Mengalih Punggung

Tell us about yourself. Did you, like any other good middle-class child, have to pick up a formal musical instrument?

Yes, my parents insisted I attend piano lessons, beginning at age seven — although they had to drag me kicking and screaming the first few years. I got bored easily, and got kicked out of class by a few teachers for being difficult. I’d do weird, rebellious things, like play the piano with my feet.

It was only later that I settled into the piano class routine willingly. I went through the normal ABRSM (Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music) Grade One to Grade Eight piano route and finished in my early teenage-hood — which was pretty bad, because I had plenty of years after that to forget all the music theory, and lose whatever piano playing skills I had!

I also dabbled in classical guitar and the tabla.

What got you interested in gamelan in the first place? Tell us a little about the form, and what you think are its strengths and weaknesses.

Gamelan attracted me in a way many other instruments didn’t, for various reasons. First, there is the sound. Gamelan is something you ‘feel’ rather than hear. I’m always moved by the feel of gong reverberations through my body -­- there is something very primal about this.

Second, there is the history. All musical genres and instruments have a history, but the history of gamelan is my history, as a Malaysian, so it is all the more relevant to me. Every time I play, I am astounded that this music — that used to belong solely to the courts, played only by men in a particularly dictated way — is now something my friends and I have access to.

Rhythm in Bronze

How did Rhythm in Bronze come about? Give us a run-down. What was your part in it?

The roots of Rhythm in Bronze go back to 1995, when Sunetra Fernando and a group of friends formed the Gamelan Club. This was an informal group of people — some with music backgrounds and some without, and many with absolutely no past experience with gamelan — who met weekly at the University of Malaya for classes and rehearsals under Sunetra’s tutelage. People were accepted as long as they were interested and there was a place in the group for them. The sense of family in this group was truly outstanding.

I joined when I accompanied a friend to one of their rehearsals, and got roped in to play. Then Sunetra asked me to play in Scorpion Orchid, a play directed by Krishen Jit and Joe Hasham, based on the book by Lloyd Fernando. Since then, the group has become a very large part of my life.

The Gamelan Club gave its first concert in 1997 — the concert itself was called Rhythm in Bronze. Sunetra decided to go her own separate way after that concert, because she realised that the type of work she was interested in pursuing required a different kind of musicianship, which she could not find in GC members.

Some of us remained in the Gamelan Club, but also joined Rhythm in Bronze upon Sunetra’s invitation. I was in both groups; I was co-music director for the Gamelan Club from 2000 to 2003, and have been for RiB’s concerts since 2001. It was great: I got to experience the strong sense of camaraderie and derring-do of one group, and got to work with skilled and highly-trained musicians in the other.

RiB went from strength to strength each year, with its series of concertised gamelan performances. It produced its first album in 2001, and began collaborating with the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra and the Australian Song Company.

We started with traditional Malay gamelan repertoire, and gradually progressed to Javanese and contemporary Balinese pieces. This was all fine and enjoyable, but the icing on the cake, to me, was Sunetra’s own compositions: they spoke straight to me more than the rest, because of the many layers of imagery she evokes, weaving her melodies together subtly so that every time you listen, you catch glimpses of the many different permutations.

At the Helm

We understand that Sunetra is now pursuing other projects, and that you are now at the helm, along with Susan Sarah John. What was the transition like? Give us a rundown of your duties.

Sunetra is happily immersed in motherhood at the moment. Sadly enough for us, she has had to relocate to the UK after her marriage. RiB is such a big part of my life, so I agreed to carry on leading until her return. Sunetra remains as the group’s artistic director — but she has given us a carte blanche in running RiB, and in designing its projects.

I teach at Universiti Malaya’s Department of Geography, so I can only dedicate so many hours to gamelan. I needed another person to help me bring things together, so I asked Susan Sarah John to act as co-music director.

