Collections of themed recordings curated by John Noise Manis



“For most of us [Europeans] music is a luxury, a way to pass time; for only the very few is it a necessity of life. Moreover, it has developed an almost exclusively aesthetic character.

On the other hand, music in the archipelago, as is the case throughout the Orient, is still, in many cases, closely connected to the magical-religious experience and, as such, penetrates the entire society.”


In 1946 Jaap Kunst, the Dutch ethnomusicologist responsible for the first comprehensive study of Javanese gamelan music, was describing in this way the substantially different attitude of Westerners and Indonesians towards music (article contained in “Indonesian Music and Dance”, Royal Tropical Institute, 1994).
It is difficult to tell to what extent those observations are valid today; the new generations in Java may be in the process of diluting the phenomenon. But the essence of the different musical experiences is well depicted in that description. And important implications are stated further on in Kunst’s essay:

“No matter the stage of development of the music of a people, whether it is more in the nature of a magic formula or mainly used for aesthetic satisfaction, it is always, in its serious forms, the expression of the innermost feelings; the deepest origins of the soul of those involved. Its essence is, therefore, of all cultural expressions, the most difficul for someone of another race or civilization to grasp. However, one thing is certain: being able to grasp the character of the strange music, will open the best possible path toward the understanding of the alien soul.”

In Java, playing – or listening to – a gamelan is a spiritual discipline, not just mere amusement. It is also a way of praying. The great didactic poem “Serat Centini”, written around 1820 by Paku Buwana V, reads as follows (277th stanza):

“Both during prayer and during the playing of music the heart is directed towards inner peace and quiet, which is something that should be sought with all of one’s power. But one must not be absorbed by the purely sensual sound of the composition; its charm is only the means to  make the heart receptive and to create a great desire for unity with God. In this way, the composition itself disappears completely; there is nothing left.
That is the path that one must follow. The sound of the gamelan and of the singing must, as it were, be returned to Him, from Whom all sound has come and Who has given man the ability to hear.”

In Javanese mysticism (kabatinan) two almost identical words are pivotal: rahsa (mystery) and rasa (feeling and knowing). Let us read what Harun Hadiwijono wrote in 1967 (“Man in the Present Javanese Mysticism”, reported in Archipel no. 24, 1982):

“Concerning rasa, the meaning which comes most to the front is that of “feeling”, but then especially the higher feeling of the presence of God and of “mystery” with which usually is indicated the object of that feeling. The object is like an  indefinable fluidity, which is present in man, by which man not only comes in contact with God, but also is one with Him. It is the one Being (wujud) which is in all things and by which all things in its deepest essence are identical.”

The present CD, with all the limitations of being the reproduction of one particular performance, offers five gendhing belonging to the more spiritual side of the vast treasure of Central Javanese music.

The first piece, Ladrang  TURUN SIH, (The Descendant of Love), is said to be inspired by azan, the call to prayer by the muezzin. The idea of having two musicians sing in turn the call to prayer in accordance with the music originated from a misunderstanding of this writer – I had tought that the composition not only was inspired by azan, but that it actually included the male voice. Considering the result, which also created a remarkable emotional involvement on the part of the performing musicians, the present rendition of the piece may perhaps be taken as a case of serendipity.

Next, one of the only two compositions especially written (in the 16th century) for Sekaten, Ladrang RAMBU,  is presented in a studio performance on a regular gamelan. Those who have listened to CD II in this series, “Ceremonial Music”, will find substantial and, hopefully, interesting differences between the two types of recording. The field recording in the previous CD was offering the actual happening during the Sekaten islamic festivity, where the sacred outsize gamelans are played in a very crowded setting during a week once a year. In the present CD, the powerful sekaten music takes on a more rarefied atmosphere – perhaps a more refined, abstract spirituality – appealing more to the intellect (the way Western listeners tend to go). The studio sound and the regular gamelan enhance the musical role of each instrument. The one drawback that needs to be recognized is the contained sound of the kendhang (drum) which replaces the deeper voice of the bedug. On the other hand, the bonang part in the racikan – the slow, halting melody that has been associated to the praying of an imam – in the silent studio ambient works more effectively to convey feelings of elevation.

