How to play gamelan: It’s not a solo pursuit

Gemma Tipton offers a beginner’s guide to taking up a new cultural pursuit

Ancient, spiritual and melodic, gamelan has its roots in Java and Bali. Mel Mercier is an Irish adept.

I’ve heard of the gamelan. I’d love to have a go on one

There’s no such thing, I’m afraid. Gamelan is the term for a collection of instruments, mainly bronze gongs and metallophones, played as an ensemble. The word derives either from the mallet used on the percussive instruments or from gangsa, the High Javanese word for bronze, which is what many of the gamelan instruments are made of.

Hang on, I just want to learn to play a new instrument. I didn’t expect to need a new language

Bear with me, it’s worth it. You don’t need to learn Javanese, but part of gamelan is an immersion in the legacies and spirit of the music and its instruments. Mel Mercier set up the Irish Gamelan Orchestra at University College Cork, which is the proud possessor of the first Irish gamelan, made in 1994 by Pak Tentrem Sarwanto at his forge in Central Java. Mercier went to the naming ceremony when the gamelan was ready. “They played the instruments for the first time, and it was decided that this set of instruments was female.”

Wait, what?

Yes, because of the sound. It reminded one of the players of a famous woman gamelan singer. The UCC gamelan was named Nyai Sekar Madu Sari, which translates as Venerable Flower of Honey Essence.


I’m starting to see what you mean. So where can I start?

UCC may have had the first gamelan, but you’ll now find them all over Ireland. The National Concert Hall has one (a gift from the sultan of Yogyakarta, and named Kyai Jati Roso (or Pure Consciousness); its next teaching term, for beginners and advanced students, starts on Tuesday, September 26th (from €65). There are also gamelans at University College Dublin, the University of Limerick, in Galway (see, and even in Skibbereen – find West Cork Gamelan on Facebook. Most offer taster sessions and classes where you’ll find out about special techniques, which include the tricky-sounding task of damping the sound with your wrist while you strike the keys.

Couldn’t I just buy one myself?

That is definitely not in the spirit of the thing. Sure, you can buy individual gamelan-type pieces from about €100 online, but will they have been forged in the fires of Central Java? Will they have been named in a powerful ceremony? I think not, and, as Mercier says, part of what makes this music so powerful are the sensibilities and the legacies it channels. It’s also all about the group.

How many are we talking about?

“It depends on how you count them, but there are 40 or 50 hanging gongs, metallophones, one two-stringed fiddle, and one wooden flute.” You need 12 to 15 people, and they will often rotate between instruments. “Every part is considered equal. It is the quintessential ensemble music, and at the heart of it is listening. You’re focusing on what you have to do yourself, and then listening to how it fits into the bigger picture, the bigger sound.”

That sounds like a life lesson to me

It kind of is. “It’s very generous, and beautifully in tune with itself. If you approach it the right way, you can very quickly find yourself immersed in a beautiful sound world, which is very different to any that we’re familiar with in the West.” Nevertheless, Mercier continues, that doesn’t mean there are no points of contact. He has arranged music, including songs by Schubert and Purcell, for gamelan. And keep listening: you may find all manner of melodies creeping in.

Mel Mercier performs with the Irish Gamelan Orchestra and guests including Iarla Ó Lionáird, Colin Dunne and Kate Ellis in Guiding Bells at the Everyman theatre in Cork on Friday, October 6th

Gemma Tipton

Gemma Tipton

Gemma Tipton contributes to The Irish Times on art, architecture and other aspects of culture