The Land of Gongs
Have you ever heard a bonang played before?
It sounds a lot like a gong because it is a gong. When the Dutch explored what is now Indonesia in the late 1500s, the encountered a huge round metal instrument that the natives said was imbued with magical powers of healing and instrumental in all their ceremonies and rituals. They called this musical instrument a bonang and it was part of a larger group of metal instruments they called “bonang-bonang” (the plural form of bonang).
The traders managed to get a few of these instruments and took them back to Europe. The word bonang-bonang was shortened by them to “gong-gong” and then simply: Gong.
Although the ancient home of gong making was in China, Burma, Annam, and Java, it was from Java that gong became popular and so spread into Europe where it eventually became a 19th-century household item to summon guests to dinner in upper class English homes.
But let’s go back several hundred years when the gongs (or bonang-bonang) were so prevalent and an integral part of Java, Bali and Indonesian culture that they were part of everyone’s lives and they were played in local village orchestral ensembles known as “gamelan.”
In addition to one very large gong, there were several smaller gongs, gong “pots,” flutes, drums and instruments similar to xylophones or metallophones in these musical ensembles or gamelans that performed in religious rituals, funerals, marriages, and healing ceremonies.
The gamelan even predates the Hindu-Buddhist cultures that now dominates Indonesia and was said to be given by the god Sang Hyang Guru in the third century.
By the 17th century, the gong and the gamelan orchestra became so important and prevalent in the Indonesian culture that an old saying originated in Java that said: “It is not official until the Gong is hung.”
Gamelan musicians believe the spirit of the orchestra resides within the “Gong Ageng” or the largest suspended gong in the ensemble, and it is given its own name of respect. The massive reverberations of this large gong signal the ending of one musical thought and the beginning of the next. In addition to the large gong, a set of suspended gongs (kempul) is played in several different pitches for secondary emphasis. Smaller gongs set horizontally in racks are used for different purposes: ketuk (to mark time), kenong (for secondary emphasis), engkuk and kemong (for the seven-pitch slendro scale), and kempyang (for the five-pitch pelog scale).
There are 13 types of gamelans, varying according to number of musicians (which can be very large) and most feature the prominent use of the gong.
The gamelan and its Indonesian origination represents the highest expression of the gong in spiritual and cultural development.
This August you will have an opportunity to learn to play the gong and the gamelan instruments where it was born, in Bali and in an all-day gamelan workshop taught by native musicians and Western teachers.
The workshop is free to all who come with us on our Bali Gong Yoga vacation where we will be presented with a huge Javanese Gong (the Gong Ageng) made especially for our group by master gong makers that is tuned to our specification for use in meditation and yoga.
Come to the land of the gongs and immerse yourself in the culture and instruments that represent the highest use of the gong for spiritual development. Be a part of the gamelan orchestra we create. Suitable for absolute beginners and experienced gong players.
But wait – there’s more!
My Favorite 30” Gong … This Month!
Every gong is different and it isn’t easy to say that you have a favorite gong. But for fun, I’d like to use this column to explore (almost every month), my favorite gong based purely on its size.
To keep this a manageable column, I’m also going to limit this only to the Paiste gongs which are most commonly used by the students I teach. So please forgive me if your favorite gong is missing as there are dozens of other gong makers who have produced quite amazing gongs in the sizes we are looking at. I have to start somewhere and in several months (or years) we can work around to all the others!
So keeping in mind that we are only looking at 30” size Paiste gongs, which is my favorite?
We only have two candidates this month: the Paiste 30” Symphonic Gong and the Paiste Earth Platonic Year Planetary Gong.
First I have to say that I am surprised that there are so few 30” size gongs. In some ways, they are an ideal size for playing and easy transporting. Full throated but not bloated so to speak. (Years ago Paiste did make a 30” Jupiter Planetary Gong – please sell me yours if you have one!)
Perhaps one reason the 30” Symphonic is not more popular is because the price break between it and the next larger 32” size is not that much. It’s too tempting to get a larger gong without much expense. Yet the 30” Symphonic is really as much gong as some people desire in terms of its footprint and taking it with them when they travel. And the sound is great and easily distinguished from the 28” Symphonic. I think the 30” Symphonic is a great all-around first time gong.
The only other 30” Paiste gong is the mysteriously named Earth Platonic Year planetary gong. One of the three planet Earth gongs made by Paiste (as differentiated from their Earth Sound Creation gongs which are elemental, not planetary), the 30” Platonic Year gong was the favorite gong at our recent Costa Rica Planetary Gong Training.
The gong is tuned to the frequency of the crown chakra and creates a sense of both vastness and connection. Its sound tends to make people reassured and happy.
The gong represents the 24,000 year cycle of the earth as it moves through all the Ages of the Signs of the Zodiac and gives us the distinction of the different ages of consciousness (such as the Aquarian Age, the Piscean Age, and so forth).
The Platonic Year, named after Plato who first called this great cycle of time the Perfect Year, is also called the Great Year by NASA.
And it is a great gong as well and my favorite 30″ Paiste gong – at least for this month!