How much does a minister get paid? RM9,000 a month? RM15,000? Okay, let’s say RM12,000. How much in kickbacks? Hmmm. Well, I’d be willing to take on a ministerial post for a year or so, just so I can make sure the Gamelan Club gets it own gamelan, instead of having to rent a set for practice sessions. And I’d make it a point that arts funding is channelled only to those with proven talent and pride in their craft, not to extravagant exercises in neo-fascist propaganda staged in glittering palaces.
Being a minister may get my hands dirty, but at least it’s an alternative to writing online reviews and being accused of gushing whenever I stumble upon something really fantastic. Yikes, I’m trying so hard NOT to rave, this review might turn into a self-indulgent ramble.
Perhaps I ought to begin with some mild criticism of what may well have been the new millennium’s most exciting breakthrough in Malaysian music, apart from Saidah Rastam’s emergence as an internationally recognized composer.
The amplifier in The Actors Studio Theatre at Dataran Merdeka hums audibly and this annoyance was like a smudge on the lens marring an otherwise perfect composition.
It would have prolonged the pleasure if a brief intermission had been inserted two-thirds into the programme. Forty minutes is a comfortable duration for the ears. Instead we were treated to more than 80 minutes of bumper-to-bumper gamelan experiments; and though none of it was boring or mediocre, too much of a good thing at one sitting is inadvisable. A short pause for some fresh air (or a hit of nicotine) would have been most welcome. The Gamelan Club, in their irrepressible enthusiasm, left us little time to absorb and integrate the very novel and invigorating sounds we had just heard.
This ensemble is destined to go places. It would help if the male members of the Gamelan Club didn’t dress like paramedics or averaged sixthformers. The women all looked like earthy, fun-loving angels. I kept thinking the group would gain greatly in visual appeal if the guys were less conservative in their apparel. Nonetheless, the sheer exuberance and easy camaraderie of the group made their vivacious performance a tremendous joy to watch.
And what of the music? The Gamelan Club successfully blends musical integrity with popular accessibility. The introduction of electric guitar and 6-stringed bass (gracefully and tastefully played by Isyam Swardy Daud and Zailan Razak) was handled with wonderful finesse and sensitivity. Take a bow, musical directors Shahanum Shah and Jillian Ooi, not least for the exemplary way you have instilled inner discipline in such a large group of diverse individuals without stifling their spontaneity. The fact that there was no visible leadership or hierarchical displays during the performance is proof that democracy works – at least in the arts.
The resonant tones of the gamelan evoke courtly scenes of regal splendour. It is indeed the music of gods and world-conquerors, heard throughout most of Southeast Asia, from Burma to Borneo since the start of the Bronze Age. Gamelan players treat their instruments with reverence, remembering their ancient pedigree and mystical kinship with other pitched percussion instruments like the marimba, the t’rung, and the xylophone. A gamelan orchestra usually consists of a few sarons (bronze xylophones) accompanied by bonangs (small breast-shaped bells), and a variety of large gongs.
For this performance the Gamelan Club had 14 members playing, apart from the traditional gamelan, a wide range of ethnic drums (including Malay gendangs and an African djembe, impishly played by the precociously percussive Mohd. Kamrulbahri Hussin) plus contemporary stringed instruments (acoustic and electric guitar, 6- stringed bass, and 3-stringed Thai lute). The only thing missing were winds.
The effect was nothing short of mesmerizing, especially since the gamelan retained its characteristic nobility and sonority throughout. New genres in world music were generated by this bold synthesis of traditional and contemporary musical modalities: gamelan funk-fusion, gamelan pop, gamelan symphonic, even a touch of gamelan rock. Others have attempted it before, but never with such authentic dedication to the gamelan mystique and its hypnotic and elevating qualities.
Gaia, composed and arranged by Susan Sarah John, was a glorious paean to Mother Earth’s beauty in an ethereal “new age” mode. Matu-Matu Kucing, composed and arranged by Jillian Ooi with lyrics by Juliana Mohamed, was an amusing vocal duet rendered in vintage asli style. Zailan Razak’s Putra Variation No.2 was a daring showcase for his superb, Stanley Clarke-ish jazz-funk basswork, and Sluku-Sluku Bathok (pardon my French) was a happy marriage of whimsical keroncong and hardcore jazz.
I think it was the intricate bonang passages in the elegant finale, Kosalia Arini, that reminded me of Burmese opera (heard blaring from battered radios on the shores of Inle Lake). But the evening’s highlight for me was a beautiful pop ballad written and sung by Maya Abdullah, Don’t Speak Too Loud, which stands a chance of extensive airplay and could turn out to be the album’s chart-topper when released.
I certainly hope someone rich has the aesthetic sense to step forward and offer financial support to the Gamelan Club. They’re ready to record a groundbreaking album, but they should opt for a live rather than studio ambience. What they need is a series of performances in an acoustically supportive space – with state-of-the-art microphones and the services of an audio engineer experienced in field recordings of classical concerts.
Once the new, upbeat Gamelan Club has produced its own CD, they’ll be ready to take on the world. For a start, I expect they’ll be a big hit at next year’s Rainforest World Music Festival. It has been a 7-year gestation for the group, which attracted a surge of interest through the inspired leadership of Sunetra Fernando (who has since left to do her own thing in the UK), but this new incarnation of the Gamelan Club is simply too funky and too brilliant to ignore. If you’ve been having trouble feeling patriotic of late, the Gamelan Club will soon have you yelling, “Malaysia sungguh boleh!”
First published on Kakiseni on 17.09.2002