JAVA is the most densely populated island of several thousand that make up the nation of Indonesia, the fourth largest nation in the world, located in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Southeast Asia. The GAMELAN is a large ensemble of bronze keyed instruments and gongs, plus a xylophone, bowed lute, zither, and flute. Gamelan music is highly polyphonic, with a wide expressive and dynamic range. Choral and solo vocal parts are included in some compositions, and the principal performance context is to accompany the all-night puppet drama known as WAYANG. Performances are drawn from the great Hindu epics, the MAHABHARATA (the good Pandawas against their evil cousins, the Korawas) and the RAMAYANA (the story of Rama, in which his wife Sinta is abducted by Rahwana and retrieved with the aid of brother Lesmana and the great white ape Anoman (Hanuman).

                                   The Oberlin gamelan performing in May 2010

Oberlin's Javanese Gamelan is a full double gamelan, meaning that it includes two sets of instruments, one tuned to SLENDRO, with 5 tones widely spaced, and the other to PELOG, with 7 tones unevenly  spaced. Our gamelan was acquired in two stages. The Slendro instruments were bought from an ethnic  Chinese merchant family in Malang, East Java, in 1970, through the auspices of Dr. Judith Becker, University of Michigan. They were already old, having been used for decades before they were sold. The Pelog instruments were custom made for Oberlin and delivered in 1984.

In Java, a gamelan typically has a proper name. Oberlin's gamelan was named "Kyai Barleyan," or Venerable Diamond, by the first Javanese visiting instructor to teach here, a Shansi Faculty Fellow, R. M. Wasistodinigrat, in 1978. He chose the name because it resembled the sound of "Oberlin."

Oberlin's first resident gamelan teacher was Molly Johnson, who now works in the Conservatory library cataloging the new jazz collection.  Over the years, several visiting instructors from Indonesia have taught at Oberlin: Sri Djoko Raharjo (1983 and 1984), Mas Ratno (1985), and Mas A. L. Suwardi (1986 and 1987). An American gamelan specialist, resident in Java, Ed Van Ness, also taught gamelan in 1981 and helped procure the Pelog instruments after his return to Java. Another American specialist, René T. A. Lysloff, taught the gamelan in 1989, and Marc Benamou, OC '79 directed the ensemble in 2000.   In other years between 1988 and 2005 the ensemble was taught by Prof. Roderic Knight.  

In 2007 Jennifer Fraser, Asst. Professor of Ethnomusicology, took over leadership of the gamelan.  It is now offered on a continuing basis.  

Below are photos of the Oberlin Gamelan with Mas A. L. Suwardi. Click on a picture to enlarge it. In the enlarged view, point at an instrument to reveal its name. (This can be used as a self-test if you are trying to learn the names.)           --> Thanks to Elio Trabal '04 for this interactive website.