Life

Melbourne: Gamelan, elephants
and 'Jackpot'


Dewi Anggraeni, Contributor, Melbourne, Australia

The weather in late summer in Melbourne, with a whiff of autumn round the corner, can be very pleasant. With some humidity thrown in, West Javanese visitors missing their hometowns of Bandung or Cianjur may well be bitten by extreme nostalgia.

It was during a day like this recently that visitors to the Melbourne Zoo were treated to a pleasant cultural experience. Stepping into Kampung Gajah, they entered a tropical forest and, mingling with the humid atmosphere, were the clear liquid sounds of Sundanese music.

Suspecting that the music came from a hidden tape or CD recorder, the visitors, many of them schoolchildren enjoying the last moments of their holidays, accompanied by one or both of their parents, ambled along, watching with varying degrees of amusement the elephants being bathed in the pool designed for that purpose at the zoo.

Mek Kapah was clearly enjoying the luxury of being made prima donna of her herd, lifting one foot at a time to receive a pachyderm pedicure.

As the visitors continued approaching the source of the music, walking past Toko Suvenir and other signs in Indonesian and Thai languages, they realized that a live gamelan orchestra was actually playing in the open Function Center, next to Mek Kapah Cafe.

Group after group would come close to watch them play, then retreat to the outdoor caf for refreshments and continue listening from there. The male musicians wore various traditional hats and colorful sarongs, while the women were clad in sarongs and matching sashes. The facial features revealed Caucasian, Eurasian, Indonesian and Chinese ethnicities.

Though there are now 48 gamelan groups throughout Australia, and gamelan music is played on several radio programs, not many young Australians, or their parents for that matter, have seen a live gamelan orchestra performance.

The zoo outfit is particularly rare, because most of the orchestras performing in various parts of the country are Javanese, while this one is a gamelan degung, a traditional Sundanese ensemble. And the tunes played were Jipang Trawa, Catrik, Sampak, Jeruk Bali, Sulanaga and the nostalgia-invoking Cing-cang-keling.

The director, 33-year-old Sundanese-speaking Australian Peter Tasker, explained that the orchestra was part of Sanggar Dharma Nusantara, a group which combines elements of gamelan degung with the martial art of pencak silat, often performed as kata, or with dance steps.

Tasker's love affair with Sundanese music began when he heard his cousin's cassette of gamelan degung, which stirred the esthetic sensibility of this contemporary musician. He then sought to learn more about the music genre, and as luck would have it, won a scholarship to study Sundanese arts at the arts institute in Bandung.

Tasker does not claim to know everything about gamelan degung.

""I came to realize that perhaps in 20 years, I may understand some of this incredibly beautiful and deceivingly complex music,"" he said modestly.

Another pleasing aspect of directing this musical group is the opportunity to find kindred spirits with people of different ethnic backgrounds; Sundanese, Javanese, Batak-Sundanese, Caucasian, Eurasian and Chinese. Those who performed at the Melbourne Zoo were Arsisto Ambyo, Lily Djajamihardja, Nani Pollard, Bela Kusumah, David Westrip, Rowan Gould, Jennie Dong and Tasker himself. Understandably, it is not always possible to rally up all the members for any one performance.

All the musicians are multiskilled, well-versed in at least more than one instrument. The fact that they rotate when performing adds to the impression of the fluid quality of the music itself, as well as the fascination of the children in the audience.

Tasker believes that the group will be performing again in the Melbourne Zoo's autumn program in April.

""We were invited by Melbourne Community Gamelan, who was in turn invited by the Discovery Learning Center at the Melbourne Zoo as part of their community programs.""

The versatility of the musicians was clearly demonstrated when Bela Kusumah, accompanied by gentle background music, acted as a puppeteer, animating the puppet Cepot who introduced the program, and the members of the group.

""Good morning, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, my name is Cepot. On my right are Jennie and Nani, on my left are Tito and Lily, and behind me is ...

Just then a young boy asked his mother, ""Mummy, why's the puppet called Jackpot?""

Nani and Lily checked their smile, but kept playing. And somehow the spell was broken. No, we were not in West Java, we were in Melbourne, among Australian schoolchildren and their parents.

Nonetheless, that did not detract from the overall beauty of the environment: the tropical trees, the humidity, the elephants, and the music, all merged into the consciousness.

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