Balinese Gamelan Traditions: Educating the Young

This video comes from the YouTube page of the Balinese Gamelan and Dance Conservatory, called Mekar Bhuana Conservatory. The conservatory in Bali was founded a little over ten years ago and aims to teach “revive Balinese music and dance that is rarely seen or heard”.  The clip shows two people playing Balinese gender wayang instruments with both hands. We can hear that the two instruments are tuned differently, typical of gamelan music. The video also shows the technique in which the instrument is played – dampening the sound of each note after it is hit by touching it briefly with the hand. This is to prevent reverberation and holding of notes so that the other notes can be heard. Even though there are only two instruments in this video, we can still hear the interlocking melodies characteristic of Balinese gamelan.

I chose this video for two reasons. First of all, it comes from a conservatory that wants to educate people, more specifically younger generations, on the traditions of the country. The conservatory strives to show young people Bali’s traditions to make sure that customs are not lost in the generations to come. The conservatory has many different gamelan ensembles that perform all over, showing the world the music-culture of the Balinese. These performances fit into Titon’s music performance model in that it is a performance set apart from everyday life, especially performances in countries other than Indonesia. The conservatory also has an instructional DVD that they are selling in order to make it easier for people to learn their traditions. The second reason I chose this video is because of its simplicity. Since there are only two people playing, it is easy to see how the instruments are played and how they fit together as opposed to watching a large gamelan ensemble. Balinese gamelan ensembles do have many more instruments than just these two shown in the video. The conservatory has many more videos on their YouTube channel that show a variety of different Balinese music and dance styles.


Unspoken Narrative of Spirited Away

Spirited Away”, a film directed by Hayao Miyazaki,  is the highest grossing movie in Japan. The film gained world-wide recognition when it won the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature at the 75th Academy Awards. The film continued to enjoy numerous awards including the Golden Bear at the 2002 Berlin International Film Festival and has been ranked as one of the top 50 movies by The Internet Movie Database.  The film score in “Spirited Away” is composed by a prominent Japanese composer, Joe Hisaishi, who is known for his unique composition incorporating Japanese classical and European classical styles.

Film score composers play a critical role in filmmaking and often set out a coherent storyline, cast of characters, and a setting. Mark Slobin in Global Soundtracks says

“The composer doing this work … is one manifestation of the unseen figure who lurks behind every film… as an orchestra conductor who takes charge of the various ‘instruments’ of cinematic expression.” (Slopin, page 5)

Hisaishi is no exception and his music makes the film rich in characters, settings, and plot.

In “Spirited Away”, the protagonist is first introduced in the present world and eventually wanders into a wondrous town full of imaginative creatures. This transition needs to be natural, but creating a convincing atmosphere for this space and time is difficult. One of the techniques that he adopted in this scene, which can also be observed in the video, is the use of minimalist music.

Imaginative Creatures

One may say this is the most prominent characteristic of his music. He repeats the same phrase several times, which generates a small gap.  As this gap becomes bigger it constructs new music. This helps the film go from one scene to another without needing sudden halt in the musical process.

Another unique technique that Hisaishi uses in this scene is the differentiation between the right and left synthesizer. The phrase from the right synthesizer slightly differs from the phrase from
the left synthesizer, and this inharmonious melody creates a mysterious touch and tight tension to the film. In this particular scene, viewers can feel the transition going from the real world to a world departing from reality, a transition which hints at the development of the protagonist’s anxiety. This technique can also be observed in his other work. One of his earlier compositions called ‘African Market’, which combines African tribal music with modern music, also utilizes the differentiation of the right and left synthesizer, creating an exotic and fantastical touch.

Joe Hisaishi

The success of “Spirited Away”cannot be explained without discussing Hisaishi’s music. A viewer’s experience is complete only when a film is accompanied with music which embodies and enhances its characters, settings, and plot.  Hisaishi does all of this in this film. We may not see or hear his message, but it is delivered to us through his unspoken words.

Click here to visit his official English website.




“IMDb Top 250.” The Internet Movie Database (IMDb). Web. 21 Nov. 2011.
“Spirited Away (2001) – Awards.” The Internet Movie Database (IMDb). Web. 21 Nov. 2011. <;.
Slobin, Mark. Global Soundtracks: Worlds of Film Music. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 2008. Print.
“Top | Joe Hisaishi Official Website –” Web. 21 Nov. 2011.

Javanese Gamelan: An Insight into the Relationships of an Ethereal Music Culture.

Introduction to Javanese Gamelan Music

     In the bustling and modernistic capital city of Jakarta on the Indonesian island of Java, it is certainly not unusual to hear the sounds of Indonesian gamelan music being played loudly on the radio. This percussion ensemble based music genre dates back many centuries and in the past was only reserved for special ritualistic performances held at the two main royal courts of Java in the relatively smaller,  and more traditional cities of Yogyakarta and Surakarta. It would generally be played to accompany “Wayang Kulit”, a type of Javanese shadow puppet theatre. The term “gamelan” itself, refers to the collective set of instruments that are played cohesively by the ensemble. The oldest known gamelan sets date back as far as the 12th century, and are kept in the pavilions of these royal palaces, and are taken out to be played for special events such as a visit from a sultan or for the Muslim prophet Muhammad’s birthday. Some individual Gamelan sets are even designated for a single specific ritual or event and are played annually. Gamelan ensembles and their music are considered by many Indonesians to be manifestations of the divine and are often associated culturally with spiritual mysticism.

