A Musical Tradition: Gamelan Semari Santi

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The Lang Concert Hall on Sunday at 3pm was filled with beautiful sounds of traditional Indonesian music. The room atmosphere was mystifying: bright lights, floor-length cloth. Percussive instruments strewn along the floor. Vibrant gangsas and reyongs, ornate drums, musical instruments originated from Indonesia, filled the floor on which members of Gamelan Semari Santi sat, their glowing faces focused as they prepared for their performance. Gamelan Semari Santi is a Swarthmore College ensemble that has been around  since 1997, playing the traditional sounds of Bali temple festivals through rhythm and sound. In collaboration with the Indonesian Cultural Club of Delaware, Gamelan Semari Santi performed with absolute grace, co-directed by Lidya Darmawan, artistic director of the Indonesian Cultural Club of Delaware, Ni Luh Kadek Kusuma Dewi,director of dance for Gamelan Semari Santi, I Nyoman Suadin, co-director of Gamelan Semari Santi and Thomas Whitman, founder and co-director of Gamelan Semari Santi.

The sounds of traditional Indonesian percussion  ensemble and the graceful movements of traditional dance surrounded the audience and both groups captivated those who watched them. The program began with a group of dancers who performed both “Bungong Selanga,” an ancient  traditional dance originating from the Aceh region of Sumatra, an island of Indonesia, and ended with “Tari Rerejangan Selat Segara,” a powerful mixture of dance and sound composed by I Wayan Rai and I Gusti Ayu Srinatih in 1996. These inclusions were perhaps the most beautiful part of the program: the fusion of both traditional Indonesian dance and music to create an exquisite harmony within the movement and sound of Gamelan.

The Gamelan ensemble is comprised of primarily Swarthmore students, Thomas Whitman leading them and helping them memorize the pieces in short segments. The middle performances, those in which involved primarily percussive forces, were the epitome of tradition and modernity, combining both ancient composition and 20th and 21st century works to charm the audience. The harmony, therefore, was spectacular, especially in regards to “Tabuh Gari,” a piece based from the Gamelan Semar Pegulingan repertoire, in which a small set of highly-pitched instruments play. Every single beat and rhythm within the piece was seamless, less sharp and static like the movements of more modern styles, yet melodic in tone.

Furthermore, Rachel Winchester ’17 performed a beautiful solo on the Terompong, a large xylophone-like instrument that procured gong-like sounds. What she loved most about performing the piece “Tabuh Gari” was its therapeutic sound. “When I practiced the solo in the Gamelan Room alone,” Rachel said, “I would repeat these sections so many times, I practically hypnotized myself. It becomes very relaxing, meditative, and therapeutic.”

The versatility of the ensemble, its ability to speed up from this type of piece to a piece such as “Sekar Ginotan,” including both a fast beginning and closing section, showed the hours of practice and rehearsal used to create these sounds.

Range was also founded in the amount of instruments there are, percussion ranging from xylophone-like instruments to bigger instruments such as gongs and drums. “Wayang Kulit,” meaning “Shadow Play,” was an impressive performance in which vibrant sounds were created from just four instruments called metallophones, instruments tuned to a five-tone scale. Found commonly in Bali, the smallest ensemble, Gamelan Gender Wayang, was made up of Thomas Whitman, Lu Min Lwin, Brian Jenike, and David Robinson. Their ability to perform four melodious yet diverse segments exuded a strong musicality of creating soft yet solid tones in a minimalist way, the third segment, “Rebong,” sounding just as luxurious as it is meant to sound in love scenes during traditional performances in Bali.

The most profound musicality of the performances was the gong, its large presence filling the room, adding texture to the motion of the ensemble at 8-, 16-, and 32-beats each. It blended with the xylophonic sounds, keeping the rhythm of the ensemble stable.Amongst other impressive segments of the show were a melodic Ugal solo in “Tari Rerejangan Selat Segara,” the graceful fade into silence of “Sekar Ginotan,” and the distinctive method of playing each of the multiple gangsas without fail.

The most touching aspect of the performance was the tribute to Samuel Jenkins ’19, which in the middle sat an empty gangsa with luscious flowers laid upon it in his honor. Thomas Whitman, the director, told the audience that Sam “never missed a note”. He was a “remarkable student who brought a great deal to the ensemble,” and is certainly missed throughout not only the Gamelan community, but throughout Swarthmore. The music rang in his honor.

Music is a powerful force that has stretched on for generations, and Gamelan Semari Santi is a direct example of this phenomena. The ability for the ensemble to combine both the sounds of tradition and contemporary sentiments show their dedication to the larger goal of music: striving for the development of new, innovative sounds while also paying homage to the sounds of which have preceded us. This performance was no disappointment, reflecting the centuries of tradition behind traditional Bali musical festivals.

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