Gong Making in Solo, Central Java

Submitted by viravira on 25 December 2012   •  Java   •  Central Java

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Traveling in Indonesia never stops showing me new things and that applies even to areas that I’ve visited before. Although I’ve traveled to Solo a few times now, I still managed to see something new. On our first visit to Solo  earlier this year, Taufiq of Explore Solo showed us around town and took us to a gong workshop in Wirun village. A what? Yes, a gong workshop, where they make those round music instruments.

gong making - at the workshop with Mr Supoyo
Mr. Supoyo let me hit one of the gongs in his workshop

Taufiq took us to Mr. Supoyo’s house slash workshop and he was very welcome. He took the time to sit with us on the porch and told us so many things about gong making and selling. Apparently, “We have buyers from foreign countries like Malaysia, Japan and many others as well as Indonesia,” he said. “Do they use the gongs to make music too?” I remember asking. Mr. Supoyo said that some do, but some keep the gongs as decorative elements. Wow. Granted you can’t buy gongs in department stores but coming all the way around the globe to Indonesia for gongs, they must be highly appreciative toward the Javanese music and these gongs must be in super quality.

The workshop was closed because it was Sunday. But that didn’t stop Mr Supoyo from taking us back to his workshop and showing the bits and pieces of gong making, from cutting the brass or bronze, bending it, trimming the thickness, shaping the dents and tuning the notes. Being tone-deaf that I am, I couldn’t imagine how one can tune notes. Mr. Supoyo did it by having the gong surface thinned by sandpaper layer by layer. He said that only trained ears could do it. It was a skill he learned from his father and now he’s passing it down to his son.

gong making - heating the brass
A gong being heated
gong making - into the fire
Separate heating spots for the gongs (the big one) and kempul (the small ones)
gong making - pounding to shape
Shaping the nipple of a gong, they use the stem of banana bunch to hold the super hot brass

Gong making is by far a man’s business. Not meaning to be sexist, but there has never been a female worker in the workshop. On our next visit to Mr. Supoyo’s workshop, we saw how it was done. It involved fire, hot brass and bronze, heavy lifting and ashes that could cover your clothes and skin. About 10 men were present in the workshop. One was turning a big piece of brass back and forth on a big fire with the help of a pair of metal levers, another man stood by to hand over the hot brass to 2 other men who were ready to pound the brass into the shape of a gong that we know. But these steps are done over and over again, back to the fire, and then to the pounders, and then to this small pool of water to cool it off. And the finishing process is done outside, where they smooth the gong’s surface with sandpaper and some other tools, that it peels to the golden layer.  Everything was made by hands and simple tools, no machine was practically used except when they need to weld a crack.

gong making - after the cool off
After being dipped in water, the gong is cool enough to be touched with bare hands. Check out the ashes on Kandi’s hair and clothes, it’s all from the gong burning
gong making - finishing
The finishing department

gong making - finishing with sandpaper

In one day, these men manage to make 1 huge gong on average, and a few small ones in the midst of the heat and dusty workshop. I came out of the workshop sweaty and with dust all over me, and I was only there for about an hour. These men work there 6 days a week from morning till afternoon, but I didn’t see them complaining. They were working with high spirit, or so it seemed, and we were entertained by their jokes, laughter and friendly mockery.

The workshop also produces other instruments of gamelan, which is the Javanese orchestra. Gamelan consists of many kinds of instruments, like the metallophones, plucked strings and yours truly, gongs. Mr. Supoyo told us that he was also the one that tuned the note on the instruments, and that clients from various countries don’t only order for gongs but also sets of gamelan. He’s very proud of his gamelan sets. He guarantees that his sets will last long compared to competitors that use less material than he does.

gong making - the gong warriors
The gong makers
gong making - snack break
Traditional snacks at the workshop
gong making - taking a break from the heat
Taking a break from the workshop heat

I am so grateful that I had the chance to see the making of gong in one of my travels in Indonesia. I had never thought of how gongs – and many other things in this world – are made, and that it was that interesting. A lot of sweat is involved, as well as, sadly, the possibility of a threat to the respiratory system. All the hard work, non-textbook skills and knowledge and expertise are worth the hundreds of millions price tag of a gamelan set, if not more. However, the value of tradition itself is priceless.


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