Hearing the Balinese genggong: the Jew’s harp and the anthropology of musical instruments
PhD student, Department of Music, SOAS, University of London
A musical instrument is the material realization of an intended purpose, a vessel for content, an emblem of human ingenuity and imagination, and a testament to the universal presence of music in human activity. The ways in which an instrument is used in various cultures offers a glimpse of each culture’s musical perspective, a concentrated capsule of how the world sounds there. The Jew’s harp is unique among instruments, and in its apparent simplicity it is deceptive. It has been adapted to a wide array of cultural contexts worldwide and a diverse range of playing techniques, which, upon closer examination, reveal much about the cultures that generate them. Using the case study of the Balinese Jew’s harp genggong, this paper examines the phenomenon of the instrument’s adaptation to the cultural-musical aesthetic of Bali, looking at its physical, social, and musical construction and illustrating how it is used to reflect Balineseconcepts of tuning, scale, and interlocking rhythmic figurations. Drawing on perspectives from organology, ethnomusicology, material culture, and the anthropology of the body, this paper explores how the study of musical instruments can enhance our understanding of the human relationship with sound.