Susan is someone I’ve always had my eye on — she’s a person who, apart from Sunetra, can do big things for gamelan in Malaysia, because of her grounding in Malay musical forms. Susan and I have worked in many, many gamelan projects together, both in RiB and in the Gamelan Club, so our working together as music directors is painless.

We are responsible for the selection of players and composers, the leading rehearsals, and the training musicians (when necessary). We are responsible for the repertoire and programme design, and the interpretation of the music. We are also responsible for advising composers and / or arrangers on how to tweak their pieces — since not all composers and arrangers are familiar with Malay gamelan.

Experiments in the Theatre

Performance-wise, Rhythm in Bronze is shifting in direction — from a largely conventional concert gamelan format, to more experimental shenanigans. What’s behind these shifts?

This shift towards more experimentation, particularly in introducing a more theatrical style into our gamelan performance, stems from RiB’s early practice of providing gamelan accompaniment for the theatre — Scorpion Orchid, for example. Some of us also worked on Box of Delights. When Sharmini Ratnasingam and I were music directors for the Gamelan Club’s Suara (2001) and Temper: Spirit of Gamelan (2003), we had already started to move in that direction.

Fortunately for us, Sunetra and the Five Arts Centre also had the same inclination, so it was easy for us all to be on the same wavelength when we conceived Monkey Business.

Tell us about Monkey Business, last year’s theatre-music hybrid. How was it received by audiences? Do you see the future of gamelan, as a form of music, engaging in more (literal) narrative-like evolutions? What aspect of the show most challenged the ensemble?

Speaking only for the people I heard from directly: most of them hated it and had no idea what was going on!

But many of these people also grudgingly acknowledged that we ‘had balls’ for daring to venture down this path. The problem with Monkey Business was the expectations people had of RiB concerts — and of what gamelan should sound like. Krishen Jit, who directed us, wanted our sound to be totally different. He wanted our music and soundscapes to be ugly and raw; he said he’d heard us play enough beautiful melodies. In Monkey Business, he wanted our sound to reflect life. “Life isn’t always beautiful,” I remember him telling us.

Krishen also wanted the music — which he referred to as his ‘text’ — to come entirely from us. They were meant to be our stories. Personal story-telling was challenging for many of us in the ensemble, because our stories were all so sad; we agonised over how doomed and gloomy our stories seemed to be, and what the audience would make of us!

Bringing Gamelan to Kids

Rhythm in Bronze is going through another shift: a greater focus on community-based initiatives. Tell us about the Prima Selayang Project. How was it conceived, and for what purpose?

The Selayang Project was conceived over lunch, when Sunetra and I were discussing our future plans for RiB. It was 2004; we had just finished the run of Wujud Antara, at the Dewan Filharmonik PETRONAS, and we were wondering how to move on from there.

So we each came up with a wish list of things we wanted for the ensemble. Sunetra had ‘Gamelan Music Theatre’ at the top of her list. That evolved into Monkey Business.

I had ‘Community Outreach’ at the top of mine; that eventually became the Selayang Project. RiB is trying to bring gamelan to communities in disadvantaged environments, and since the Five Arts Centre had already started some work in that community … I guess my leaning towards community work comes a lot from what I see going on in Five Arts; they bring the performing arts to children and youth with such great success and spirit.

We understand that the ensemble worked mostly with young people of the Selayang community — in the first phase, teaching them music appreciation and how to play gamelan; in the second, training them in music creation, playing and performance. Why children?

That stems from my early years, growing up in Sentul Convent, where I saw many kids with great potential but no chances. I felt guilty, sometimes, for getting to go for piano classes while my friends couldn’t — though they obviously would have liked to, and would have made better musicians that I. I guess this is my way of going back to that desire to spend some time with youth, to help them grow in confidence via music performance.

Number two on my wish list was to bring RiB on tour to the rural areas of Malaysia, places like Kelantan and Terengganu. I imagine us sitting on a makeshift stage, playing to the children and chickens at twilight — for free, of course. They may very well hate our music for the same reason Klang Valley audiences love it. I don’t care. I just want to know.

