Gong Kebyar: Beautiful, Fast, Evolving

Culture | Written By, Kartika D. Suardana |

Kebyar means fast, the name Gong Kebyar is given to this genre of music because of its progressive rhythm and rapid tempo. It is one of several genres in the Balinese traditional music scene.

Colin McPhee, in his book Music in Bali, wrote that according to his interview with A A Gde Gusti Jelantik, the first Gong Kebyar competition was held in Jagaraga Village in Buleleng Regency. Even though the genre is predicted to have risen as far back as 1915, it is still considered as Barungan Baru – new music genre. Conceptually, Gong Kebyar is a fine combination of Gender Wayangm, the orchestra that accompanies the traditional shadow puppet performance; Gong Gede, an older style of Balinese gamelan orchestra; and Palegongan, the music that accompanies the Legong dance. Gong Kebyar can stand alone as instrumental music, and also can be an important part of a dance performance.

Gong Kebyar was the highlight of a significant cultural performance in 1925 when I Mario, a dancer from Tabanan revealed the Kebyar Duduk dance. The beautiful routines are mostly performed in a squat position and all the routines are dynamic and fast. The dance is accompanied by the beautiful melody of Gong Kebyar. 

A set of Gong Kebyar consists of around 14 different types of instruments, including the gong; cengceng, small cymbals; seruling, a flute; rebab, a stringed instrument; gangsa, metallophone and more. The tGong Kebyar orchestra involves 30 or more musicians depending on how many sets of each instrument are required. On the island, each village community, called Banjar, usually have their own group of musicians. These talented people willingly dedicate their evenings, several times a week, to practice together. They also get to practice along with the dancers at the ‘Balai Banjar’ community centre.

There are a few Gong Kebyar competitions on the island. To win is a prestigious honour for the whole Banjar, and also winning some competitions opens the door to become a Gong Kebyar ambassador of the regency where the Banjar registered can go to the provincial level parade. To win a competition, a group should perform several numbers. It is more or less like a dance battle. Each group should perform several instrumental original music arrangements, dance performances, and other arts that involve dance and music.

Listening to Gong Kebyar is like listening to nature. You can listen to dozens of numbers of Gong Kebyar and you will always find a new tune in each. The arrangement is diverse and unique. This genre is as open and wide as imagination itself, it gives plenty of space for the artists to be creative, to give birth to new instrumental arrangements, new dance choreographies and new performance ideas. Gong Kebyar detaches itself from certain rules, providing the artists freedom to transform their inspiration into music, dance and other kinds of cultural performance.

Watching the performance is something else. The musicians are not only focusing on playing the instruments but also showing off Gong Kebyar parade involving hundreds of musicians and dancers from all over the island is always scheduled for Bali Art Festival, a month-long annual cultural event that takes place from June to July. It’s a battle of the best Gong Kebyar troupes, the ambassadors of every regency in Bali. 

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Kartika D. Suardana

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