The third composition, Ladrang  MIJIL LUDIRA,  (composed by Paku Buwana V around 1820) suggests a connection to the opening piece – “Anglirmendung” – in CD I of our series. They have in common the context of the sacred kraton musics and dances, the mythical/didactic sung poems, the use of kemanak (the banana-shaped hand-held one-note double-set bronze instrument). The poem is sung by a three-men chorus (gerong). We report here the Javanese text and a translation into English provided by Joko  Purwanto.

Wastra ngangrang tebenging patani
Panggagasing batos
Atma dwija, Sempani wastane
Gung karanta
Ing siyang myang ratri
Ingkang sarpa langking
Mung sira riningsun
Putra Rendra
Parabe pawestri
Paran wekas ing ndon
Kang toh pita
Sumbrambah anggane
Lagya ana, panujuning ati
Ron leashing siti
Ewuh marganipun
Waela di
Tanayeng kadhiri
Kiraning tyas ing ngong
Yaksa Prabu
Gorangsa kadange
Datan mantra, Yen sira nimbangi
Janma gung kajodhi
Wit asor kalangkung
A long beautiful piece of cloth as a cover
Desires of the heart
Child of a teacher called Sempani
So sad (because of love)
During the day and at night
A black snake
Only you my little brother
Son of the King
The name of a woman
How will my life end
A mark on the skin
All over the body
Only now has his heart been captured
Leaves are scattered on the ground
Confused how to express (love)
Beautiful woman
Princess from Kediri
Calculation of my heart
Giant King
Relative of King of Gorangsa
Unexpected that you would return my love
A man who is defeated
Because he is so poor

The fourth piece, Ladrang  RANGKUNG,  is the other of the two original sekaten gendhing. Musically, it has  perhaps more interesting features than the first. For one thing, there is the first appearing of a playing technique called imbal – two instruments (demung) playing one on the beat, the other off the beat (metaphorically heard as two spirits, jim Rambu and jim Rangkung, talking to each other). The mythical origin of the two sekaten gendhing is told in the “Wédha Pradangga” (Sacred Knowledge about Gamelan Music) by R. T. Warsadiningrat (1886-1972).

The last piece of the present CD, Ketawang  MIJIL DHEMPEL,  is in a way twin of the third one. This composition is also connected to the Bedhaya dances of Kraton Surakarta. The scale here is slendro (Mijil Ludira is tuned to pelog) and the listener can appreciate the difference in “feeling” brought-in by the change of scale in two pieces with the same “orchestration”.  We report the Javanese text and an English translation provided by Joko Purwanto.


Lamun sira madeg narapati
Yayi wekas ingong
Apan ana ing prabu ugere
Sastra cetha ulatana yayi
Omahna den pasti
Wulange sastreku
Rehning janma tama nguni-uni
Kang mengku kaprabon
Ingkang nistha kawruhana kabeh
Miwah madya ywa lali
Lire siji-siji
Den kena ywa tungkul
Tindak ing nistha mangka pamardi
Temah tan anggepok
Ingkang madya resepana wae
Mring utama sira den kepingin
Den kadi sira mrih
Sengsem dyah ayu
Wit asor kalangkung
When you become king
A message for my little brother
Because there are guidelines to become king
It is clearly written, little brother
Study carefully
The literary teaching
By a good person long ago
Who ruled the kingdom
Know all the contemptible
And the mediocre, don’t forget
Each meaning
You must master, don’t give up
Understand the reason of the contemptible
Ultimately have no connection
Understand the mediocre
You must be attracted to the good
In the same way
You love a beautiful girl

(John Noise Manis)


Islam, Gamelan, and Javanese Spirituality
by Daniel Wolf

Daniel Wolf is a composer and music scholar based in Budapest, Hungary. He studied composition with Lou Harrison, Gordon Mumma, Alvin Lucier, and La Monte Young, as well as gamelan with Undang Sumarna, Sumarsam, Harjito, Ki Oemartopo, and Ki Suhardi, receiving his PhD in Ethnomusicology from Wesleyan University (Connecticut, USA).