Alih PungGONG

Now tell us about Alih PungGONG. How does the upcoming performance figure in Rhythm in Bronze’s ongoing journey?

Alih PungGONG is positioned between the highly experimental style of Monkey Business and our usual concert performances. Our focus will be on music — but with extra elements, borrowed from bangsawan, performed by the musicians themselves. This gives us a chance to produce a show that doesn’t dip in energy between music pieces, the way it usually does in recitals.

Tell us about some of the show’s eight new compositions, and what inspired them.

Indonesian Ben Pasaribu composed what you will hear in Alih PungGONG for Monkey Business — only we could not use his piece in that show. New Zealander Gareth Farr was inspired to write the fun and loud ‘Lagu untuk Teman Lama’ after sitting in on a very noisy and raucous RiB rehearsal. Hardesh Singh wrote ‘The Wind’ for us; it has lyrics by Yasmin Ahmad and a very sensuous bass guitar line.

Susan Sarah John penned a piece called ‘In the Beginning’ inspired by the Book of Genesis, and the creation of the universe. My composition is called ‘Runtuh’; it is about rebellion in its different forms, from underlying dissent to outright rebellion.

RiB also encourages its own musicians to compose or arrange pieces for us. Sharmini Ratnasingam has arranged a piece called ‘Race’, in which she experiments with the use of different mallets and wood on gamelan drums — we sound like a symphony of crabs in this one! Seow Lai Fong, Colleen Wong and Ann Salina Peters have rearranged a traditional Malay court piece called ‘Ketawang’; it has metamorphosed into a very funky piece with a joget feel.

Collaborations, Rehearsals, and the Future

The ensemble is collaborating with some pretty cool people: playwright / director Nam Ron, playwright / director / choreographer Loh Kok Man, and visual artist Bayu Utomo Radjikin. How do they figure into Alih PungGONG?  We are particularly curious about the theatrical interludes in the show. Are you allowed to leak details about those?

Namron is responsible for some of the extra turns. Kok Man is responsible for our physical movement, and for one extra turn. Bayu joined us to oversee the set and costumes.

The only details I can leak are that Namron has been interested in women’s issues for the longest time, and this is evident in some of his past work. The aspect of RiB that hit him the hardest was that we are an all-women ensemble, playing in what used to be an art-form dominated by men. In Alih PungGONG, you will see and hear a lot about women’s issues in these extra sequences.

What are rehearsals like? Tell us about the schedule. What’s the most challenging thing during practice? Any stories?

RiB is notorious for its long rehearsal hours; this took its toll on many of us in the past few shows we have had. This time, we tried to make the schedule as relaxing as possible — which was very nerve-wrecking for Susan and me; if given the chance, we’d just want to drill our musicians to death!

The most challenging thing during rehearsals was constructing our pieces. All our pieces were very much works in progress, so we experimented and improvised a lot during our sessions together. With 12 noisy musicians in one room going through that process — yeah, we frequently ended up with Bad migraines.

Where does Rhythm in Bronze go from here? Tell us about your grand plans, both for the ensemble, and personally.

I think our RiB musicians are brilliant in community-based projects, because of their passion for it and their experience in working with children, so I see more work in that direction for us. I also think that now we have started on this journey of experimentation in fusing theatre and gamelan performance, there will always be a sense of adventure in our future concerts.

Whether or not we will carry on down that path is something Sunetra and I will have to discuss. I do hope Sune comes back to take over the helm of RiB, though. I really do have to concentrate on my PhD in the next few years, and will have to take some time out from RiB.


Jillian Ooi and Susan Sarah John lead Rhythm in Bronze in Alih PungGONG, Wed 28, Feb- Sun 4, Mar 2007, at Pentas 2, KLPac.

First Published: 28.02.2007 on Kakiseni

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