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"Bronze Reverberations of Gongs": Czech Gamelan

If you had made the unlikely prediction a year ago that I would be listening to a gamelan concert in Prague, I would have been doubtful. Yet to my surprise, I was in Prague last night (24 Oct) to attend a gamelan concert. My Fulbright-Hays friend Karla and I witnessed the unique event from bar stools at the back of Klub Podsklepeno (Karlínské náměstí 7, Praha 8).

The concert presented a wide variety of gamelan styles and included one Balinese dance piece. Apart from a few precarious moments at Irama changes, the ensemble was very aware and played well together. Asmaradana successfully "made fun" (i.e., brought the audience to a joyful mood). The ensemble was even brought back for an encore after playing their last prepared piece. Considering that the concert was in part a “graduation” for the members of a two-month course taught by Sumi, the ensemble’s generally high playing-ability and proficient performance were impressive.

Two further highlights featured reduced instrumentation. One was a shimmering Balinese solo piece that featured close ostinatos featuring an accomplished (Balinese?) member of the ensemble. The second was a beautifully refined Subukastawa with Sumi's singing accompanied by gendér.

The performance was the most recent of a series of gamelan events sponsored in Prague since 2003 by Gamelan - sdružení přátel tradiční indonéské hudby (Gamelan: Friends of Traditional Indonesian Music), a group founded by Christopher Stones. Guest Director Sumiyanto (Sumi) introduced each section of the concert in Indonesian or English, and Czech translation was supplied by L. Felcan, a Czech student who studied last year at the Academy of Arts in Solo, Indonesia (STSI). It would’ve been nice if these informative bits – e.g., introducing the instruments of the gamelan, translating the song texts, and discussing the relationship of gamelan music to shadow puppet plays – had been a bit shorter, particularly since only a few words were audible at the back of the hall.

While the venue is ideally suited to rock and jazz concerts, it didn’t quite bear up to the standards of a refined court music. On top of that, there was not adequate space for the audience that showed up. We were seated against the club’s back wall behind an aisle that filled with standing audience members. Our seats were ideally located to view the bartender’s scowls as she was asked to turn off the cooling equipment for the beer machine, shut off the lights in the cold-drinks display, and finally to stop washing the dishes so loudly (prompted by the complaint from an audience member that “I could be home in front of the television rather than here”) . As you can imagine, these seats were not well-suited to hear (or see) the concert, and the nuances of the soft instruments, particularly celempung and gendér, were lost in the swirl of bar noises.

Overall, the concert was enjoyable and, for me, completely unexpected. There was mention of an effort to continue the ensemble even though instructor Sumi is returning to STSI. The concert was sponsored in part by Tenggara, a Prague group supporting Southeast Asian studies, and the Indonesian Embassy in Prague. If you want to learn more about gamelan, you can begin here. Also, be sure to have a look at Karla’s account of the concert (her comments on the dreadlocks are so true).

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Blogger Karla said . . .

I am glad you thought to mention the bar noises/lights, as I can't imagine how I failed to. Actually, your pictures turned out surprisingly well. I don't think I ever saw more than the top of a performer's head.    

12:42 PM, October 27, 2005

Blogger plasticattack said . . .

Gamelan in a bar?! Brilliant. When you get back here we'll arrange for something at the Blind Pig. I'll start scrubbing the floor...    

6:26 AM, November 01, 2005

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