Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Wayang and Gamelan in Malaysia

I spent much of yesterday investigating the vicissitudes of wayang and gamelan in Malaysia.

Wayang comes in two major variants, the so-called wayang Siam (based on the Thai shadow puppet theatre) and wayang Jawa (based on Javanese wayang kulit). The former, according to Kathy Rowland (whom I met for coffee), was recognised in the 1970s by the national cultural policy, and was embraced as an authentic form of Melayu culture. It is now known as 'wayang Kelantan' or 'wayang kulit'. A number of famous dalang from Kelantan, such as Nasir (who teaches at ASWARA), survive almost entirely on state patronage.

The Javanese wayang variant largely escapes notice. Javanese are invisible to the state - they are part of the Melayu ethnic group, though many are recent migrants and a large percentage speak Javanese at home. Javanese arts in Malaysia fall largely outside of the direct purview of the state.

After much searching and enquiry, I located a Javanese dalang who lives in Kampung Permatang Duku in the state of Johor named Sukarjo bin Supoyo. Wa Karjo, as he is known, was born near Parangtritis in Yogyakarta in 1952. He had no formal training in wayang, but learned from hiis father Supoyo, a dalang (long deceased) and his mother was a pesinden. He migrated to Malaysia in 1973. Karjo performs regularly in Javanese villages around the west coast of Johor with his 10-piece gamelan group (all slendro instruments, no pesinden). Both the gamelan and the wayang puppets were made in Permatang Duku; all the musicians in his group Tunas Warisan are also from Permatang Duku. He performs both siang (daytime) and bengi (night-time) shows. A brief clip of the group performing a talu (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-qe6HN65y4k&feature=related) suggest that this is wayang as folk art. I hope to travel down to Johor to see Wa Karjo perform on 2 and 8 August. Watch this space for more information.

Gamelan has a related history. Gamelan was imported from Java into the Malay courts, prominently the court of Trengganu, in the pre-colonial era. During the 20th century, the Trengganu-style court gamelan began to be taught widely outside the court context, and there are a number of sets around the country used for instruction in Malay music for university students and others.

The Trengganu gamelan at the University of Malaya was made in Solo. It is a small slendro set tuned to a diatonic pentatonic scale (do re mi so la) with kendang, a couple of saron, a couple of peking, a demung, one bonang (called kromong, like in Betawi), kenong, gambang kayu and two gong (gong ageng and gong suwuk). The instructor Othman has recently retired from the Istana Budaya troupe. He studied briefly at ASTI Bandung around 1990. According to Othman, there are no gamelan being made today in Malaysia. Even the gambang beaters, now broken, will need to be replaced by ordering them from Indonesia. Othman explained that the pieces are easy to learn and while the UM students have only 14 weeks of instruction (once a week, 2 hour sessions) and won't be able to practice outside of class, they will be able to pick up the basics quickly. I sat in on the start of yesterday's class, and hope to see more. The UM gamelan is also used for a class in contemporary music - hope to find out more about that too....

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