The U-M Gamelan Ensemble
The Venerable Lake of Honey
by James M. Manheim
Gamelan music is the classical music of Indonesia, a tradition centuries old. The gamelan is an orchestra consisting mostly of tuned bronze kettles and gongs of different sizes; with several dozen players, it is one of the world's largest musical ensembles. The music is structured into cycles, and cycles within cycles, and cycles within cycles within infinite-seeming cycles. Every Westerner should hear some of it at least once, for a certain number will become instantly hooked.
The U-M has its own gamelan, something that few other institutions away from the West Coast can claim; its marvelously evocative name is Kyai Telaga Madu, or "The Venerable Lake of Honey," and it was founded here in 1964. The gamelan attracts enthusiastic student players, and when they join forces with the local Indonesian community and with visiting artists from Indonesia, the results are some of the most elaborate artistic creations from a non-Western culture available in our town. Only rarely can Ann Arborites attend a Chinese opera, or a Japanese Noh drama, or even a concert by a master of one of the Arabic world's profound classical musical traditions. But the U-M Gamelan Ensemble mounts full-scale music and dance performances regularly, and the next one is coming up, free of charge, on Sunday, February 1, in newly vibrant Hill Auditorium.
Different islands in the vast Indonesian archipelago have their own individual forms of the music, and their own uses for it. The gamelan plays by itself, accompanies shadow-puppet dramas, and has entered into fusions with modern popular styles. Everywhere, however, it accompanies dance. This year's concert is a dance performance of the Indian epic the Ramayana, which came to Indonesia over 1,000 years ago and was absorbed into the region's ceaselessly syncretizing culture. The Ramayana tells the story of the renowned Prince Rama, whose beautiful consort Sinta is abducted by a ten-headed demon king. With the aid of an army of supernatural monkeys, Rama and his brother cross to
the demon's island kingdom to rescue Sinta. The story has served as the basis for dance dramas and shadow-puppet players, and nowadays there are even Ramayana comic books.
Indeed, one of the most fascinating aspects of classical Indonesian music and dance is the extent to which they are live traditions. This new production is the creation of dancer-musician Wasi Bantolo, who teaches at Sekolah Tinggi Seni Indonesia, the foremost conservatory on the Indonesian island of Java. His wife, Olivia Retno Widyastuti, a well-known classical Javanese dancer, will perform leading roles, and more than thirty other dancers are featured. The production showcases basic classical Javanese dance movements, contemporary styles, and moves borrowed from the Indonesian martial art of pencak silat. This new version, say the presenters, uses the traditional story "to explore crucial contemporary issues of preservation of the environment and the quest for peace in a time of global conflict."
Serious as that may sound, the concert is ideal for children and families; kids take instantly to the spectacular costumes and movements of Indonesian dancers and to the array of unusually shaped and intricately carved instruments. This should be a fascinating experience for anyone, and it's an event we're lucky to have.
[Originally published in February, 2004.]