Palace in Yogakarta

Instrumentation & Tuning Styles of Gamelan Music

There are many styles and technical variations in gamelan music with particular regards to geography, ritual, and repertory, as Javanese gamelan music differs significantly from that of Balinese gamelan music. Traditionally, gamelans are arduously manufactured from bronze, and generally consist of several metal slab shaped instruments much like the western vibraphone, a range of hanging knob-tuned gongs, chime gongs, and at least one drum. In addition to these more traditional instruments, in the larger gamelan ensembles of today many incorporate the use of bamboo flutes, zithers, wooden percussion instruments, and a two-stringed-fiddle. “The gamelan instruments are normally complemented by singers: a small male chorus (gerong) and female soloists (pesindhen)”, (Sutton 306). In modern gamelan music instruments are tuned to one of two scale systems. The first being “Slendro” a five-tone system made up of nearly equidistant intervals or “Pelog” a seven-tone system made up of both small and large intervals. Generally, gamelan ensembles are tuned to either system, though some ensembles are actually double sets, which contain two identical sets of instruments tuned to each system.

Javanese Gamelan Ensemble

Nature & Context of Performances of Gamelan Music

Javanese Gamelan ensemble performances differ greatly from that of the western music performance aesthetic. A gamelan piece, known as a “Gendhing” is usually performed in either a “soft” or “loud” playing style based on the size of the setting, the dynamics, and the instrumentation. “The soft style is more music of the common people (who cannot afford large bronze ensembles) and the loud playing music more a music of the court and nobility” (Sutton 322).  All gendhing are structurally composed of melodic phrases and repeating patterns that make up the form. Sections of gendhing usually focus on balancing the instrumentation in terms of tone, while emphasizing a certain pitch level and modal category known as a “pathet”. Though there is no true leader of a gamelan, the drummer who resides in the middle of the ensemble acts as a virtual conductor, controlling tempo and dynamics though he gives no aural clues. Additionally, a good gamelan performer generally possesses a repertory of around one-hundred songs (312).

With the modern times gamelan ensembles have expanded in terms of the nature of their performances. Now, it is not uncommon for a family or individual to commemorate a special day (birth, wedding, ritual) by sponsoring a social event with gamelan music. Unlike in most western musical performances, audience members will freely participate in conversation during such performances as the gamelan in this setting is seen as more of atmospheric background music. However, gamelan music is more often then not played to accompany another type of performing art such as theatre or dance, one common example being that of the “Wayang Kulit” where puppeteers known as “dhalang” (generally an individual man) operate puppets on the shadows of a stretched screen. Here, audience members are not vocal, and will give their full attention to the music and theatrical performance.

Mysticism and its Role in Gamelan Music

In her article entitled, “Aesthetic and Spiritual Correlations in Javanese gamelan Music,” Susan Pratt Walton suggests that the ideas present in Javanese mysticism  manifest themselves in gamelan music as well. She constructs her argument around the ancient Sanskrit theory of “rasa”, a concept which has many interpretations, but primarily refers to a special “feeling” interpreted in a physical sense (31). This “rasa” is represents an outer reality as reflected by an inner melody (35).  Walton bolsters this by showing the similar traits in the nature of “rasa” spiritualism and the performance aesthetic of Javanese gamelan music. “The way that many Javanese talk about music and mystical experiences suggests that for them, the experiences of listening to gamelan music and achieving contact with the absolute truth may be akin. In describing both musical and mystical experiences the Javanese focus the inner meaning,” (Walton 35). Additionally, she explains how the musical leadership that occurs in gamelan ensembles is representative of the leadership style in Javanese mystical groups like the “Sumarah”. One such example being how “…in gamelan music leadership is shared and diffuse” (Walton 37). However, Sutton explains differently, referencing back to the  “virtual conducting” of the drummer in the ensemble (312). Walton defends her claim about the role of the drummer in gamelan music, describing him as more of a suggestive “guide” then an intensive leader. She goes on to explain the importance of the “inner melody” that expresses the emotion or feeling of rasa, pointing to the lack of aural or visual cues from the drummer in gamelan ensembles, stating it is done by feel and listening to the other players (37). Lastly, Walton relates “rasa” another term frequently associated with Gamelan music, “lango”. A type of sensation which consumes the performer and they “become lost in the object” (Walton 39).  She continues on to explain how this is just a more contemporary term for describing “Rasa” feeling that Javanese performers experience, and that rasa transcends terminology, as it is an ancient concept.

