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Posted by Patricia Zimmermann at 3:05AM   |  6 comments
Gamelan instruments

Blog written by Patricia Zimmermann, Shaw Foundation Professor, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore,  and co-director of the Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival

A pounding rock beat mingled with the sinuous repetitions of Javanese gamelan drew me across the green plains and extreme,mind-numbing humidity enveloping the 10th century Prambanam Hindu temple complex.

I was in Yogyakarta, in Indonesia, about a two-hour flight south of Singapore, for a long weekend.  Stewart and I flew the budget airline, Air Asia, then stood in immigration, sweating and thirsty, for over an hour to secure a tourist visa and get finger printed.  The largest muslim country in the world, Indonesia’s size and complexity is staggering, with over 17,000 islands and 500 languages and dialects. Java has active volcanoes and rice paddies. 

We hired a driver, loaded up on bottled water to stay hydrated in the heat, and set off to see the two major temples, the 9th century Buddhist temple of Borobudur, the largest Buddhist stupa in the world, and Prambanan, a Hindu temple rediscovered in 1811 by surveyors working for Thomas Raffles, a key figure in Singapore’s (colonialist) history as well.

Yogyakarta, nicknamed Jogja by locals and Southeast Asians, has functioned as an arts hub for centuries, before the concept creative economy wormed into international arts policy as a plan for recovery. Art is not something precious, confined to museums and exalted for its unique individualist expression. 

In Jogja, art infiltrates and mingles with daily life, where the line between handicraft and fine art, between amateur and professional, between performance and audience, evaporates.  In this context, it makes sense that some of the most innovative contemporary Southeast Asian art and multimedia has emanated from Jogja since the reformasi democratic movement in 1998.

Wayang kulit, shows of shadow puppets accompanied by gamelan, abound at different times in the Kraton, at art institutes, at restaurants. It’s  a psychedelic experience to absorb all the brown and blue patterns of batik pouring out of the shops along Jalan Malioboro.  We took a becak, the ubiquitous bicycle-powered taxi unique to Jogja, to the Purawisata Theatre to see the Ramayana ballet accompanied by a full gamelan orchestra, with Vishnu, Sita, and Hanuman adorned in complex batik patterns overlaid on top of each other, golden crowns, and highly expressionist, mask-like make-up.

I have always been drawn to the meditative, trance-like repetitions of gamelan. It’s a music that has influenced minimalist composers like Steve Reich, and post-minimalists like the composers involved in Bang on a Can with its complex percussive rhythms, polyphonic structures, and pentatonic scales. Softer and slower than Balinese gamelam, Javanese gamelan, as our Prambanan guide Edys explained, is not explosive music.  Its harmonies are designed to calm the soul. They express the tolerance of Javanese culture. 

So I was surprised to hear gamelan combined with a rock and roll drumming at Prambanan.  Edys walked us over to the pavillon where a gamelan band played.  Six male dancers moved in the center of the circle. There were no tourists in the circle of people except us. Edys commented that very few Americans travel to Indonesia.  Although Indonesia is a huge country, Singapore, a speck in comparison, attracts nearly double the number of tourists. I asked Edys if he thought American tourists avoided Indonesia because of misconceptions about terrorism. "Terrorism?" he responded. "No, not terrorism. They stay away because of provincialism."

Edys said that the gathering was a ritual celebration meant to induce trance in the dancers.  A sinden, a female singer, chanted over the celem pung, saron demung, rebab, dedug, gong ageng, the percussive instruments of gamelan. A young man in a Nirvana (the rock band) t-shirt ripped out beats on a western drum set. 

Intense, enveloping, mesmerizing, the combination of  “western” rock style drumming with the gamelan was compelling and intoxicating. A lot of academics I know might analyze this cultural mix as an example of either hybridization or colonialization, but for me, being swept up by the sound, the heat, the humidity, the temples, it felt like neither.  It was music that washed away separations between mind and body.  It was inviting.

Edys, who shared it was his spiritual calling to be a tour guide to the Hindu temples' history, offered some insight.  He observed that western ballet and dance involves flying, leaving the earth, while Javanese dance embraces the earth, grounding all movements in the lower body.  More ecological and human-centered, with the center of the universe not the gods but the people, he claimed. Edys was worried we wouldn’t appreciate the gamelan.  Western music, he said, moves forward with melody. Gamelan, he countered, invited the listener in to a space that did not move forward but around, defined by rhythm. 

This principle of tolerance in Javanese culture infiltrated the soundscape of  Prambanan  Hindu temple.  As Edys recounted the story of the Ramayana imbedded in the intricate reliefs of the Vishnu, Brahma and Shiva temples, the late afternoon chants of the muezzin wafted from a nearby mosque.  It made me think, hybridity seems like too facile a concept to describe the complex heterogeneity of sounds  and experience here, which, in some ways, replicated the intricate patterns of batik.

The night before we flew out, we went to a restaurant on the outskirts of town recommended by the bellman at our hotel.  When we arrived, the hostess asked us what kind of music we liked.  We were confused.  We craved some gado gado, the famous Indonesian steamed vegetable salad with spicy peanut sauce.

She said, we have different music in different pavilions so you can decide where you want your spirit to be while you eat.  “Do you want classical, traditional or country?” she inquired.  I asked, “which country?”, figuring, I don’t want to be a cultural imperialist and assume country music means Johnny Cash here in Southeast Asia.

She replied with one word: country.  We picked traditional—it was a gamelan orchestra.  Later, on the way to the bathroom, I peaked into the “country” open air pavillon. 

With their stand up bass, guitars, and drums, the band played something I faintly recognized (unlike my colleague Tom over on the Mongolian Spaces blog, I have never really connected with  American country music, even though Singaporean taxi drivers seem to play it constantly).  After peeling back all the complex rhythms I discerned the melody, buried in the back: Take Me Home Country Roads.  Unlike gamelan, which is played sitting down, this band stood up, wearing brown batik shirts. But the intricate polyrhythms and the soothing sound was Javanese gamelan.



Dr. Z,

This was a fantastic piece of literature. Knowing that I will never get to Indonesia at my advanced age, I appreciate your vivid description of the exotic place. However, please remember that if you really want to listen to some good old country music, come on down and visit me at the Austin City Limits music fest in that other exotic country called Tejas.

Keep up the great writing.


Professor Zimmermann,

Your summary report of your Indonesia visit was quite enlightening. I never really knew much about the place, but now I want to visit.

Please keep blogging about your experiences.


Fantastic article! I really want to visit Indonesia. I may even consider going to Singapore some day.

love the descriptions about Indonesia, and yes like everyone else that commented... now i wanna go there too!

Nice post, right to the point.

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