Gamelan auf Deutsch

A couple of interesting things happened to me last week.

I met a girl named Pingkan, whose close friends also call her Pinky, and she is a dancer in my (new) gamelan group. Fortunately, in our group she is known as Miranda, so phew – we don’t have to fight about who gets to keep which name. Her mother is Menadonese, her father Javanese. She was born in Perth, grew up in Melbourne, and now lives in the City, and we don’t really look or sound anything alike, so there is no chance for confusion there. She did keep turning her head whenever someone called my name, poor thing, she will have to do some adjusting.

So this means that yes, I actually did join the new Queens-based gamelan group Dharma Swara that has been on my radar screen ever since the beginning of this year. One of the first things I did when Alex said that we might move to the States was to google “gamelan groups” in and around the New York/New Jersey area. There are a few, but this is the one focusing on Balinese, which – for right now at least – I prefer over Javanese, although playing bonang on the Javanese is really quite satisfying. I have a feeling that later on in my gamelan ‘career’, I will gravitate towards the more meditative Javanese melodies, but for right now, Balinese it is. The pace is also more in keeping with the rhythms of the City, so it’s a good fit.

When Alex and I went on vacation to Ubud this spring, I ordered a semara dana pemade – with 12 leaves and a mix tuning instead of the usual 10-leaf Gong Kebyar – on the slim chance that I will be accepted into the group. I just knew that if I did get in, I would have to do looooads of practicing.

My very own semara dana pemade – the back side. The front is of Rama & Sita.

Dharma Swara’s repertoire is much more sophisticated and advanced than what I’m used to playing, and the group also learns at a much faster pace. Alex also took part in the Beginner’s Workshop they held at the beginning of October. When he came in to drop me off and give moral support, they said he should hang around a bit. In the end he stayed the entire 90 minutes and was assigned the calung. He was dumbfounded at times and said at one point “This beginner’s group learned to play in one workshop what your group normally takes months to learn.” I just looked at him. Hard to swallow, but he was right.

That was three weeks ago. So fast forward to last Saturday – the first full day practice, where I met Pingkan-Pinky-Miranda. It was a HARD four hours. We practiced different parts of six different songs. I went from jegogan to kantilan to pemade to reyong. Playing polos and sangsi, fast. About three, three and a half hours into the practice, I was dumbfounded, and just plain dumb. The sponge was full. If I wanted to remember something new, I had to squeeze something else out.

And I found out that when I play gamelan, I think in German. The little grey cells like Deutsch. Sure we spoke a bit of English and even Indonesian during practice in Munich, but the main language of communication was always German. So on Saturday, when I was assigned to the trompong for the run-through of an 8-minute original composition Synthesia, I kept wanting to ask Liz, sitting next to me, how to do something, in German. Wie geht das? Wie funktioniert es? Und so weiter….

Now who would’ve thought that those two are inextricably interlinked in my silly brain? It makes logical sense, cause well, I only ever played gamelan in Germany. But by the looks of it, I’m going to have to retrain the brain to link to another language. I do wonder if that affects the performance. In English, would I be freer but less precise? More creative, but not as efficient? Would I be funnier?

At around 3:30 pm, as I sat there surrounded by new instruments in a new town with all new people, the Munich group was poised and ready at their instruments for their Long Night of Museums performance. I wished them luck, silently. According to Bärbel, who gave me a full run down, they played well. They even got a compliment from the Head of the City Museum who noticed how much they’ve improved since last year. Our little underdog study group scored! So proud.

In the meantime, I’ve learned that our group here has two performances coming up in December. One on December 10th in some club and one on December 13th, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Wow. And I don’t know how to play even one single piece. So I guess I better get to it…

‘Till the next time!

PS: Ming, I don’t have any personal photos of me and gamelan from here yet, so i put the ones from Bali, cause well, that’s really the source of it all. : )


My teacher Raka amidst one the women’s gamelan group he teaches


The workshop from whence my pemade came

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