Conclusions on Mysticism in Javanese Gamelan Music and Culture

   Walton’s article definitely demonstrates and stresses the cultural power of spirituality and its importance in Javanese gamelan music. However, certain parts of her argument such seem partially insubstantial and forced. She does however help illuminate many of the  similarities between gamelan music its connection to Indonesian  cultural mysticism, specifically the conceptual notion of “Rasa” and now “Longo” as types of a more deeper, metaphysical relationship between the performer and the music. This is clearly reflected and thus exhibited in the communal Javanese respect for gamelan music and its performers. Its importance can be seen through its history as it has culturally evolved in practice and performance in order to accommodate a more contemporary aesthetic. Effectively gamelan music is a cornerstone in the foundation of Indonesian culture. The music and its surrounding spiritual mysticism are transitively tied to the Javanese culture, inherently creating an ethereal Javanese music culture.


Works Cited:

Sutton, R. Anderson. “Asia/Musics of Indonesia.” Worlds of Music: An Introduction to the Music of the World’s Peoples. Edited by Jeff Todd Tinton, 5th. Ed. Belmont, CA: Schirmer Cengage Learning, 2009. 299-338. Print.

Walton, Susan Pratt. “Aesthetic and Spiritual Correlation in Javanese Gamelan Music.” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 65, No. 1, (Winter 2007): 31-41. Print.

Mysticism and Spirituality in Javanese Gamelan Music

On the Indonesian island of Java, gamelan music is a central part of artistic life.  Gamelan refers to ensembles of instruments that are part of a great number of events, including Javanese rituals, wayang kulit, and dances.  In her article, “Aesthetic and Spiritual Correlations in Javanese Gamelan Music,” Susan Pratt Walton proposes that Javanese ideas of mysticism are manifested in gamelan music and performance.  Her argument focuses on the idea of rasa, which can mean feeling, physical sense, meaning, or “the essential, often hidden, significance of something obscure” (Walton 31).  Walton finds this concept of rasa to be integral to both Javanese mysticism and music (31).

Instruments in a Gamelan ensemble

Javanese Mysticism

One type of Javanese mysticism, Sanskrit aesthetic theory, proposes that one is able to discover one’s higher Self through works of art.  In this theory, good works of art are expected to prompt an emotional response, rasa (Walton 32).  Finding this rasa causes the viewer to dissociate from his/her self, and connect “with the fundamental oneness of all things,” allowing them to locate his/her true or higher self (Walton 32).  Rasa also has a central role in modern mystical groups like the Sumarah, a sect that focuses on achieving individual spiritual experiences through communal meditation.  In meditation, the participants free themselves from normal consciousness and focus solely on the present, eventually “[becoming] aware of another level of being, termed rasa sejati” (Walton 34).  Thus, this communal meditation focuses on individually finding absolute truth, rasa, within a group that “confirms” the absolute truth (Walton 35).  Both types of Javanese mysticism have a strong focus on seeking rasa and the importance of rasa in achieving a higher spiritual plane.

Manifestations of Mysticism in Gamelan Music

Regarding how these mystical beliefs manifest in gamelan music, the most prominent similarity is in the centrality of the concept of rasa in both musical and mystical discourses.   Gamelan musicians believe in an inner melody of song, rasa, which corresponds to the mystical ideas of finding inner absolute truth.  Walton states,

“This melody is inner not only because it represents the heart of the piece but also because it exists, in complete form, only in the minds of musicians.  It can never be played by just one instrument, but only by the combination of instruments working together” (35)

Thus, both gamelan musicians and mystics regard rasa as having central importance and pursuit of it is their goal.  Additionally, this quote suggests a belief in cooperation that is common to both mysticism and gamelan.   In gamelan, it is the combination of instruments that create the inner melody, the essence of the song (Walton 36).  Similarly, in Sumarah tradition, it is group meditation that allows for absolute truth to be discovered (Walton 37).

In addition, gamelan and mysticism share a similar style of leadership.  Sumarah meditation is led by a guide, pamong, who is intuitively aware of members’ inner states and “makes suggestions about their practice,” which the individual is expected to try and then make a decision about whether the suggestion works for them (Walton 37).  In a similar way, in gamelan music, “leadership is shared and diffused” (Walton 37).  When playing, musicians “both follow their own conceptions of the inner melody and listen to suggestions from other instruments,” sometimes choosing to ignore these suggestions (Walton 37).  Walton considers the guide, or “the instrument expressing the main emotion,” to be the rebab, however she notes that other instruments can take over this role (37).

While Walton mentions that gamelan ensembles do not have a conductor, R. Anderson Sutton, suggests that the player of the kendhang drums acts as “the conductor” of the ensemble, “controlling the tempo and the dynamics” (312).  The drummer does not “conduct” in the manner of a Western conductor, instead sitting in the middle of the ensemble and leading through aural cues, like signaling the end of a song by “[altering] the least few strokes in the penultimate gongan” (Sutton 319).  However, for example, players of “punctuating instruments have a choice of pitch” and parts played on instruments not in the balungan melody “are open to some degree of personal interpretation” (Sutton 316).  Thus, as in mysticism, leaders of gamelan act in a manner more similar to guides, helping lead the group through the song, while still allowing for individuality.

