Chapter 2: in which we get whipped into shape

These Are Your Hands on Jegog...

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Let’s talk for a minute about how strenuous jegog practice is.

If I mention jegog music to a player of another style of gamelan – of gong kebyar, say – who isn’t native to West Bali, the first thing I usually hear is, “Gamelan jegog?  Oh, you have to be strong!”  This is usually accompanied by a muscular pumping of the arms to illustrate the statement.   And jegog is an intensely athletic form of music.  It’s no coincidence that so many of the Suar Agung players are strapping young men with the biceps of woodcutters and callused hands.  Stately court music it ain’t.

The physical adjustments we’ve had to make have been a shock and a challenge.  The first thing you notice when you  step up to Suar Agung’s instruments is that you stand instead of sitting – yes, it’s more tiring in the Balinese heat, but it also lets you sway and move more freely.  The next thing you notice is that everything is BIGGER.  This includes the mallets, which are heavier than ours – significantly so.  It takes about ten minutes for your fresh soft American hands to start blistering.  By the middle of day one, everyone’s raw hands were wrapped up in bandages and medical tape.   Our schedule has called for about six hours of practice per day . . . in the heat and humidity of Jembrana, successfully getting to the end of one piece has about the same effect on the body as a five-hour sauna.  And so you strip off as much clothing as you can.  Streams of sweat pour down your elbows.  Your fingers swell up from the whacking.  After a day or two all of your muscles ache.  The endurance required is sometimes exhilarating and sometimes demoralizing.

Then on Sunday as we collapsed into an exhausted sprawl after our morning practice, Suar Agung began their own practice.  It was a breathtaking thing to watch – their exuberance as sweat literally sprayed off of their faces, their gaya and precision, their superhuman speed, and the way they handled those mallets that were turning our forearms to rubber as lightly if they were toothpicks.  We must consider ourselves schooled.



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