Gamelan is played today in central Java by Muslims, Protestant and Roman Catholic Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, as well as by the nominally Muslim adherents of Javanese mysticism. Contemporary Wahabbist Muslims and fundamentalist Protestant Christians alike may distance themselves from gamelan and other traditional arts, but there is certainly a quality of gamelan which appeals to the mystic of any faith.  However, the vast majority of central Javanese are either Muslim or nominally Muslim and our understanding of how that relates to the gamelan practice demands further reflection.

The Islamicization of the Indonesian archipelago was and is an incomplete project, and the relationship between Islam and traditional culture, including music, is far from settled. Indeed, the relationship is dynamic, often ambiguous, and not without tension. This is, in part, an attribute of Islam itself, but uniquely fueled here by the richness of the traditional local culture, with its complicated assimilations of aspects of Buddhist, Hindu, and local religious traditions.

Although full of references to sounds and the command to the believers to “Listen!”, the Quran is silent on the subject of instrumental and vocal music, and the Hadith, the orally transmitted instructions of the prophet Muhammad, is contradictory, with the community of religious scholars holding deeply divided opinions on the subject:  one scholar may praise and celebrate the practice of music while another will condemn music and forbid its practice without exception.  This leads to the paradox of the Islamicate world being at once rich in depth and diversity of musical experience and at the same time, having that experience perpetually under threat of censorship or extinction, as in Afghanistan under the rule of the Taliban.

The recitation of Quranic texts, which is the center of Islamic daily public worship, is not considered by Islamic scholars to be music. The reader of the Quran is valued for the quality of his voice, but he is not identified as a singer.  However, the outsider to Islam – and the belated converts to the faith, as in Indonesia – will readily identify characteristics of Quranic recitation that are unmistakeably musical.

The nine muslim saints – the Walisanga – who are revered for establishing Islam in Java,  were bearers of both the Quran and Javanese tradition.  Sunan Bonang (died 1525 AD) may have given his own name to the prominent gamelan instrument, but it is Sunan Kalijaga (15th century AD), usually identified as the central figure of the nine, whose use of both gamelan and wayang kulit to promote the Islamic faith continues to resonate today with ensembles said to be of his own invention playing pieces which are identified as his own compositions.

This recording includes examples from three areas of central Javanese repertoire: the first might be called “standard” classical repertoire, in Solo known as karawitan , the second is a special gamelan ensemble and repertoire associated with the festivities celebrating the birth of the prophet Muhammad, and the third is a genre marrying a reduced gamelan ensemble to sung classical verse.

The first track is an experiment in making explicit to listeners something which musicians understand implicitly.  This does not represent traditional performance practice, but is much more the spirit of experiment that has characterized the modern music schools, academies and conservatories of  Java at their best, and is also well within the spirit of Islamic science in its golden age.  (In passing, one wishes that western conservatories were equally committed to an experimental approach to their own traditions). Ladrang Turun Sih,  a title which might be translated as “Giving Devotion”, is understood by musicians to be based upon the call to prayer familiar to anyone who has ever visited a Muslim country.  But this understanding is here made overt by combining a performance of the instrumental work with the vocal call to prayer.  The relationship between the instrumental composition and the melodic contours of the recitation are unambiguous, but the propriety of the performance and recording  is problematic: Is music being made out of Quranic recitation, which by definition is neither singing nor music?   Does the instrumental work convey the message recited?  To this listener’s ears, the recording conveys well the  alternating senses of tension and resolution invoked by this experiment, but also the tension familiar to anyone who has ever experienced the Javanese soundscape – one in which the amplified voice of the muezzin regularly punctuates gamelan rehearsals.

