|Malaysia: Traditional music gets new
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
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.
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.
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
"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.
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".
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
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".
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.
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".
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
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.
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
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
Recently, Sunethra was commissioned
by the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Britain to compose
music for a play set in colonial Indonesia.
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."