Javanese Gamelan and Wayang Kulit

Javanese Gamelan and Wayang Kulit

By Tim Hazell

“Gamelan” is a Javanese word meaning “orchestra,” referring to the instruments that make up a Javanese ensemble. Related combinations exist throughout South Asia. Gamelan music as we define it is native to four islands in close proximity: Java, Madura, Bali, and Lombok. Ensembles can range from a few portable instruments, played by three or four musicians, to a large group involving as many as 25 musicians and between 10 to 15 singers.

A gamelan orchestra consists of metallophones, xylophones, flutes, gongs, voices, and bowed or plucked strings. The hand‑played drum called kendhang controls the tempo and rhythm of pieces, as well as transitions from one section to another. Large gamelan orchestras are owned by wealthy patrons, institutions such as banks, universities, or cultural foundations.

Gongs of different sizes, melodic instruments such as the end‑blown flute (sulung) and bowed spike fiddle (rebab, which plays the balungan or fixed melody), and metallophone instruments, create typical Gamelan music, emitting a distinctive palette of sounds.

Gamelan accompanies dance and “wayang kulit,” or shadow puppet performance. The “dhalang,” or puppeteer and musicians sit behind a white screen, illuminated by coconut oil lamps. Constructing an elaborate leather shadow puppet figure involves complex hand work that takes several weeks. During the final stages of assembly, moving parts such as arms and legs are mounted on the body, which is then supported vertically by a central staff.

Javanese cuisine at its finest embodies the Javanese people, a major ethnic group in Indonesia, more precisely the provinces of Central Java, Yogyakarta and East Java. It is notable for indigenous spice pastes (bumbu). Opor Ayam (chicken curry) is frequently served to liven up a family feast after Ramadan.

Opor Ayam


3 lbs. skinless chicken legs and thighs


1 tbsp. Oriental fish sauce

Juice and zest of 1 lemon or 2 limes

Spice Paste:

1 tbsp. coriander seeds

1 tsp cumin seeds

1 tsp. turmeric

1 fresh red chili, seeded and chopped

4 scallions, chopped

4 large cloves garlic, peeled and chopped

1 small bunch fresh basil, chopped (optional)

1 piece ginger, 2 inches long, peeled and chopped

3 tbsp. peanut or canola oil

3 bay leaves

1 tsp. salt or to taste

2 tsp. sugar

4 cups unsweetened coconut milk


Marinate chicken pieces in fish sauce, lemon juice, and zest. Meanwhile, lightly toast coriander and cumin seeds. Pulverize in a coffee or spice grinder. Add to a food processor along with turmeric, chili, scallions, garlic, basil, and ginger. Process to a smooth paste, in batches if necessary. Heat oil in a large, heavy saucepan over medium heat, add paste and gently fry, stirring often until aromatic, about 3 minutes. Add chicken and marinade ingredients to saucepan along with bay leaves, salt, and sugar. Raise heat, turning chicken pieces to sear and coat evenly. Add coconut milk, stirring and scraping up browned bits. Bring to a gentle simmer and cook, partially covered for one hour, or until chicken is tender. Taste for salt. Serve sprinkled with chopped basil, coriander, or fried garlic.