Tuesday, December 11, 2007

the deal with gamelan

Long ago, in a town uncomfortably close to here, I was in my third year at the University of Maryland. I was a member of the Maryland Chorus, but I had decided, for pretty much no reason, to join one of the university's non-western ensembles. They offered West African drumming (always full), Japanese koto, and Balinese gamelan. I chose the one I had heard the least about. I couldn't have found Bali on a map if you had asked me, and I don't think I knew that it was part of Indonesia. I also thought a gamelan was an instrument. I found out that it's the name for the whole percussion orchestra, the set of instruments or the people who play them.

I started out playing one of the biggest, lowest, instruments there was, called jegogan. It's a huge metallophone that comes up to a person's waist, with five heavy bronze keys, and a large, heavy padded mallet. Its function is sort of like a bass instrument in a western ensemble. Maybe that's why I liked it so much. As a soprano and violinist, I had spent a lot of time on the treble end of things. And this kind of music was totally new.

Around this time in the semester, our teacher told me and the other girl playing jegogan (there are two of almost everything in Balinese gamelan) that he needed people to play that same instrument with his independent DC-area group, Gamelan Mitra Kusuma. I started coming to rehearsals and I've never looked back. Even during the time I lived in Baltimore, I'd drive an hour each way to weekly rehearsals. And I've moved on to more difficult instruments.

A year after I first signed up for the gamelan class, at a small liberal arts college in Ohio, Jacob was starting his senior year. The college had just hired an ethnomusicology professor and procured a set of gamelan degung instruments from Sunda, or West Java, another Indonesian province. Jacob was in the gamelan for his last two semesters in college, and the next year, he moved to DC.

Jacob had really enjoyed playing gamelan in college, so once he was settled in DC, he looked around for a group to join. There was Gamelan Mitra Kusuma, the Balinese gong kebyar ensemble I had then been a part of for about two years, and there was the Central Javanese gamelan at the Indonesian embassy. Neither group's music was like the Sundanese gamelan Jacob had played in college, but he chose the group at the embassy because of their proximity to the Metro and to his apartment. For the next couple of years, Jacob learned about Javanese gamelan and dance, and started taking Indonesian language classes, and I continued to play Balinese gamelan, and never the twain did meet.

A little over a couple years ago, at a local DC Irish festival, I met an Irish music enthusiast about my age. When I introduced him to my gamelan instructors who had come to hear my Irish band play, he enthusiastically exclaimed, "Apa kabar?!"

The rest, as they say...

Maria playing with "Jacob's gamelan," the Central Javanese gamelan of the Embassy of Indonesia (Jacob is hidden behind the gongs). Melissa and Totok are performing a traditional Javanese social dance.

This fall, Jacob decided to try his hand at playing Balinese gamelan, which he describes as "loud and insane." I think he's doing pretty well. For the past couple of months, we've had special guest teachers visiting from Bali, teaching us as well as teaching dance and gamelan classes at the embassy.

This Friday evening we've got a big concert at the embassy with lots of dancers, music and light refreshments. If you'll be in the DC area and we haven't pestered you about this yet, send me an e-mail (maria AT dcgamelan DOT com) and I'll send you the invitation. It's free, but it's RSVP-only. As of last night there are still seats. The embassy is a great place to visit just to see the building.

Visit the link on the right to learn more about Balinese gamelan and our ensemble. We'd love to see you there!

P.S. Check out this video of GMK performing with dancers from Indonesian Performing Arts Chicago last year. The montage includes "Panyembrama" (a women's welcome dance), "Cendrawasih" (the bird-of-paradise dance, done beautifully here by sisters Mirah and Chika), and a crazy instrumental piece called "Jaya Semara."

No comments: