Javanese gamelan music, puppetry returns to Williams

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WILLIAMSTOWN — The Wesleyan Gamelan Ensemble returns to Williams College on Sunday, Dec.2, bringing traditional music, singing and puppetry of the Indonesian island of Java to the stage in Chapin Hall. The ensemble last performed at Williams in 2005.

Winslow-Kaplan Professor of Music Sumarsam — who like many Javanese Indonesians uses only one name — has led the gamelan program at Wesleyan University for the past 40 years. He is aided by longtime ensemble director and Javanese Artist-in-Residence I.M. Harjito, who specializes in gender, a metallophone with 13 keys, and rebab, a bowed-stringed instrument. Harjito also founded a youth gamelan ensemble at Wesleyan.

Born in a small village in East Java, Sumarsam has studied and played the centuries-old musical art form since childhood, honing his skills at a conservatory in Java before joining Wesleyan in the 1970s.

The distinctive sound of gamelan forms the heartbeat of Javanese cultural life, accompanying ceremonies, feasts, dances and puppet shows throughout the island nation. The name gamelan means orchestra, and is derived from the word gamel, "to hammer," which is how many of the instruments are played.

First heard in the U.S. at the 1893 Columbian Exhibition in Chicago, gamelan was introduced to Wesleyan in the late 1960s when the Connecticut school began its World Music program, which currently includes African, Japanese, Indian, Korean, Caribbean and Indonesian music.

The predominantly percussive gamelan orchestra is performed by students, alumni and community members and consists of bronze gongs, xylophones, metallophones, drums, stringed instruments and vocalists. Elaborate embellished instrument frames and traditional batik shirts worn by the musicians present a colorful visual display during live presentations.

At Williams, the performance will center around a wayang kulit shadow puppet play staged by Sumarsam, who is also a trained "dhalang" or puppet master. In Java, these popular, often lengthy plays serve a dual purpose of both entertaining and providing cultural and spiritual education.

To create the shadows, "flat carved leather puppets are moved across the white screen, projected by light hung above the head of the puppeteer," Sumarsam said. "The puppet show can be watched from either the shadow side or the puppet side."

Sumarsam is the sole puppeteer, dressed in full Javanese costume and accompanied by a dozen musicians and singers. He narrates, sings and voices all the dialogue, mostly in English with some Javanese language.

In the story, "Arjunawiwaha," "a prince Arjuna is successful in destroying evil in the world and is celebrated by the gods by marrying him to a beautiful celestial nymph Supraba," Sumarsam said.

Alongside the gods, kings, demons and knights of wayang kulit are clown-servant characters, who punctuate the play and provide welcome comic relief and topical commentary.

Musical gamelan pieces are performed to heighten the content of a particular scene, Sumarsam said, and include Bendrong (Ferocious), Kasatriyan (Knight), and Srepegan and Sampak, standard works for journeying and fighting.

The performance is presented as part of the Ernest Brown World Music Series, named in honor of the longtime Williams College professor and ethnomusicologist, who died in 2012. Brown founded and led the Zambezi Marimba Band, which still performs on the set of marimba instruments he designed and custom-built. Each year, the series brings music from around the globe to Williams, and has included Tuvan throat singers, Malian Kora and musicians from Sierra Leone, Haiti, China and Brazil, as well as the Gamelan Galak Tika ensemble from M.I.T.


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