The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Wednesday, May 25, 2016


Hearing The First Smile 

Gunungan  courtesy of John Casey


More than 40 years ago a group of Indonesian characters quit their homeland for ever. They didn’t travel lightly. On their 7,600 kilometer journey south they carried something rare and precious – the indigenous culture of Cirebon.

Why did they flee?  Perhaps they were escaping a society little interested in their presence, threatening even. Had they stayed in the north coast port, soulless brutes might have attacked during a wave of religious intolerance.

For not all wanted to maintain the celebrities’ ancient and impressive lineage, claiming supporters were idolatrous and should be purged. The tomb of Sunan Gunungjati, one of the 15th century Walisongo (nine saints), is in the West Java city and reportedly threatened by extremists following the Saudi Arabian Wahhabi sect.

The travellers’ back story is threadbare. Before moving they probably lived in the 16th century Keraton Kasepuhan (Sultan’s palace),

Maybe they were asylum seekers sent by their guardians to a haven where the locals had a reputation for tolerance, though knowing little about the newcomers’ culture.  Would they be accepted or pushed aside and ignored?

Today we happily report that all fears proved groundless. According to their custodian Jennifer Shennan (left)  the Indonesians settled well and are often seen in public where they charm and mystify.

Her late husband Dr Allan Thomas was the rescuer.  He paid several sacks of rice to secure their freedom, packing them in stout timber boxes for their long flight.

When the lids were lifted the migrants, guarded by the plump sage Semar, emerged to the delight of the welcoming onlookers.  And so The First Smile Gamelan and accompanying puppets began their new life in New Zealand.

The ten-piece collection of instruments includes a rare gambang kayu a wooden xylophone using teak slats.  Most ensembles have only brass metallophones. 

“They won’t be going back,” said Shennan, a dance teacher and musician in Wellington. “We thought about it after Allan died in 2010. 

“But as the Indonesian Ambassador Jose Tavares says, the collection has been here so long it’s now a New Zealand gamelan.

“Before being offered to Allan they hadn’t been played for 50 years – perhaps longer because of religious prohibitions on wayang kulit performances. The instruments are certainly antique – maybe 400 years.

“Others have warned that if the gongs went back the brass might be cut up and melted down.”

That won’t happen in NZ where the instruments and puppets live in The Long Hall on a splendid clifftop overlooking Wellington harbor. Till recently they were used regularly for concerts but need repairs.  These will be funded by the Indonesian Embassy.

Ethnomusicologist Thomas encountered the gamelan in the 1970s while studying in Java.  At the time he wrote:

‘Gamelan music is a curious mixture of the obvious and the intricate.  It is a simple sound effect and rich sophisticated literature at the same time. The exhilaration of gamelan for a Westerner is in the simple fact of it being alive – not castrated for a concert’.

Shennan said her late husband often spoke of music going beyond business and politics, helping people from different cultures get to know and understand each other better through feeling.

“When we perform in NZ audiences are magnetized,” she said. “Even people who know nothing about Indonesia don’t just look and leave.  They get drawn in by the magic, and because they can wander around and see both sides of the screen.

“There’s nothing precious about the tradition.  I’ve never heard anyone say outsiders shouldn’t be involved.  On the contrary, Indonesians want to share.”

Picture courtesy John Casey

The collection of 140 puppets includes some weird figures, like the utterly vile Ketepeng Reges (left) , evil spirits which try to break the concentration of meditators, and Badjul Sengara, a giant with the face of a crocodile.

Then there’s Dewi Rekatawati, who looks like something between a mermaid and a grub.  She’s a wife of Bima, one of the five Pandava brothers who fought their cousins the Kauravas in the ancient Mahabharata classic.

Her son Gatotkaca has magical powers to fly.  His headdress loops forward and is attached to the cap, a signature mark of the Cirebon puppets.  Marking pauses in the theater are the showstopping gunungan the mountain-shaped symbols also known as the Tree of Life.

Earlier this year Dhalang (puppet master) Joko Susilo of Otago University curated an exhibition of the puppets in a near Wellington regional gallery called Shadow Play to showcase Indonesian art and music.

He said the wayang purwa (original puppets) were created to stage the Hindu epics Ramayana and Mahabharata, along with old Javanese tales and satires, and celebrations of local events like weddings and anniversaries.

In its new world the gamelan doesn’t always perform traditional works.  Thomas and his friend, the late Jack Body from the NZ School of Music, were also composers, Visual artist Gerard Crewdson, (below) who plays the kenong (a high-pitch cradled gong), has written Cantor’s Infinity.

This is based on the calculations of 19th century German academic Georg Cantor who developed set theory in mathematical logic. Less complex is the farewell song Now is the Hour which has been adapted for the gamelan.

The players are multitalented and include Tai Cha teachers, a computer programmer and librarians. 

Because of its age and fragility The First Smile is usually heard in the Long Hall.   Most outside performances are now conducted on a more modern set donated by the late Ibu Tien Soeharto, wife of Indonesia’s second president.

It’s called Gamelan Padhang Moncar.  It’s led by artistic director Budi S Putra and its players include some musicians from The First Smile.

“Padhang is brightness or daylight in Javanese, while Moncar means growing or developing vigorously,” said manager Dr Megan Collins. “We are the first gamelan in the world to see the new day. (The International Date Line running down the 180 degree longitude passes alongside NZ).

“It can also be interpreted as harmony and growth reflecting the aspirations of the group, so we’re planning to play in Java and Bali next year”

First published in The Jakarta Post 25 May 2016)

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