A kendhang player is considered to be the "conductor" of the ensemble.

 Javanese Music Culture

Altogether, Walton’s assessment of gamelan music highlights a number of ways in which beliefs and practices of mysticism manifest in gamelan.  However, it also reveals more about the Javanese music-culture, particularly the beliefs surrounding Javanese gamelan music.  As Walton made clear, gamelan music exhibits in many ways ideas of Javanese mysticism.  Even today, as the concept of rasa fades from gamelan music, the “spiritual links are still there, just below the surface, and those links are part of the deep attraction many Javanese musicians feel for their music” (Walton 39).  Today, instead of rasa, young musicians relate gamelan music to lango,

“ ‘a kind of swooning sensation, in which the subject is completely absorbed by and becomes lost in its object, the appeal to which is so overwhelming that everything else sinks into nothingness and obliviation’” (Walton 39).

While the use of lango represents a shift in terminology away from connections to mysticism and rasa, the meaning of the term is quite similar to the previously discussed mystical concept of rasa.  Thus, gamelan music has retained a deep connection to spiritually, even as its explicit connections to concepts like rasa change.  Walton’s analysis reveals a music-culture with deep connections to spirituality, even if these connections lie under the surface.  She has also provided a history of Javanese music-culture and its more modern changes, such as the waning of the concept of rasa as the idea of lango takes it place.  Altogether, Walton creates a rich account of the ideas of Javanese gamelan music-culture and the more recent changes to these conceptions of music.


Sutton, R. Anderson. “Asia/Musics of Indonesia.” Worlds of Music: an Introduction to the Music of the World’s Peoples. By Jeff Todd Titon. 5th ed. Belmont, CA: Schirmer Cengage Learning, 2009. 299-338. Print.
Walton, Susan Pratt. “Aesthetic and Spiritual Correlations in Javanese Gamelan Music.”Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 65.1 (2007): 31-41. Print.

Musical Similarities Across the Globe

A map of Indonesia

When asked to think of the world’s most unique music cultures, it is unlikely that the music culture of Indonesia will be one of the first listed.  Either because their history is not as public, their size not as large, or merely their people are so culturally diverse, facts about Indonesian music tend to be largely forgotten.  However, once unraveled, Indonesian music is not only one of the most complex and rich music cultures, but also has many similarities with Western music in addition to other world music cultures.  For instance, through merely looking at the gamelan ensembles that are prevalent in Indonesia, one can find many similarities to other music cultures.  In addition to featuring gongs and drums, gamelan ensembles feature metal slab instruments (for example the saron) that are similar to African mbira in that they are metallic, keyboard percussion.  Gamelan ensembles are tuned to certain scale systems such as the five equidistant toned slèndro or the seven toned pelog.  However, like the maqams of the Arabic world, these systems can be interchanged with one another in a way that makes them different from the Western scales.  Through the analysis of Indonesian culture, particularly of Bali, an island in the Indonesian archipelago, the blending of unique Indonesia characteristics and similarities with other music groups can be understood.

Steven Davies article titled Balinese Aesthetics provides insight into the world of Bali and how their cultural identity affects their music.  Like many other music cultures around the world, Balinese music originally stems from religious purposes.  While it is common practice in modern Bali to hear formally religious gamelan music played in a secular space, there are still pieces of gamelan music that can only be played on temple grounds.  This parallels the development of mbira music in Zimbabwe, as the mbira music is considered a sacred instrument in Zimbabwe.  Even though it can be heard in secular settings today, the true meaning of the mbira will always be a sacred one for those who have mastered it.  Because the music cultures of Indonesia and Bali developed for the same religious purposes, their respective places in each culture are very similar.

The largest Balinese temple in the world, located at Lombok

Davies also noted the competitive nature of the Balinese in a way that is similar to the Western world.  Frequently gamelan music is performed in a competitive modality called a mabarung.  These competitions feature side-by-side gamelan ensembles simultaneously and energetically playing different pieces, trying to drown out the other ensembles.  As Davies wrote, “rather than music, this is closer to sports.”  These mabarungs are more so about endurance and strength than the music being produced.  Many other music cultures do not feature such a competitive nature in their music production as the mabarungs of Bali.  However, because parts of Western culture are similarly very competitive, western cultures have analogous competitions.  For instance, in marathon competitions in America, such as dance marathons, the competition of winning takes precedence over both the music and the performance of dance.  Because Westerners and Balinese share a similar mindset in terms of a competitive nature, there are parallels that can be drawn from both cultures.

