tones. The harmonious sound produced is the reflection of Javanese human life who is always harmonious, in tune, and has a strong "feeling" of cohesiveness with other humans in their social life. Javanese gamelan has a softer or gentle tone than the sophisticated Balinese gamelan (Prasetyo, 2012).
Etymologically, gamelan comes from the Javanese term "gamel" which means beating or hitting, and the suffix "an" which makes gamel a noun. The gamelan music is always used in shadow puppet (wayang) show. Its presence in the show is a kind of signal for communication (Heins, 1970). Certain compositions in gamelan signals to the audience that the show is about to begin, conflict within the wayang's story escalates, a fight between characters is about to happen, etc.

If you have seen a live gamelan performance before, you might have noticed gongs were hanging by ropes. Gong is a very important part of gamelan. The sound of gong instructs, marks, and ends certain parts of a gamelan orchestral composition (Palgunadi, 2002). It is a gong that is used as a signal of communication among gamelan musicians that the wayang show is about to start. That means they will play a certain composition as a means to pass the information to the audience.
With gong as its key, gamelan has been used in sacred ceremonies as well during the times when Hinduism and Buddhism were still major religions in the archipelago, especially in the Majapahit Kingdom era. The sound of the gong is believed to bring "mystical" nuances while the ritual is being conducted (Prasetyo, 2012). The sound is also associated with the giggling of Bima by the Javanese which created a feeling of both majesty and comfort. Bima is known as a brave and honest hero in the Javanese wayang story (Budhiantho & Dewantoro, 2013). He has his significance in the Indian epic, Mahabharata. He is the son of Kunti and is known as a strong Pandawa figure, always being rude, and frightening to his enemies even though he is actually soft-hearted. Among the Pandawa, he is second out of five children.
The gong used in religious rituals is believed to have magical power. It can expel bad spirits, able to attract Gods and Goddesses' attention, and able to heal someone from diseases (Panggiyo, 2008). This shows the importance of gong not only in gamelan orchestra but also in the belief of Javanese society related to beings from the other world. Such a belief affects how Javanese lives even to this day. There are lots of rituals in which the Javanese hope for good things to happen and bad things to stay away. The Javanese call the rituals slametan. The term is from the word slamet which means safe or trouble-free.

In Jepara, Central Java Province, there is an old tradition related to such belief that the people keep alive despite the majority of the people there are Muslim. The tradition is Gong Senen. Senen or Senin in the Indonesian language means Monday. The Gong Senen tradition is a tradition that is carried out every Monday starting from 06.30 AM until 07.00 AM when the Jepara people leave for work. This tradition is usually carried out in the courtyard of the Jepara Regency Office to be precise at Panti Pradonggo Birowo. The tradition of Gong Senen is carried out by playing the instrument with the aim slametan of giving the safety of the Jepara people who are mostly on their way to work and to keep bad things away from the Jepara area. The culmination of this tradition is on the Eid Al-Fitr after the Eid prayer. The instrument is played followed by a celebration at the Pradonggo Birowo (Anshori, 2010).

Geertz (1976) identifies the slametan as the "Core ritual" in Javanese culture and as an animism rite that is meant to reinforce villagers' solidarity. While Woodward (1988) argued that slametan in some ways is related to Islamic values. Its religious and social goals are defined according to Islamism and most of the modes the ritual acts used are rooted in the essentialist text including the Koran and Hadith. However, since the Moslem preachers at that time respected the values and traditions held by the people, there are elements in slametan originating from the pre-Islamic traditions that are interpreted in Islamic terms. The assimilation process had resulted in a stunning and distinctive Islamism in Indonesia.

Another example of Javanese Islamic slametan is Slametan Gongso Ageng in Wirun Village, Sukoharjo Regency, Central Java Province. The ritual is performed and attended by gamelan artists, village officials, gamelan buyers, etc. This slametan aims to ask God's blessing for the success of the gamelan-making process and the good sound produced by the gamelan made. Currently, in practice, Slametan Gongso Ageng uses verses from the Koran during the ritual. The slametan is held if the gamelan artists want to make a Gong Ageng (ageng means huge), a gong that has a one-meter diameter (Handayani & Swazey, 2018).

Javanese gamelan especially the gong instrument has experienced changes and assimilation in its historicity due to changes in faith or religions believed by the people. However, after hundreds of years, the people still hold the tradition, whether they still have the old belief or not, that gives gong a distinctive role in Javanese society, their theological thought, and their way of life.

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Budhiantho, M. H., & Dewantoro, G. (2013). Javanese Gong Wave Signals. 166th Meeting of the Acoustical Society of America (pp. 1-8). San Fransisco: Acoustical Society of America.
Geertz, C. (1976). The religion of Java. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
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