Tag Archives: gamelan

My Hapa Story

5 Aug

Last week our gamelan ensemble from the Indonesian Embassy in Washington, D.C., performed a wayang kulit (shadow puppet play) with guest artists from Java. After our first rehearsal together, their director—realizing I couldn’t converse with him in Bahasa—asked me where I am from.

“Philippines,” my director answered for me.

“No!” I argued, surprising both of them and myself. “I’m from California!”

I’ve never really identified as Filipino, even though it’s half my blood. I’ve never identified with the quarter of English or the eighth of Irish. Maybe I accidentally embraced my eighth of mystery ethnicity.

I’ve never felt strongly like an American. I didn’t feel like a Sacramentan until I moved to Los Angeles, and I didn’t feel like a Californian until I moved to the East Coast. Davis was the only place where I truly felt like a member of a community, and even then I knew I couldn’t stay in such a small town.

My mom with me (the baby) and my brother Allan, I think on Maui, 1986
My mom felt the same way. Full-blooded Filipino but a dual citizen, born in the Philippines on an American military base, raised back and forth between Okinawa and all over the United States, drawn alternately to the Bay Area and Tokyo, she told me once that she never felt like she belonged to any one place. As an army brat, it was very weird for her to live in Sacramento—in just one house, no less—continuously for 24 years.

As a result of my mom’s immigrant identity crisis, I know little of Filipino culture. Since her parents wanted to raise Americans, didn’t teach the kids Tagalog or their respective dialects, my generation is left with only a few traditional recipes, the word for fart (utot), and a giant fork and spoon in the kitchen.

Instead, my mom filled our house and her childhood anecdotes with pieces of Japanese and especially Okinawan culture. I’ve been far more interested in learning about and visiting Okinawa than I have ever been in the Philippines.

Working at the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, where we celebrate the diversity of cultures in the world and help communities sustain their traditions and assert their cultural identities, I think about this issue a lot—how I don’t really do these things for myself.

But maybe through learning Okinawan music, adopting Indonesian culture through playing gamelan, and immersing myself in Peruvian or Kenyan or Chinese cultures at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, I at least carry on my mom’s identity as a cultural wanderer.

This post is a submission for the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center’s #myhapastory project.


Andhe Andhe Lumut

25 Nov

embassy gamelan

By the end of next month, I’ll have been playing gamelan for eight years. I started out very timidly in the UC Davis Gamelan Ensemble, jammed once with the Evergreen State College instructor in Olympia, twice with the Geidai arts university in Okinawa, a year with the Los Angeles consulate, and now over a year at the Indonesian Embassy.

At the embassy, we’ve been practicing this epic wayang theater piece, Andhe Andhe Lumut, for several months. In May I challenged myself to the gongs, the largest and loudest instruments—which is fun for me as the smallest and quietest member. Sometimes it takes a bit of contorting to reach every kempul and some juggling with three different mallets, and that’s why I love it.

This recording is just an excerpt, but it’s some of my favorite parts. It sounds pretty echoey in the embassy’s ballroom instead of our basement practice space.

The Ghost at the Embassy

21 Oct
The ceiling of the ballroom is covered in elaborate paintings.

The ceiling of the ballroom is covered in elaborate paintings.

The Embassy of Indonesia in Washington, D.C., is a beautiful mansion on Massachusetts Avenue in DuPont Circle. The four-story, fifty-room home was completed in 1903 for the Walsh-McLean family. In 1951, the first Indonesian Ambassador to the United States purchased it  to house the embassy.

Since then, many children of Indonesian diplomats have grown up here, learning traditional dance, playing gamelan, and creating mischief in its many nooks and crannies. Many also get to know the ghost.

Gio Soeprapto shares his memories of an unusual playmate:

See more photos→

Javanese Gamelan Gadhon

12 Mar

Javanese Gamelan Gadhon at Mondavi

My last couple of trips back to Davis have perfectly coincided with glorious gamelan gatherings. In October, I made it to town just in time to see the giants of the UC Davis and UC Berkeley ensembles perform a free noon concert in the lobby of the Mondavi Center.

Gamelan has a huge range in sounds, dynamics, instrumentation, performance setting and number of performers. This particular version, gamelan gadhon, is the classical chamber music style of Central Java, and this ensemble was only six players plus the singer. Traditionally ensembles and repertoires were divided into “loud” and “soft” styles; most modern groups combine the two, but this group featured the soft instruments.

You can read about the performers in the program notes (and… ignore the “Audio or visual recording is prohibited”).

West Sumatran Talempong

8 Nov

Padang Panjang talempong

The final night of Performing Indonesia was an eclectic demonstration of traditional music, dance and folk theater from West Sumatra. The Professional Ensemble of the Indonesian Institute of the Arts at Padang Panjang began with a gamelan variation called talempong, consisting of small brass kettle gongs that sit horizontally in a frame, two hanging gongs and hand drums.

These guys really know how to build up a song! These melodies are pretty simple, but they steadily intensify until a sudden, pulsating conclusion. (Yow!) I especially like the slow vocal intro to this, like an Indonesian doo-wop:

The rest of the night mixed up the talempong with some double reed flute, electric bass and a zither. Two young girls did an impressive plate-balancing act. There was some cross-dressing, some comedy bits (which I couldn’t understand but laughed anyway because it was still fun), some sword fighting, some wrestling, a lot of “Stomp”-style dancing using percussive pants.

In a mind-boggling finale, the men did another plate-balancing dance, and then began smashing the plates with their bare feet. Jumping up and down on shards of china! Rolling around in this pile of shards shirtless! A guy took a handful and rubbed it all over his face! (See the remnants above?) It was wild.

Thus concludes my coverage of Performing Indonesia. So thankful to the embassy and the Smithsonian for hosting this inspiring event!

The Gamelatron Project

5 Nov

I don’t often get starstruck, but I did a little bit with this beautiful contraption, the Gamelatron. I had seen videos of it at Burning Man and other big festivals, read all about it, played recordings of it on the radio. This weekend, this mechanical gamelan was the first sound to greet attendees of the Smithsonian’s Performing Indonesia festival.

Creator Aaron Taylor Kuffner explained to me that he writes original compositions specifically for the Gamelatron, rather than trying to program it to play traditional pieces — a robot simply can’t play it the way humans can.

But instead of programming some kind of crazy superhuman song, he said his focus is on the tones. When you watch a real gamelan, you’re hearing the music but also seeing costumes, dances, facial expressions, sensing egos and transitions. With a robotic gamelan, sure you trip out over it being a robot, but you’re focused more on just the sounds of each kettle, each cymbal, each gong.

DC Summer Mixtape: Side 2

20 Sep

that's me, if you can't tell

Side 1 was the weird melancholy side of this year’s summer adventures mix. Side 2 is the feeling-amazing, biking-at-night-and-loving-it, watching-a-moon-rocket-in-the-sky-from-the-roof, fireflies-and-lightning electro side.

  1. Adayudaya congregation – Psalm 136
  2. Michael RJ Saalman – Cancerous
  3. Pregnant – Philip (Your Song)
  4. Banabila & Machinefabriek – Spin ‘n Puke
  5. The Nothing – Sing-a-malon
  6. Pierre Henry – Psyche Rock
  7. Collin Crowe – Crystal Dreaming
  8. Gianni Safred – Disco Satellite
  9. Gershon Kingsley – Popcorn
  10. J.D. Robb – Synthi Waltz

LISTENING NOTES: Continue reading