A typical gamelan ensemble

It has only been seen so far that Balinese culture can assimilate with other cultures based on similar cultural practices.  However, there are many aspects of Balinese culture that separates it from all other music cultures.  One such aspect that delineates Balinese culture from other cultures is their emphasis on innovation.  While many other cultural practices tend to hold onto their past, the Balinese have a constant demand for new dramas, musical works, and dances.  As a metaphor, Davies points towards their geographic climate as a reason for this constant need of turnover.  For instance, before work was done in making art that could be maintained, the tropic weather degraded painting and sculpture.  Physically it was necessary to constantly recreate art because they would be ruined within months.  This mindset has stayed with the Balinese because “the attitude of the Balinese to their arts is more like that of Westerners to pop culture than to high art.”  Therefore, based on their unique climate, culture practices and ideals were created by the Balinese that were completely novel in comparison to other music cultures.

It can be seen through these examples, that the similarities and differences between the Balinese music culture and other music cultures worldwide can be attributed to the cultural practices outlined by Davies.  Based on this, the article writes about the importance of the audience in the performance model outlined by Jeff Todd Titon.  The audience of a performance is the members of the community that are witnessing the performance and being changed because of it.  Because it is the community that ultimately shaped the music in Bali, the importance of the audience in any performance cannot be ignored.  It is the audience that ultimately demand the religious ceremonies where gamelan music originated and crave a constant turnover of new art that is a unique feature of Balinese culture.  Many people merely consider music ending with the performers; it is the audience, however, that outlines the characteristics of the performance that will be maintained in the future.

1) Davies, Stephen. “Balinese Aesthetics.”  The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 65, (2007): 21-29.

2) Titon, Jeff Todd. “Chapter 5: Asia/Music of Indonesia.” Worlds of Music: an Introduction to the Music of the World’s Peoples. Belmont, CA: Schirmer Cengage Learning, 2009. Print. 299-311.

Hugh Masekela, The Trumpet Player who Sparked a Movement.

Hugh Masekela

Over a span of 50 years, Masekela has released over 30 albums. He has sold millions of records, recorded and toured with some of the influential musical artist of his generation and has won countless awards and recognitions. What he is most notably known for, at least in my opinion, is for being the voice of the oppressed Southern-Africans during the Apartheid Era between 1948 and 1994.

One of African Freedom Music's biggest contributors was and still is Hugh Masekela.

To understand how infuential Masekela really is, we must first look at the importance of music during the Apartheid era. During this era, Africans were stripped of their homes, of their families and of their freedom. Thousands of people were imprisoned or murdered or both. Political activist who spoke out against Apartheid were incarcerated for no real reason other than to bring down the morale and spirits of the African people. Africans would create and sing songs (or what they called Ingomas) which would express how they felt at the time, motivate and mobilize other africans, and also,more importantly to maintain the hope that the African people will one day have freedom. These songs were more like prayers or hymns which were sung by thousands if not millions of Africans regardless of age or gender. Some may say these freedom songs was what kept the anti-Apartheid movement alive.

Not only does the hymn echo the frustrations of the emerging black bourgeoisie in urban South Africa, it also expresses protest and resistance, albeit in a circumscribed manner. (Jules-Rosette and Coplan, Pg 350)

Hugh Ramopolo Masekela was born on April 4, 1939, in Witbank, South Africa. At age 14 he fell in love with the trumpet and began his career as a trumpet player. For the next 20 years the young trumpet player would join numerous jazz bands throughout Southern Africa until he finally left his country following the 1960 Sharpeville Massacre. Since then Masekela has worked to build a very well-respected name for himself. He has recorded countless albums which feature classic hits like “Grazing in the Grass”

So how much of an impact did Masekela actually have on the Anti-Apartheid movement ? Well for starters his most important contribution was a song he created called “Bring him back home”.  This song is about freeing Nelson Mandela, a political prisoner and beloved leader of the Anti-Aparthied movement. Mandela had received a Life sentence in 1964 for crimes resembling treason.  Masekela’s song re-sparked a once hopeless movement. After its release in 1987, countless Mandela supporters were now motivated and shifted their movement into high gear. Finally in 1990 Mandela was released from prison. Following his release, he had a world tour to promote his presidential campaign, while using Masekela’s song as the theme song.

Bennetta Jules-Rosette and Coplan B. David, “From Independent Spirit to Political Mobilization”, Cahiers d’etudes africaines # 173-174, 2004, Nov 9th 2011. 

Sekuru Magaya’s Soul of Mbira

Cosmas Magaya demonstrating the mbira with a professor at Duke University.

Cosmas “Sekuru” Magaya greeted our class by playing a song on his mbira, bringing this soundboard dressed with bottle tops, made up of 22 keys held by a crossbar, to life with a calming piece of music. The mbira is a rather small, but definitely not insignificant instrument. Mbira holds not only great historical value to the Shona people, but serves the important purpose in this culture of calling to the ancestral spirits for guidance, through the possession of a human medium (Titon, 124). There are a variety of types of mbira: matepe, karimba, mbira dzavadzimu, njari, mbira dzavaNdau, but as a whole, this instrument has a strong association with the spiritual world (Berliner, 49). Because of how much skill it requires to call to the spirits, there is also such a high respect of mbira players among the Shona people, such that they develop a common identification by a given nickname from the people, related to the mbira. For instance, “Bandambira” depicts a musician who plays with tremendous force, almost enough to crush the mbira keys, (Berliner, 44). Lastly and most importantly, the mbira holds two important cultural attitudes: “the traditional status of those with the skill to master it and the important of passing on the mbira from one generation to the next,” (Berliner, 50).

