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Malaysia: Traditional music gets new beat
By Kalinga Seneviratne

PENANG, Malaysia - A unique orchestral performance is setting the stage for an Asian musical beat that is contemporary yet firmly rooted in the region's traditions, in this case the Indonesian gamelan, the indigenous orchestra of bronze gongs.

Co-directed by ethnomusicologist Sunethra Fernando and environmental scientist Jillian Ooi, the two-hour gamelan orchestral performance called Laras Gong was held at the Komtar city auditorium here in late June.

It combined traditional gongs, xylophones, zither and drums of the Indonesian gamelan with the Chinese dagu (drum), a variety of Malay drums, Indian flute and the Asli Malay singing style in the Chinese model scale.

This is the fourth concert series of the Rhythm In Bronze group set up by Sunethra seven years ago with the aim of producing a contemporary Malaysian musical beat, one that could incorporate the major ethnic musical traditions of this multicultural society.

She likes to describe the group's work as "consciously setting out to develop the craft of performing gamelan through co-directing", where players conspire to direct the pieces as they are being played by working on visual cues.

"We did not make a conscious decision to fuse. It was not deliberate, but, it turns out that we were pulling things from around us," said Sunethra in an interview after the concert.

"We are trying to do whatever we can with the gamelan and in the process create a new Malaysian identity," added Ooi.

The gamelan, the indigenous orchestra of Java and Bali and also played in nearby countries, consists of a variety of bronze gongs of varying sizes that are struck with mallets. It has been at the center of the Indonesian art music tradition for centuries.

What the Rhythm In Bronze group is doing could thus upset some of the cultural purists who would prefer to keep the Asian musical traditions intact.

Sunethra, who was born and bred in Malaysia to Sri Lankan parents, argues that her group is well grounded in the traditions of the gamelan, but, "we don't have traditional references, full stop. We're expressing in contemporary terms".

"This is Asian fusion music, but also trying to look for a Malaysian identity," said Professor Tan Sooi Beng, head of the music department at the Universiti Sains Malaysia. "In Malaysia we have the Malays, Chinese and the Indians living in [cultural] segregation and this is an attempt to create a Malaysian identity" bringing them together.

Tan has composed a piece for this series titled "Perubahan", which was written in 1998 at the height of the reformasi protest movement calling for political reforms in the country. She explained that the piece reflects the mood for change at the time, as it incorporates multicultural elements and brings in the Chinese shi-gu drums "with its reverberating sounds" for the first time into a gamelan "symbolizing change of tradition".

Sunethra feels that the traditional gamelan and her new beats could co-exist in multicultural Malaysia because "we are performing in new space and it is not seen as taking over their space".

Professor Anis Mohd Nor, an ethnomusicologist at the University of Malaya, agrees. "Laras Gong is a serious attempt in reinventing gamelan music as a modern art music in Malaysia," he said in an interview.

Whatever it is called, "the basic structural discourse of cyclic gong tunes are still strongly preserved, giving the listeners the familiarity of the gamelan music and means to understand new interpretations," he added.

Anis believes that Sunethra and her musicians - the ensemble includes some 15 members and a good mix of Malay, Chinese and Indian with only four male members - are democratizing gamelan by taking it out of the "enclave of esoteric music of a faded courtly tradition".

This, Anis says, would allow new understanding and appreciation of the many possibilities that gamelan has in contemporary Malaysian music, "which has until recently was regarded as steep in 'tradition' privileging traditional musicians".

Sunethra believes that she may be "concertizing" the gamelan by taking it outside the traditional dance performances, dance drama and theatre, as well as official government functions and convocation ceremonies.

Yet, Anis warns that one should be careful not to import new instruments into the gamelan ensemble. Instead he would like to see the diasporic musical traditions in Malaysia fused with indigenous sounds in the form of specific ensembles.

In working toward creating a genre of Asian fusion music, one of the major barriers is the lack of young people who are able to play the traditional Asian musical instruments, Tan says. "Before trying to mix the music, you need to be able to play the instruments. That's the hardest part," she said.

She laments the fact that many young people of middle-class backgrounds learn Western instruments such as the piano and the violin because it is a "status thing" - and even government schools do not encourage its students to learn Malaysian musical instruments.

But things may be changing. Ooi noted that their concerts in Kuala Lumpur and here in Penang have attracted almost full houses and the audience has been almost exclusively middle-class urban Malaysians.

Recently, Sunethra was commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Britain to compose music for a play set in colonial Indonesia.

Tan argues that rather than encouraging the recreation of "standardized traditions" in the form of spectacles to attract tourists, the government must encourage musicians to start smaller ensembles that could experiment with various traditions like what Rhythm In Bronze has done.

"Maybe someday we will be able to get funding to bring a few composers and musicians from the region together to create new music of the region," she said. "In this age of globalization musicians should be crossing boundaries."

(Inter Press Service)
Jul 12, 2003

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