Life

For the love of music

Pounding the music: Blacksmiths hammer a red-hot iron rod that will later form part of a slendro, or xylophone, at a foundry in Bogor, West Java.

The dust and the din of hammer on anvil are overwhelming. Inside the dark shack, four muscled men are sweating, forging metal for traditional musical instruments.

The moment the one sitting by the fire places a flaming iron rod on the anvil, the three others start hammering on it until the sparks fly.

The iron bar they are working on will later be assembled to become a note on a xylophone or slendro.  Meanwhile, another worker sitting near the doorway of the foundry cleans a small gong-shaped instrument that is part of another pentatonic instrument known as a bonang.

The slendro, bonang, gong, saron and degung are all part of the larger gamelan orchestra. They are indispensable at traditional events, such as wayang performances, wedding ceremonies and other festive occasions.

A strike on an individual gong resulting in a deep resonating sound often accompanies the opening of a new building or a seminar.     

The smiths working at the gong factory in Bogor continue with the centuries-old tradition and vow that the manual mode of production is the best way to produce gamelan instruments with a pure and resounding musical pitch.

For more than 25 years, the factory has produced hundreds of gamelan instruments.  And despite fluctuating economic conditions, commissions for individual instruments or complete gamelan orchestras continue to stream in.

Fine tuning: A musician tunes a bonang to ensure harmonious pitch.

Work at the foundry carries on at a frantic pace, for the smiths there are working on two sets of gamelan instruments to meet orders from oversees commissioners. One individual gong with a width of 80 centimeters can fetch up to  Rp 9 million (US$970). The two sets of gamelan instruments will bring in some Rp 42 million.

A spokesman for the group, Pak Kresna, said it took two weeks to finish one set of the pentatonic instruments. As well as working on overseas orders, the factory has to be ready with new stock, as local commissions can come in at any time.

On the challenges of the trade, he said the fluctuating prices of tin and copper could be a headache.

The economic crisis has increased the prices of these raw materials, which are brought over from Bangka, by 30 percent.

To produce a large-sized gong of 80 centimeters in width requires 15 kilograms of copper and 8 kilograms of tin.

Apart from the problem of sourcing raw materials, he also finds it increasingly difficult to find experienced craftsmen who have mastered the art of making traditional musical instruments.

The Bogor gong factory is the only one left in the province, others have already closed down and its craftsmen have moved into other professions.  

In another part of the factory, the instruments are assembled and placed in ornately crafted wooden frames. A musician is tasked with tuning the instruments to ensure a harmonious musical pitch. After going through these stages of production, the instruments are deemed ready for packaging and delivery to their buyers.

Despite the ups and downs of the trade, the 26 craftsmen employed at the factory are optimistic they will be able to continue to contribute to the preservation of an ancient heritage, with its dulcet tones, for the next generation.


— Photos by Retno K. Djojo

Post Your Say

Selected comments will be published in the Readers’ Forum page of our print newspaper.

From Our Networks