Mr. Cosmas Magaya, is a great player who envelops these qualities just identified. Sekuru is a word in Zimbabwe that means grandfather, uncle, or elder, but also a beautiful word to describe Mr. Magaya, as he served as a mentor to our professor, Dr. Kyker.  In the biographical sketch of Cosmas Magaya in The Law of Mbira, his biography speaks to the cultural attitudes towards the mbira, along with depicting the characteristics of a great mbira player. Since the young age of eight, he has had a great love for the mbira; he craved learning it as a young boy and learned auditorally by listening to his cousin, Ernest Chivanga, surprising everyone by his quick and attentive ability to learn the mbira at such a young age, (Berliner, 208).  The performer within Sekuru Magaya took over, as all he could do even during his years through schooling he lived, ate and breathed mbira.

Sekuru Magaya’s need for the mbira speaks true to a common theme in Shona oral tradition, which is “the strong effect of mbira music upon the performer,” (Berliner, 48).

“The mbira’s powers will become more meaningful after the nature of mbira music itself and the unique relationship that exists between the mbira player and his instrument have been explored,” (Berliner, 51).

When you see initially, and then close your eyes and listen to the sound of Cosmas Magaya’s mbira, you understand what power the mbira has over his performance. He is in a trance with the flow of the keys, yet he has finessed the swift movements so you can hear every note of his music. The musical experience you encounter with Mr. Magaya gives the body chills because you know you are in the presence of an mbira master.

Lastly, let us be reminded of Titon’s music-culture performance model of affective experience, performance, community, and memory/history. Cosmas Magaya’s passion is affectively experienced in his performance of the mbira, seen and experienced by the Shona people in the community. Most importantly, this lasts as a memory while simultaneously passing on the tradition of the mbira from one generation to the next, one of the two cultural attitudes held towards the mbira. The music-culture of mbira can be seen in just one musical performance by Sekuru Magaya, in which his entire mind, body and heart is expressed through his artful declaration by the mbira. His soul in embodied by the mbira, and definitely shows that he plays more than just the mbira, he is a human musical experience.

For a demonstration of the mbira by Cosmas Magaya, click here.

Berliner, Paul. “Chapter 3: Music and Traditions of the Shona People of Zimbabwe.” The Soul of the Mbira. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1978. 28-51.

Berliner, Paul. “Chapter 9: The Law of Mbira: Mbira in the Lives of Performers and the Changing Status of Mbira Music.” The Soul of the Mbira. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1978. 207-212.

Titon, Jeff Todd. ““Chapter 3: Africa/Ewe, Mande, Dagbamba, Shona, BaAka.” Worlds of Music: an Introduction to the Music of the World’s Peoples. Belmont, CA: Schirmer Cengage Learning, 2009. Print. 124.

Music is Life: The Creation of Identity in the Music of the Forest People

Map of where Pygmy people are located

Situated in the tropical rainforest of central Africa, BaAka people, also known as Pygmy or Forest People, have one of the most unique incorporation of music into their culture. Traditionally, David Locke describes them as a hunter-gathering people, existing “in ecological balance with their environment” (Titon 135). More recently, the world has developed varying perceptions of the Forest People. According to Locke, there are three existing images of the Forest People. The first depicts a “Primal Eden” where the Forest People are viewed as innocent, valuing things such as “peace, naturalness, humor, and community” (Titon 135). The second image of Pygmies is just the opposite – a primitive savage people. This perception suggests that the Forest People are people of a very early civilization with no development whatsoever, dating back to the Stone Age. The final view of Pygmies is the most accurate of the three: a “unique culture in a global village” (Titon 136). Locke characterizes Pygmies within this viewpoint as “a homogeneous society with small-scale, decentralized social institutions, egalitarian interpersonal social relations, and relative gender equality” (Titon 136). Their way of life is not unlike any other culture in that they have ups and downs, successes and sufferings, and must share their living space, the forest, with other groups of people. They are, however, able to preserve their culture and the changes it faces through music making.

Pygmy people of Africa

Music for the Forest People is integrated into their everyday life. It is fueled by their constant desire for balance between akami, disorder, and ekimi, order, in the forest. In his article “Pygmy POP. A Genealogy of Schizophonic Mimesis,” Steven Feld quotes Colin Turnbull, reiterating this theme of balance by stating that “‘song is used to communicate with the forest.’” Feld elaborates on the idea of akami and ekimi. According to Feld, music, namely singing, to the Forest People counteracts noise and disorder (akami), and it pleases and awakens the forest. Singing is a community affair for the Pygmy people, and it “fosters heightened sociability both directed to and in the presence of the forest” (Feld 1996:2), creating both identity and community. Locke’s characterization of Forest People’s music via the song “Makala” parallels Feld’s many descriptions of Pygmy music as well. Both authors describe the actual music as polyphonic with many layers and a variety of different timbres, including using both head and chest voices through yodeling. Pygmy melodies themselves are often disjunct with descending lines littered with anything from repetition and ostinato to hocketting, improvisation, and melodic imitation.

