Wayang performances are a kind of blessing bestowed on special events such as circumcisions, weddings, celebrations of the ancestors, and other rites of passage and public events. The performers may be hired by an individual or a family holding a life cycle ceremony, or by an entire village. A performance is meant to engage all members of the community. For instance, philosophical discourses in the early part of the performance appeal to the elders of the village, while scenes of love accompanied by romantic songs speak to the young men and women.
Today’s top dalang perform almost every day with the exception of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, when the dalang rest, repaint their puppets, and prepare for the start of the new season. A family holding a feast hires a puppet master, who is accompanied by his troupe: eight to twelve musicians and one or two female singers in addition to one or two apprentices. A day before the performance, the sponsor builds a covered, raised platform about 25 feet by 25 feet in front of his or her home to serve as the puppet stage. A fresh banana tree trunk is mounted horizontally on two support legs. The puppeteer sits behind it with his head partially visible as he manipulates the wayang golek in intricate dances and delivers all the dialogue. The singers and musicians sit behind him. Hawkers and food sellers set up stalls around the perimeter of the performing area. Family members and invited guests are provided with prime seats from which to watch the show, while uninvited audience members watch for free from any available vantage point. After setting up, the troupe may do a short afternoon performance. But the real show by the featured dalang only starts after 9:00pm and it continues until 4:30am. Thousands of audience members attend the performances of famous dalang, and the family that hires him gains status from hosting the event.
The atmosphere of a traditional wayang golek performance is a bit like that of a fair at night. Stalls are set up to sell peanuts, coffee, and a variety of other goods. Everyone is cooking, socializing with neighbors, and listening to music, thereby adding to the excitement as they eagerly await the beginning of the puppet performance. Eventually, when the dalang comes on stage, the audience turns away from the myriad other activities in order to be lured into the puppet episodes of adventure, joy, romance, and laughter. Wayang performances have traditionally been used as an effective way of teaching. Children learn the history of their region and the meaning of great epics by watching the midnight performances of puppet masters. Literature, history, culture, philosophy, political commentary, and religion—all these and more are part of the show. Though wayang is a tradition-based art form, it is ever subject to changes based on influences from contemporary life. Superstar puppeteers are adulated in Java the way pop stars are in America. Dalang carry on a venerable legacy, making their stories of the past relevant to the present.
Personnel and Music
It is necessary to understand the role of each wayang performer and the importance of music to the art form. The personnel includes the puppeteer and his assistant(s), the female singer, and the musicians. The dalang leads all aspects of the performance. He delivers all the dialogue, manipulates all the puppets, and sings mood songs specific to various elements of the drama. Throughout the course of the performance, he varies the rhythms to accompany the movement of the puppets by striking metal plates with his foot or hand. These metal plates, suspended by twine on the side of the puppet’s chest, hang level with the dalang’s foot as he sits cross legged behind the banana log. With his left hand, the dalang raps the puppet’s chest with a wooden knocker to cue the tuned percussion (gamelan) ensemble.
Kneeling behind the dalang and to his right is the singer, who chooses lyrics that enhance the atmosphere and emotional impact of the scenes and performs songs upon request from the audience during the jester scene (which takes place in the middle of the performance) as well as at other interludes during the night.
Music is a vital component of all traditional wayang performances. A tune, a tempo, or a particular percussive pattern will alert even a blind audience member that a particular character, such as Rama, is onstage and is doing a specific gesture. In former times particular scales and story materials were linked: the five-tone slendro scale accompanied purwa tales, and the seven-tone pelog scale was used for the cepak repertoire. Specific tunes are associated with set scenes, character types, or dramatic action (such as battles and love scenes). Voices of character types are tied to specific notes of the gamelan.
The orchestra consists of some ten types of instruments played by nine musicians. The musicians not only play the instruments but also joke and banter, commenting on the action and conversing with the jesters. In a gamelan orchestra, instruments are tuned to each other rather than to any absolute pitch. Therefore, an instrument from one gamelan cannot be played with instruments from another. Hanging and horizontal bronze gongs on racks are generally sounded on specific beats of the cyclical musical patterns. Smaller metallophones and xylophones play the more melodic patterns. Drums provide the rhythmic lead, and accent the moves of the puppets’ dance as well as signaling starts, stops, and changes of tune. The drums also make sound effects. Singers, flute, or bowed lute provide an elaborate melody that rises out of the structure the other instruments supply.