Buffalo has a 'gamelan scene', Indonesian artifacts and music on display at science museum

Jan 10, 2020

On Saturday night, Nusantara Arts, formerly known as the Buffalo Gamelan Club, will be performing a show at the Buffalo Museum of Science in front of Indonesian artifacts and artwork. The one-night exhibit is a product of a growing gamelan scene in Buffalo and desire on the museum’s behalf to work with more local organizations.


Matt Dunning (Left) and Gabrielle Graham (Right)
Credit Nick Lippa / WBFO

Last June, Nusantara Arts put on a four-hour show at Kleinhans that featured shadow puppets for an audience of hundreds.

“The first time that I heard about the Buffalo gamelan scene was for the shadow puppet show that was at Kleinhans,” said Buffalo Museum of Science Community Partnerships and Adult Programs Manager Gabrielle Graham, who heard about the event over Facebook.

“Sometimes I google gamelan in my area but generally that’s not the way that I get to it,” Graham laughed.

At the same time, a Gamelan Club group member who happens to be an employee of the museum informed Nusantara Arts Executive Director Matt Dunning he saw something that looked familiar.

“He was walking around and saw what looked like a shadow puppet. At the time about a year ago we were doing a wayang kulit shadow puppet show at Kleinhans,” Dunning said. “So he was like, ‘Whoa that looks like a shadow puppet.’ So he sent me a photo and, ‘Yeah dude, that’s a shadow puppet.’”

Dunning soon after found out of the 700,000 objects the museum had, 700 from its anthropology collection were Indonesian artifacts. So Dunning, who spent years in Indonesia studying the music and culture, brought in puppet master Darsono Hadiraharjo to help look at artifacts.

Credit Nick Lippa / WBFO

“We sort of identified who the wayang characters were in the storage room,” Dunning said. 

The Buffalo Gamelan Club, now known as Nusantara Arts, has been around for about four years now. One thing that has helped growth is access to master Indonesian musicians like Hadiraharjo.

“I’m a guy who went over to Indonesia and learned about a lot of music with masters. But I would not call myself a master in any way,” said Dunning. “But there are Indonesian masters who live in the United States. So we can bring them to Buffalo and they can help our group out and that gives us a cultural connection to people that have never been to Indonesia.”

Graham said the museum wants to work with organizations that are actively preserving cultures from areas outside of Buffalo, especially ones who are now making Buffalo home.

“The anthropological collections are just the objects,” she said. “And it’s the experience of people who are participating in practices that have been going on for hundreds or thousands of years or things that they have brought over with them as they immigrate to Buffalo.”

As the gamelan group performs Saturday night, a handful of objects will be on display. This includes a temple bell, basket piece, and a horned spoon with carvings. Most of them are from the mid-19th century.

Credit Nick Lippa / WBFO

“We can interpret the lives of people, but really to get that depth of connection and the vibrancy to what these things mean, we rely on outside organizations that are really demonstrating it, that are living it, and are able to help us share the context around the objects that we hold,” Graham said.

Over the next five months, Nusantara Arts will be taking up residency at the Buffalo Center for Arts and Technology to work with new students. Dunning said he always expected Buffalo to take Gamelan and run with it, but it’s happening faster than he anticipated.

“Buffalo is a really community-oriented city and Gamelan is a really community-oriented music,” Dunning said. “So I knew as soon as people knew about it and started practicing it, it would sort of become of the cultural fabric of our own city.”

There is an Indonesian community in Buffalo which Dunning said has supported the organization. There are four women from Indonesia that joined the ensemble after years of living in Buffalo. Some of them use it as a way to stay in touch with their heritage. They will be dancing at Saturday’s show.

“None of them are classically trained dancers. But they all wanted to do this so we’re doing it. Our organization is basically willing to basically just do anything to play music, to have a good time and to showcase this culture to as many people as we can,” Dunning said.

The music has many components to it, which Dunning said helps make it accessible. The music can involve dance, shadow puppets, and other visual arts.

“I think it’s important for people to sort of have an idea of what’s going on in the world and what other people are doing so we can have perspectives on art, culture, but also sociologically,” Dunning said. “There’s really no way we can relate to other people unless we know something about them.”

So what’s the best way to do that? Graham believes it starts with establishing context through cooperation.

“In building greater opportunities for exposure for different cultures, you’re able to not only reveal the context of how they got to develop things that people that are not of your culture have, but also to reflect on why we do the things that we do in our own culture and why we see certain things as acceptable or other things as taboo, whether that’s built out of environmental concerns or political concerns or religious backgrounds. There are a lot of different morays that go into why we make the decisions that we do,” Graham said.

Graham added that science isn’t sterile. There’s susceptibility to human error.

“The more that we can practice in examining culture and thinking about the ways that things fit together, the better able we are to prioritize what’s important to us moving forward. Not only here in Buffalo, but in the nation and the world," she said. "Where are we going? Why are we going there? And what are the tools that we need to share with one another? What do we do really well? What do we do not so well? And how can we build on strengths within our communities and across cultures to really make the world that we would like to see.”

It’s a worldly way of thinking, but Graham said it's applicable on a smaller scale.

“The fact that Matt could come in here and say, ‘I want to do a show in the Buffalo Museum of Science,’ and I say, ‘That sounds amazing. I love the Gamelan. You should totally come and do a show at the Buffalo Museum of Science.’ This kind of cooperation is what’s going to build stronger economies, better relationships between neighbors,” she said. “In the modern age there’s a lot of ungrounding where you kind of feel that crushing sense of the abyss and there’s so much stuff all the time. But it doesn’t have to be that way. You can focus on building a really tight, well-oiled community that works together well. Once you have a very strong local community, you can work from there to build out from there to address problems at a larger scale.”

Both the Buffalo Museum of Science and Nusantara Arts share a common goal—exposing culture and heritage from outside communities while integrating it as a part of Buffalo's future. 

“I would say when we first started Buffalo had a gamelan class. Now we have gamelan scene," said Dunning. "Now we have people who were students when we first started, now they are teaching the new students because they know enough and they want to share their knowledge with people. If we can keep growing and if we can keep attracting new students and new people that are interested, it’s just going to become a more and more organic, cohesive kind of environment for people to be in.” 

Saturday night’s performance runs from 6:30 p.m. to 9 p.m.