Gathering of the Gamelans

From Thursday of this week to Monday of next I’m going to be at the Gathering of the Gamelans in York. This event is part academic conference, and partly a performative celebration of gamelan in the UK, most particularly the 30 years that Gamelan Sekar Petak has been at the University of York.

For the last couple of months, gamelan groups all over the UK have been rehearsing both separately and collaboratively towards ‘Lokananta, Gamelan of the Gods’. This will be a wayang kulit, an all-night shadow puppet play in the Central Javanese style, under the direction of dhalang Matthew Isaac Cohen. To translate dhalang as ‘puppeteer’ is about as misleading as translating wayang as ‘shadow puppet play’: both descriptions are accurate, but neither captures the breadth and depth of the form. Over the course of approximately seven hours, the dhalang has the responsibility for creating, leading and performing a multi-modal piece using puppetry, song, dance, and the voice, encompassing everything from high philosophy to low humour, from archaic texts in high Javanese to the most contemporary of references.

This concert in York represents a very rare opportunity to see a complete wayang performed in English. I attended a number of performances in Java, which were fascinating but impossible to follow in detail without a knowledge of the language. (One exception to this was a performance by Ki Purbo Asmoro’s with live translation into English by Kitsie Emerson: a two-hour video of one of these is available here, with at least some of the translation visible).

The musical direction for this project has been undertaken by one of the UK’s most pre-eminent gamelan musicians, John Pawson, himself a York graduate. Both Matthew and John are keen to keep some surprises up their sleeves, so I’d better not reveal too much! Suffice to say that the Scottish Gamelan (made up of members of Naga Mas and Gado-Gado from Glasgow, and a group from Aberdeen University) will have something very culturally distinctive to offer during our segment of the show. And it ain’t shortbread. (Or whiskey. Or tartan. Or golf.)

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