In addition to describing the music-culture of Pygmies, Feld goes on to describe its influences other genres of music throughout the world. Feld argues that many artists have been taking Pygmy music and incorporating or transforming it into their own music, thereby losing the original form, purpose, and history behind the music. This is what Feld describes as schizophonic mimesis – the “use, circulation, and absorption of sound recordings… split from their source through the chain of audio production, circulation, and consumption”’ (Feld 1996:13). He questions whether it is acceptable for artists that are removed from the music-culture of the Pygmies to use their traditional sounds in pop culture. For example, Herbie Hancock, jazz artist of the 1960s and 1970s, uses Pygmy music in his song “Watermelon Man.” Some of the artists Feld uses as examples in the article overlook the reference to pygmy music, others attribute it to pygmy music with a simple footnote, and still others dedicate their work to pygmy people and donate earnings to a fund that supports them. Even with this wide spectrum of attribution and referencing, Feld argues that some of the history and basic identity of pygmy people is lost in translation when artists use and transform their music into something that was not its original intention. The article no longer becomes a study of the Pygmy music itself, but of the ethical use of Pygmy music in other contexts – is the reproduction of Pygmy music in any capacity acceptable? Is this imitation actually a form of flattery, or does it cause Pygmy music to lose its meaning entirely?

The picture of Pygmy music Feld paints in his article and Locke describes in the text both coincide directly with the music-culture model Titon presents: Pygmy music possess the ability to move and have emotional impact, it is a performance, it fosters community and creates identity, and it builds upon its memory and ever-changing history. The correlation between Pygmy music and community, however, is the most prevalent and seemingly important to both Locke and Feld. In the text, Locke emphasizes the fact that music making creates identity and autonomy within the group through active participation and “making social relations tangible” (Titon 142). Feld supports this notion by describing music making as a “highly cooperative process” and “social activity” among the Pygmy people. It is because of this emphasis on identity that Feld continues to question whether the use of Pygmy music in anything that will take it out of the context of the Pygmy identity and community is beneficial or detrimental. Regardless, to Pygmies, music connects them to each other, the forest, and ultimately the world, creating for them a unique community in which they live and thrive.


Feld, Steven. “Pygmy POP. A Genealogy of Schizophonic Mimesis.” Yearbook for Traditional Music. 28. (1996): 1-35. Web. 7 Nov. 2011. < >.

Titon, J. T. Worlds of Music: an Introduction to the Music of the World’s Peoples. Belmont, CA: Schirmer Cengage Learning, 2009. 134-144. Print.

The Forest People: “Simple” Instruments, Complex Music

A group of Forest People sit outside traditional dwellings made of sticks, leaves, and vines

A number of distinct ethnic groups sharing physical, historical, cultural, and social features living in the central African rainforest are referred to by author, David Locke, as the “Forest People.” Living deep in the African jungle means not having access to most modern day inventions, such as electricity, plumbing, cars, and grocery stores. The Forest People live a nomadic lifestyle of hunting and gathering with both men and women sharing equally in the daily tasks to ensure survival (Titon, 135). The thick growth of trees and plant life make it difficult to see far ahead requiring the forest people to rely more heavily on their sense of hearing. They grow up learning to hear what is around them – the sounds of different streams and rivers, various camps, and fellow group members’ voices from great distances.

This heightened sense of hearing is further exemplified in the importance of music in the lives of the forest people. Music is used in many cultural ceremonies, several of which strive for balance between the forest and the forest people. The ultimate goal is to “keep the forest happy” so that it will continue to provide them with everything they need to survive (  Music is also a central part of everyday life and is played during the day’s work as well as for recreation at night when the day’s activities are done (Titon, 135).

The values of community and inclusion are stressed in all the forest people’s musical activities. From the day a baby is old enough to clap its hands, it is encouraged to participate in shared music-making and learns the different styles of music through the process of enculturation ( Music is used as a way to bring everyone together and to forgive those in the group who have committed a wrongful act. Locke provides an example of this in the text,

During times of crisis, the group needs the musical participation of every member…even when others in the hunting group insult and ostracize a man for setting his hunting net in front of the others’, he joins the all-night singing and is forgiven (142).

Displaced Batwa Forest People dancing at a cow initiation ceremony

Since the Forest People do not have access to modern forms of technology, they have to rely on resourceful creativity to turn the forest into different kinds of instruments to make unique sounds. For example, the earth bow (angbindi) is a single-stringed instrument that uses the earth itself as a sound-box. The limbindi is another string instrument made from a thin vine, an elastic branch, and an upturned cooking pot as a sound-box. This instrument is only played by women and girls. The ngombi is a four-stringed harp made using the plant fibers from the palm leaf. Finally, the ieta is a 7-stringed instrument made from nylon fishing line that originates in Central Africa, but has been adopted by the forest people over the last 30 years. These instruments are made from simple material found in the jungle, but are used to compose complex pieces of music with various rhythms.

