Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Is Indonesia's native music fading?

It is here, in one of Indonesia's last remaining gamelan workshops, that the complex, layered tones of the country's traditional music are shaped, fine-tuned and shipped around the world.
This family-run enterprise in its smoke-filled, tin-roofed shack has been turning out the xylophones, gongs, drums and strings that make up a gamelan orchestra for nearly 200 years. All its employees are descendants of the laborers hired when it opened in 1811.
Every day, a dozen of these grizzled men, shirtless, shoeless, clove cigarettes dangling from their lips, hover over a pit of fire and wait for a nascent gong to glow red. Then, almost musically, with sparks flying, they take turns pounding it into shape with the crudest of hammers.
It takes days to make a single gong.
The workshop in Bogor, 48 kilometers, or 30 miles, south of Jakarta and known simply as the Gong Factory, has been one of the main suppliers of gamelan instruments in Java since the 1970s, when three of its competitors shut their doors because of a lack of demand.
But over the last decade, its owner says, orders here too have been steadily decreasing.
Though gamelan music is still played throughout Indonesia - its collaborative rhythms can be heard at most traditional ceremonies and serenely wafting out of Bali's meeting houses - its popularity is dwindling among the next generation of Indonesians, who are more easily lured by Western rock.
But in early February, a performance in Jakarta by the Icelandic pop star Björk highlighted another trend, however slight, that might offer hope of the music's survival.
Björk has used gamelan instruments in a number of her songs, most famously in her 1993 recording "One Day," and has performed with Balinese gamelan orchestras several times since. Several contemporary composers have incorporated gamelan into their works, including Philip Glass, Steve Reich and the late Lou Harrison.
It can also be found in the American rock scene. Art-rock bands like King Crimson and The Residents adapted gamelan's layered, interlocking rhythms for Western instruments. Gamelan is heard in the soundtrack to the American television series Battlestar Galactica.
Perhaps more significantly, some schools in the United States and Europe now offer gamelan courses. Britain even includes it in its national music curriculum for primary and secondary education.
"They are doing all kinds of interesting community education projects with gamelan in Great Britain," Suyenaga said. "It is interesting and very sad that gamelan is used to teach basic musical concepts in Great Britain, whereas in Indonesian schools our children are exposed only to Western music and scales. The national curriculum here pays little attention to the incredible richness of traditional culture."

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