Gamelan concert features “one of the great dancers of the world”

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

2007 marks the tenth anniversary of Swarthmore’s Gamelan Semara Santi, the only orchestra in the Philadelphia area devoted entirely to music and dance from Bali, Indonesia. Music Professor Tom Whitman founded the group in 1997. For the uninitiated, he explained that “Gamelan is a percussion orchestra from Indonesia… people in this country love hearing the Gamelan for the first time because it’s a collection of shimmering bell sounds.” About twenty-five musicians will be playing xylophones, suspended gongs, bamboo flutes, and drums mounted on a rack.

Alex Ho ’10 is a member of the ensemble. He explained that Gamelan is appealing because “it’s not like Western music at all… you don’t even look at sheet music, you just hear things and repeat them… it’s really challenging and really interesting.” He described the music as “almost all about the rhythm… there are only five notes, and it’s really cool the way that you can have this part of the ensemble doing one thing and the other part doing something else and the two rhythms come together.”

All of Gamelan Semara Santi’s concerts feature dance as well as music. Swarthmore has a joint department of music and dance, and Whitman called the Gamelan orchestra “one of the few groups where the two are really inseparable.” Sunday’s concert will feature six dancers from Swarthmore as well as I Wayan Dibia, who Whitman described as “one of the great dancers in the world from any tradition… he’s a master in particular of the masked dance tradition in Bali,” which is called topeng, “a very funny… [and] also a very beautiful tradition.”

The orchestra will be playing three pieces at Sunday’s concert, including Puspawresti, a piece that I Wayan Dibia composed himself in the 1980s. “Our dancers have learned the choreography,” said Whitman, “and Dibia himself will be coaching us… we’ve been very excited.” This piece features the whole Gamelan as well as seven dancers, six females from Swarthmore and I Wayan Dibia as the male soloist. In addition to this contemporary work, the ensemble will also be performing two traditional topeng pieces. There are around twenty-five students currently involved with Gamelan as well as a handful of members of the larger Swarthmore community.

When in graduate school, Whitman applied for a Luce grant in order to learn about non-Western music. “They dropped me off in Bali with no knowledge or background and that’s how I got involved… about ten years after that I floated the idea of starting a program here and my colleagues were very supportive.” The Gamelan ensemble is also supported by co-director I Nyoman Suadin, Whitman’s own music teacher, and his wife Ni Nuh Kadek Kusuma Dewi, who teaches the dancers. “Because they’re not local our dancers only get to work with her four times a semester,” explained Whitman, “and they do amazing work from four rehearsals… it’s my greatest failing as a Gamelan teacher that I can’t teach dance.”

Whitman encouraged people to come to Sunday’s concert because “most people who come to a gamelan concert having no idea to expect really enjoy it,” and with I Wayan Dibia, this concert should be ever more memorable than most. The orchestra invites people to a hands-on demonstration at 3 PM on Sunday in the Scott Amphitheater, and Whitman noted that “we’re particularly extending this invitation to children,” who have enjoyed playing the instruments in the past. The concert proper will began at 3:30 PM.

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