Young children water drumming

For example, a type of musical style practiced by the Forest People is “water drumming.” This may seem simple in that people are just slapping and splashing in the water, but the complexities of timing and sound can be heard in the musical example provided by clicking on the above link.

In conjunction with various hand-made instruments, the use of voice and hand-clapping are essential to the forest people’s musical style. In addition to using vocables, singers improvise melodic variations at the same time, thus creating polyphony of voices. The timbre of voices ranges from “tense/raspy to relaxed/breathy” accomplished by using both chest and head voices. Quick switches between chest and head voices create a distinct “yodeling” sound (Titon, 137-138).

The musical example, “Makala” provided in Titon’s text is a traditional piece of music played during net-hunting, a type of hunting using nets made out of vines and leaves to trap small game, such as antelope (New World Encyclopedia, 2011). The musical form of this example depends on the continuous recurrence of the 8-beat phrase. The tune goes back-and-forth between movement and rest with cadences on beats 4 and 8 (Titon, 139). This example illustrates the complexities incorporated into the forest people’s music.

Further Listening

Examples of yelli, yodeling, forest harp, and water drumming accompanied with pictures.


New World Encyclopedia. 2011. African Pygmies, Pygmy.

Titon, J. T. Worlds of Music: an Introduction to the Music of the World’s Peoples. Belmont, CA: Schirmer Cengage Learning, 2009. 134-144.

Mande: A Transformation in Music Culture via The Electronic Media

Here, we see an interview with a Mande “Jali” who is playing a traditional “Kora” melody called “Tara”, and then talks about its construction, and his own history with the instrument. In Malian culture the Bridge Harp or “Kora” is a very popular instrument in both traditional and contemporary music among the Mande speaking region of Western Africa. It is comprised of a resonating chamber (generally half of a calabash) with a notched-bridge piece running through it. The strings of the instrument (usually 21) pass through the notched-bridge and remain perpendicular to the soundboard.  The performer or “Jali”, referred to traditionally as a “sound artisan” pluck the strings with their thumb and index fingers of each hand in an alternating ostinato pattern. It is played both individually and in ensembles featuring singing and other native instruments of the region. Historically, Kora players or “Jalolu” (plural of Jali) have been “Griots”. A “Griot” is a storyteller and the oral historian of a tribe or specified group of individuals. Griots pass their abilities, knowledge, and duties on to their direct descendants therefore acting as a generational repository of a tribe’s oral traditions and music. They were for a long time seen as the only appropriate performers of music in the Mande speaking world.

This second clip is a music video for world-renown Malian pop artist Salif Keita’s song entitled, “Moussoolou”, which translates in English to the word, “Women”. The song features his vocals and guitar playing over djembe drums. Despite the use of some of these seemingly modern instruments Salif Keita is known like many Malian pop-stars for incorporating traditional instrumentation into his arrangements. Unlike many Malian pop-stars though, Keita is not of a “Griot” and was in the past ridiculed by cultural fundamentalists in Mali for his role as a singer. However, with the injection of the electronic media into Mande music culture in the last 20 or so years the performance and production elements of the music culture have vastly changed. Now, griots who were previously seen as the only appropriate “Jalolu”  in Mande culture, are now taking their music to recording studios, where their instruments like the Kora and Lute are being put to amplifiers so that it can be played on the radio, a thing now very difficult to escape in the urban areas in the region, and then eventually to be broadcast on television just as this music video by Salif Keita. This change has made it hard for Mande speakers with strongly traditional beliefs regarding music performance to be upset with performers like Salif Keita, who may not possess the traditional background deemed appropriate to perform.

Electronic media has transformed Mande traditional music culture and in some ways expanded it. Now musical prowess is no longer measured in historical depths, but rather its ability to be channeled to the public via television, radio, and the internet as determined by its new patron the all mighty dollar sign. Despite this it is interesting to note that the adaptation of electronic mediums has not inhibited the use of traditional instruments in the region, but rather improved their popularity. Electronic media though still frowned upon by many Mande speakers, has certainly popularized the art form, by making it seemingly more appropriate for non-traditional performers like Salif Keita to play and record their music, since griots are for most part doing the same. This has resultantly given freedom to all musicians, and performers, both traditional and not traditional, as they are no longer limited by the historically cultural restraints of the past.

Tinton, Jeff Todd. Worlds of Music: An Introduction to the Music of the World’s Peoples. Belmont, California.: Schirmer Cengage Learning, 2009. Pg. 110-123.

Diawara, Mamadou. Mande Oral Culture Revisited by the Electronic Media. Ann Arbor, Michigan.: University of Michigan, 1994. Pg. 40-46.