© Mark Levitin
© Mark Levitin
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Traditional gong casting in Wirun, Central Java

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Javanese culture is impossible to imagine without its classical orchestra, the gamelan. This assembly of percussion instruments forms the core of traditional Indonesian music. Its sounds accompany every major event and ceremony, whether religious, spiritual, social or royal. And at the center of gamelan is gong ageng - the great gong. A giant disk of bronze, it has to be cast and beaten into shape manually, for the same reason violins are not pumped out by the thousand on an automated production line. Such a tedious process requires both skill and brute strength, and a number of settlements around Java specialize in this craft. The largest of them is Wirun, a village near Solo in Central Java. While clearly not a typical tourist attraction, the manufacturing process is quite educating and very photogenic.

© Mark Levitin
© Mark Levitin

The meaning of gamelan

According to a Javanese legend, the gamelan was created by the supreme god, Guru Sang Hyang, when he needed a gong to summon other deities. In reality, gods may or may not have been involved, but this musical tradition is one of the precious items in the culture of Java predating the Indian invasions and unaffected by them. Not much is known about Java before the Hindu kingdoms, and gamelan remains one of the few available insights. It is also much more than mere folk tunes – gamelan employs four classical scales, and while the customary set is composed of percussion instruments only (a flute or a rubab – a type of lute – may be added optionally), it is quite capable of polyphony. In fact, gong ageng alone produces at least two tones simultaneously when struck, since different parts of it resonate differently.

© Mark Levitin
© Mark Levitin

Making a gong

Every gong in a gamelan has to be cast – ideally, out of bronze, although iron is sometimes used for cheaper varieties. It is the big ones, gong ageng, that take the longest to complete and are the most interesting to watch being made. The casting process is usual, with molten bronze poured carefully into a mold. Once the metal solidifies, the routine begins: the gong is reheated to incandescence, taken out of the fire with two huge prongs, and beaten with wooden mallets. Immerse in water, return to the fire, repeat. So it goes on for a full day, occupying half a dozen men. A red-hot disk of bronze rotated in the flame, throwing pillars of sparks into the smoky air of the workshop, is a very impressive sight – and very photogenic, too, for those craving to get a National Geographic-like shot. It is definitely hard work for the makers, but glorious, too – giving a fiery birth to a classical musical instrument.

© Mark Levitin
© Mark Levitin

Practicalities

Wirun is a small village just a few kilometers east of Solo in Central Java. Solo is an old town, so stuffed with traditional Javanese culture that it constantly spills out in the form of theater performances, shadow puppet shows, royal processions, and sacred rituals. Many of those include gamelan music. To see the whole spectrum of gamelan instruments manufactured, take a bus or a motorbike taxi to Wirun, visit the gong casting workshops, then walk back – a number of families living between WIrun and Solo carve xylophones and assemble smaller metallophones. Indonesians, as a rule, never fail to show their hospitality mixed with curiosity – expect to be admitted everywhere and shown around. But do keep in mind that those are family workshops, not tourist shows; and also, that most of the time, you will be very close to the red-hot metal and swinging hammers. Behave. And do not wear your best dress – it is as black and grimy in there as in any other foundry.

Wirun, Solo, Central Java
Wirun, Solo, Central Java
Wirun, Mojolaban, Sukoharjo Regency, Central Java, Indonesia

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The author

Mark Levitin

Mark Levitin

I am Mark, a professional travel photographer, a digital nomad. For the last four years, I am based in Indonesia, spending here roughly half a year and travelling around Asia for the other half. Previously, I spent four years in Thailand, exploring it from all perspectives.

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