Cover for DOWNING: Gamelan Girls: Gender, Childhood, and Politics in Balinese Music Ensembles. Click for larger image

Gamelan Girls

Gender, Childhood, and Politics in Balinese Music Ensembles

The girls and young women reshaping gamelan in Bali

In recent years, girls' and mixed-gender ensembles have challenged the tradition of male-dominated gamelan performance. The change heralds a fundamental shift in how Balinese think about gender roles and the gender behavior taught in children's music education. It also makes visible a national reorganization of the arts taking place within debates over issues like women's rights and cultural preservation.

Sonja Lynn Downing draws on over a decade of immersive ethnographic work to analyze the ways Balinese musical practices have influenced the processes behind these dramatic changes. As Downing shows, girls and young women assert their agency within the gamelan learning process to challenge entrenched notions of performance and gender. One dramatic result is the creation of new combinations of femininity, musicality, and Balinese identity that resist messages about gendered behavior from the Indonesian nation-state and beyond. Such experimentation expands the accepted gender aesthetics of gamelan performance but also sparks new understanding of the role children can and do play in ongoing debates about identity and power.

"I read this book with great pleasure, interest, and excitement. Downing effectively grounds her main argument and supporting points through analysis of her rich ethnographic data. Not only am I convinced, but I felt like I was in Bali with her, meeting her consultants, hearing them speak, getting a sense of their personalities, and watching them grow and mature."--Christina Sunardi, author of Stunning Males and Powerful Females: Gender and Tradition in East Javanese Dance

"Deftly painting a close-grained landscape mixing Balinese voices and perspicuous eyewitness reflection, Downing guides us through inspiring stories of girls and women making music in millennial Bali, where few had made it before. The characters and friendships feel so alive because they are changing their world from the bottom up. Their experience of our lived moment is powerfully resonant and inspires reflection on changing gender roles far beyond Bali."--Michael Tenzer, University of British Columbia

Publication of this book is supported by a grant from the Bruno Nettl Endowment for Ethnomusicology.


Sonja Lynn Downing is an an associate professor of ethnomusicology at Lawrence University.

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