The most joyous celebration in the Javanese Muslim calendar is Sekaten, corresponding to the Arabic Garabeg Mulud celebration taking place each year from the evening of the 6th through the evening of the 12th day of the third month of Mulud, commemorating the birth of the prophet. In the royal cities of central Java, Surakarta (Solo) and Yogyakarta, but also in the old palaces of Cirebon on the Northwestern coast, the celebration centers on the alun-alun (field) between the palace complex (Kraton) and the central Mosque, where a specialized gamelan ensemble is carried into a pavillion and played in the morning, early afternoon, and evening, with break only for the obligatory prayers on Thursday evening and Friday morning.  In one tradition, Sunan Kalijaga is credited with creating the special gamelan sekaten with its unique instrumentation and low tessitura, and the purpose of the gamelan was to attract listeners and draw them into the mosque.   In central Java, the sekaten ensemble is composed of a very large bonang, a double-row gong chime, played by two or three musicians facing one another at opposite sides of the instrument, oversized metallophones: two demung, three saron, and two peking, all played with extra hard mallets often at large volume, a single suspended drum of barrel form and struck with a large mallet, kenong, and gongs.  The two Sekaten compostions recorded here,  Rambu (from Arabic Robbuna, “Oh, my Lord”) and  Rangkung (from Rokhun, “Great Soul”) are understood to be both the first works composed for the ensemble and to have been composed by Sunan Kalijaga himself.  The form of these pieces may be heard as metaphorical for the conversion experience, beginning with long and soft bonang phrases punctutated by the unison from the ensemble, gradually increasing in speed and density, so that the melody itself is eventually taken over by the metallophones with great vigor and the bonang assumes an increasingly ornamental role.

The present recording is a studio recording done on conventional instruments, not the specialized sekaten gamelan. In the purity of the studio environment, one can hear, perhaps for the first time in a public recording,  numerous details of the sekaten performance style. What is missing most, however, is the acoustic ambience of an event which can be compared to the sonic experience of popular fairs in western countries.

Finally this recording includes two gendhing kemanak, an original genre of the Solonese court in which classical verse is sung in unison by a male soloist and chorus accompanied by a gamelan of reduced numbers and featuring an instrument of Hindu-Javanese antiquity.  The kemanak is a pair of roughly banana-peel shaped bronze “bells”, assigned to a pair of musicians, each one of whom holds the kemanak in one hand and strikes the metal with a wooden beater wound with cord held in the opposite hand, the hand holding the kemanak then covering the opening after each strike to slightly bend and then dampen the sound.  The two kemanak are usually tuned to tones 6 and 7 of the pelog scale and play alternately in an ostinato 7-6-7-pause that is one of the most basic patterns underlying gamelan repertoire, familiar also, for example,  in the “archaic” gamelan Kodhok Ngorek.  The gamelan does not include rebab,  bonang, or the louder metallophones (exceptionally, rebab is used in this recording). The two gendhing kemanak recorded here are both 19th century compositions, intended for courtly dance accompaniment, combining sung verse in the classical form Mijil (each verse consisting of six lines, of 10/6/10/10/6/6 syllables, each line ending, respectively, with the vowel sounds i, o, é, i, i, u), the first Mijil Ludira (“blood”) in pélog,  the second Mijil Dhempel (“close together”, or “intimate”) in slèndro.  These are uniquely beautiful and refined compositions, perfect examples of the artistic inventiveness of the Solonese court in the 19th century, but also examples of an invented antiquity through the pre-Islamic tone of the texts, and the use of the reduced ensemble featuring kemanak, an instrument which the listeners would presumably associate with the archaic.


Pendhapa Gamelan of STSI Surakarta

Musicians of STSI Surakarta: Bambang Sosrodoro, Darsono, Djoko Santosa, Hadi Boediono, I Ketut Saba, I Nyoman Sukerna, Kuwat, Rusdyantoro, Rustopo, Sarno, Slamet Riyadi, Sugimin, Sukamso, Supardi, Suraji, Waridi

Musical Coordination: Joko Purwanto
Musical Design: John Noise Manis
Date of recording: July 22, 2003