Wildfire and Teargas

There was a moment during Rhythm in Bronze: Wujud Antara that struck lightning through history. It was when the shigu drums in the instrumental piece written by Tan Sooi Beng broke into an explosion of thunderstorms and cracks. The piece entitled ‘Perubahan’, the audience was told, was written in 1999, in the midst of Malaysia’s social and political turmoil. To anyone hearing the piece for the first time, it would have seemed like it started out on a cheerful, even optimistic note. But then the drums broke. Images of baton-wielding and teargas­ throwing Federal Reserve Unit personnel charging through throngs of scurrying demonstrators flashed through my mind.

The first time I really sat up and paid attention to gamelan was when I saw The Ice Storm, directed by Ang Lee. There are three things I will always remember about The Ice Storm – the wife-swapping scene, Sigourney Weaver’s whip (or was it her ten year-old son’s?) and the gamelan soundtrack. Ang Lee’s choice of using gamelan to underscore the disintegration of upper-middle class American suburbia during the Watergate years was, to me, a decision that was so peculiar and yet so right. The gamelan music that accompanied scenes of domestic tension, midnight frosts and snow-covered days produced an overall effect not unlike that of watching the slow and graceful shattering of a glacier.

To me, the experience of watching The Ice Storm was riveting because the contexts of gamelan and Watergate America seemed so incongruous, and yet somehow Ang Lee had managed to extrapolate from gamelan a quality that accentuated the leaden coolness of the story. I mean, forget about Vanessa Mae setting Bach to hip hop beats -Ang Lee, I thought, understood the power of recontextualisation.

So really, my impression of gamelan has not been that of a dying, stuffy musical form. Rather, I have since expected much from the expressive and interpretiVe possibilities of gamelan. And this is how I approached Sunetra Fernando’s Rhythm in Bronze: Wujud Antara (RiB) concert at Dewan Filharmonik PETRONAS on Tuesday, the 17th of February 2004.

On the surface, the choice of pieces managed to explore the wide range of traditions within gamelan, and also the expressive possibilities inherent within gamelan – from original Balinese and contemporary compositions to reinterpretations of traditional Sundanese and Malay court pieces. What really resonated with me, though, was the concert’s exploration of gamelan’s potential to document and express shifts in the socio-political landscape. Isn’t that what traditional music is for?

For example, it was surprising for me to learn that the Balinese gamelan gong kebyar is actually a “twentieth century innovation that arose out of the destabilising Dutch colonial policies that eradicated the power of the courts at the tum of the century.· The result was that gamelan practice was then displaced from the domain of the elite to the domain of ordinary folk to make way for this more vibrant form of gamelan which ·spread like wildfire· during the 1920s and 1930s.

This information, which was conveyed to the audience prior to the performance of the Balinese piece, was crucial in order to allow for a more meaningful enjoyment of the music on the part of the audience. After all, the music now belongs to them.

Even more subtle, but no less crucial, was the preface to the context of some of the original compositions – for example Tan Sooi Beng’s composition, ‘Perubahan’. As I illustrated earlier, in this piece gamelan became a landscape of unexplored gaps and contours in our historical narrative, just waiting to be activated. The combination of shigu drums and traditional gamelan instruments mirrored the urgent but uneasy project of modem Malaysian multiculturalism and its discontents, and the problematic reconciliation of the traditional with the modern.

The other upfront attempt at using gamelan to explore socio-political realities was also the product of Tan Sooi Beng’s musical inquiry. The piece, ‘Saling Berpelukan’, is an adaptation of Usman Awang’s poem ‘Suasana’. Set during the simultaneous celebrations of Chinese New Year and Hari Raya Aidilfitri, the poem tells the story of two neighbours – a Chinese mother and Malay mother – cooking, respectively, Chinese dishes and Malay dishes the day before Chinese New Year and Hari Raya while their children play together outside. The next day, however, the mothers exchange dishes and it is the Chinese family that eats the ketupat while the Malay family enjoys nien kau.

The attempt to adapt this to gamelan, I thought, was an admirable attempt. Tan Sooi Seng seems to want to give a musical dimension to the discourse on trans-ethnic solidarity in Malaysia. This, to me, is especially crucial if one takes into account prevailing parochial sentiments that pervade so many aspects of our lives, including music. However, I could not help but feel that this piece, which started out with interesting musical ideas, exhausted its own possibilities long before the text was resolved. The musical ideas were interesting, but at some point it felt like this was an attempt to force-fit two separate songs into one. True, the more languid, sung passages started off sitting quite hopefully alongside livelier instrumental interludes. However, there came a point when what started out as promising banter turned into an uneasy, unresolved partnership. How ironic then that this supposed shortcoming is actually, in my mind, actually quite reflective of the reality of inter-ethnic relations in this country. Or at the very least, indicative of the realities we have been conditioned to imagine about the Malaysian Other.

The spirit of exploration was apparent even in the less overtly political pieces. The traditional Sundanese piece, ‘Dina Jendela’, was given lyrics by vocalist Juanita Ismail and the arrangement incorporated a guitar part. The guitar, to me, was successfully integrated into the ensemble – it provided rhythmic drive and enhanced the harmonic colour of the piece. In ‘Malu-malu Kucing’, the flirtatious duet between the male vocalist (the irresistible Mohd Kamrulbahri Hussin) and the female vocalist (the sensuous Juanita Ismail) was delightfully playful without getting on this reviewer’s nerves. For one thing, Kamrul’s cheeky swagger was stripped of all machismo given that the supporting chorus and instrumentalists consisted mostly of women. By the same token, Juanita’s coyness was not merely cute, it was more like a savvy come-hither gesture.

Of course, not all moments during the show were sublime. For example, one of the pieces (‘Wujud Antara‘) ended up producing an effect that was more soporific than trancelike. The piece actually has many strengths and its idea of building upon certain rhythmic cycles did evoke the dreamy swirling of ‘being between’, as suggested by the title. However, this trancelike effect soon became limp from repetition and a lack of further exploration.

I still feel, however, that this performance of RiB unpacked many exciting possibilities within gamelan.

The exploration of these pieces provided continuity to the evolution of gamelan. In my mind, I can now plot the evolution of gamelan, from pre-Islamic Java to the ensuing split between the court gamelan of the Muslim rulers and Balinese temple gamelan, to the 20th century revitalisation of Balinese gamelan in Dutch-controlled Bali. RiB left me convinced of the overall power and relevance of recontextualising various artistic works and traditions. In The Ice Storm, the challenge was to extrapolate the shared essence of two seemingly irreconcilable forms of expression, and in doing so managed to crystallise out an incisive analysis. RiB have chosen to explore the possibilities of social inquiry within gamelan, and manage to highlight the contours of society in interesting ways. With Rhythm in Bronze, gamelan not only lives – it is conscious.

First Published: 25.02.2004 on Kakiseni

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