BOGOR, Indonesia - In front of the functionally named Gong Factory, a painter was carefully putting the final touches on a long-overdue sign identifying this otherwise difficult-to-find, characterless complex of small buildings along a bustling side street.
Even if I had signaled my arrival by banging on one of their largest instruments, it's doubtful anyone would have heard it above the rhythmic clanging of hammers and abrasive din of filed metal that reverberates from the factory seven days a week.
After navigating a narrow walkway and crossing the threshold of a rickety wooden door to the factory proper, it takes a few moments for the eyes to fully adjust to the soot-blackened interior and the sweltering heat that clobbers you in the face like a gong mallet.
Almost nothing of significant technological modernization has been incorporated into the factory - more of an austere workshop - since it began manufacturing gongs in the early 1800s, when Bogor was merely a summertime retreat for the governor-general of what was then called the Dutch East Indies.
Said to be the lone remaining gong producer in all of West Java, the Gong Factory today stands amid one of the most densely populated urban environments on Earth. In addition to tourists and assorted Indonesian government officials, the Gong Factory sells its products to orchestras, schools, temples, nightclubs, and galleries the world over.
Though I've no evidence to back it up, I suspect that if gongs, among the most imposing instruments in the percussion family, were of a more delicate disposition - like, say, tambourines - the working conditions in which they're made might be more yielding. Still, it's easy to become mesmerized by the composed manner of the hardworking craftsmen as they deftly go about forging these ancient musical instruments, illuminated by only the pale light cast by two open-hearth furnaces whose charcoal flames send a fiery flower of sparks sprouting to the ceiling.
At least one of the six told me he had been employed in this factory for upward of 30 years. Each is a specialist in his trade, be it moldmaker, filer, or smelter, though all assist in hammering the copper and tin alloy into instruments of acoustic and visual beauty.
Clad in grimy shorts and ragged T-shirts, barefoot or in tired-looking sandals, clove cigarettes dangling from their lips, the sinewy Javanese men who craft the gongs are surprisingly outgoing with visitors, proudly one-upping one another in showing off their collection of burn scars and contractures.
Gritty surroundings aside, the archaic and elemental conditions in which this ensemble plies its trade make for a far more interesting way to witness a bygone era of metalsmithing than, say, an interpretive-style blacksmith shop in Colonial Williamsburg.
For those of us from highly litigious societies with comprehensive OSHA laws, it seems extraordinary to so freely make one's way around such a hazardous, darkened chamber. On the uneven dirt floor are strewn not only the implements of metal forging, but also the workers themselves as they hastily draw white-hot bronze from the open fire, plunk it to the ground, then beat it into submission with mallets and synchronized hammer swings.
Upon my return to the United States, I asked Chris Deviney, principal percussionist of the Philadelphia Orchestra, to enlighten me on the types and functions of gongs. The key distinction is whether a gong is a pitched or nonpitched variety - and that underscores the difference in how gongs are used in the West as opposed to the Far East.
Both forms of gong produced by the Gong Factory are pitched, as evidenced by the prominent nipple protruding from the center of each instrument. Among them is a thin disk gong nearly 20 inches in diameter suspended from a wooden stand. According to Deviney, the nipple design provides a gong with its focused pitch, making it the preferred instrument of Western symphonies.
In the Philadelphia Orchestra's inventory are instruments as bulky as 40 inches in diameter; when struck with a felt hammer, they produce the loud crash most people associate with a gong, but, lacking this jutting nipple, they are in fact classified as tam-tams. (Technically speaking, the gong used in the wacky 1970s TV talent program The Gong Show was a tam-tam.)
In Deviney's world, gongs are used to convey a sense of foreboding, as in the most melodramatic scenes by composers such as Mahler, Shostakovich, and Rachmaninoff. Taking note of these tonal distinctions, they arranged pitched gongs in their musical canvas as a way of underscoring melody and harmony rather than for a purely percussive effect.
In Asia, however, nipple gongs 20 inches or larger are used primarily in temple worship.
While shopping for gongs during a recent trip to Myanmar, Deviney used his iPhone tuner application. The shop owner was bewildered as to why. The North Carolina-born Deviney said he got such a strange look from the vendor because the Burmese generally use gongs for ornamental or religious purposes, not as melodic instruments.
But Asia is a large continent, and not all rules are hard and fast. In addition to traditional Indonesian gamelan music, China, which ranks among the Gong Factory's biggest customers, uses pitched gongs in its orchestral and operatic productions to convey moments of heightened drama or to underscore humorous circumstances.
To satisfy the Chinese demand, the second type of gong the Gong Factory produces - the kind being fashioned on the day of my visit - is a considerably smaller kettle or potlike variety. Each is tuned to a specific pitch and placed on an elaborately carved horizontal frame called a bonang, to be struck with a padded stick. The factory produces about five such gongs per day, as opposed to one a day of the larger instruments.
At first glance, the chiseled face of 61-year-old Andi Suwano, co-owner with his 87-year-old brother, appears as rough-and-tumble as the factory his family has operated in this spot for about seven generations. Clad in polo shirt and slacks, the steely eyed businessman tells me a private buyer from the U.S. is his main outlet to the West, though American oil company executives, whose firms account for most of the production from this former OPEC member nation, also rank among his top customers.
Family business aside, when asked about his favorite aspect of gongs, Suwano lets out a laugh. He says he enjoys that his instruments are often used to announce breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
As with many Indonesian tourist offerings, the Gong Factory is not widely advertised. If not for a brief reference in the Lonely Planet guidebook I bought before departure, it's doubtful I ever would have known about the place.
The guide also touches on other Bogor attractions that warrant the lengthy, traffic-congested drive south of the Indonesian capital of Jakarta. These include the aforementioned 18th-century residence of the Dutch governor-general - now a Camp David-like retreat for the presidents of Indonesia - and a 210-acre world-class botanical garden with nearly 14,000 species of trees and plants.
In the Gong Factory front office, Suwano offers me a mallet to bang on one of the 20-inch gongs on display, which confirms for me Deviney's statement that the instrument can be "a blast." Professional percussionists prefer to "strike" a gong rather than "bang" on it - the latter suggesting, according to Deviney, "a brutish quality instead of finesse." Whatever phraseology one uses, the Gong Factory itself makes for an unusual adventure and is clearly both a blast and a hit.