Indonesian culture growing in Buffalo through gamelan

Jun 7, 2019

With a combination of guest artists, Indonesian immigrants and Buffalo-born residents, Buffalo Gamelan Club put on a four-hour show Thursday night at Kleinhans Music Hall that featured shadow puppets. As the group continues to tackle more ambitious performances, WBFO’s Nick Lippa reports on their growth in the community.

Audience views shadow puppets.
Credit Nick Lippa / WBFO News

The Kleinhans Mary Seton Room was full Thursday night with quite a diverse crowd. Kids to seniors. Immigrants to lifelong Buffalo residents. All to see traditional Indonesian ensemble music.

“Gamelan is a very unique form of music, percussion music mostly from Java in Indonesia,” said Matt Dunning, who started the Buffalo Gamelan Club in 2016. “It’s a very old art form. The instruments have been around for 1500 years or so with a lot of recent developments and evolution in the art form.”

The instruments cost a lot of money to get and ship. Needless to say, without Dunning there would not be a gamelan ensemble of this size in Buffalo.

“I was playing in Chicago and eventually I moved to Indonesia because I loved the music so much that I wanted to learn from some of the masters of the music," Dunning said. "So I moved to Indonesia on a scholarship from the Indonesian government. While I was there, I befriended a family and acquired some instruments from them when the patriarch of the family actually died. I was lucky enough to bring those instruments back to Buffalo with help from the Indonesian Embassy. In late 2015 they arrived.”

Most Gamelan groups in the United States are associated with universities. This one is independent and now has a new designation.

“Our group has grown exponentially since we started three years ago and we needed to evolve. So we have applied for and received 501(c)(3) non-profit status as Nusantara Arts, Inc,” Dunning said.

Nusantara means archipelago in Javanese. Dunning said Buffalo is sort of an archipelago of different cultures.

“We have so many different refugees and immigrants in Buffalo coming over the last few years. Nusantara meaning archipelago in Javanese really represents to us the idea of how we want to incorporate ourselves in to the Buffalo arts community," he said.

And with a new designation comes more opportunities.

“Now we are going to be able to expand it to programming doing school programming, residencies at different universities. We can also do visual arts now,” he said.

This includes Thursday night’s four-hour wayang kulit performance, which combined gamelan music with shadow puppetry. Dunning was able to bring in guest artists like the shows puppet master Darsono Hadiraharjo, who said these performances are much shorter in the United States.

“In the Western Audience, two hours is very long for them,” Hadiraharjo said. “Normally we just do two hours. But this one is awesome. Because Matt (Dunning) is very dedicated to have wayang longer than normal.”

In Indonesia, performances are usually much longer.

“We do all night like from 9 p.m. to 4:30 in the morning,” Hadiraharjo said.

Hadiraharjo stays busy during the entire performance, musically cueing the entire ensemble while telling a three-act story.

Puppet Master Darsono Hadiraharjo
Credit Nick Lippa / WBFO

“I use all of my body to work. I use my foot to play the kepyak to keep the tempo,” he said. “I use knocking sometimes and both hands to manipulate the puppet. And I also sing and do dialogue.”

What makes gamelan stand out to western audiences? Hadiraharjo said the first thing you will notice is the tuning.

“We have a pentatonic tuning system called slendro and pelog which is very very different. Like a 180 degree difference," he laughed.

These concert settings are very informal. People walk around, eat and drink. They change positions to view the puppeteering from different angels in the room.

Drummer Heri Purwanto, another guest artist, said in Indonesia there’s often a lot happening in the background.

“It was a long time ago when I was a child in Java we had people doing some gambling thing,” he laughed. “That is what people enjoyed doing during the show.”

The drum in a Gamelan ensemble acts like a conductor who takes cues from the puppeteer.  

“The puppeteers give me cues with kepyakan the box. Do do do do doooo,” Purwanto said imitating the sound. “I will respond from the puppet and then all the musicians will respond to me.”

You can view the entire performance here:

While several guest artists led the way for this performance, the group’s core was made up of 17 Buffalo residents, including Indonesian immigrant Riesa Avanti. She’s lived in the city since 2002 after moving from Jakarta, the Indonesian capital. She had no Gamelan experience before joining the group three years ago.

“We don’t actually hear Gamelan playing in Jakarta unless you go to another city. That’s when Gamelan is played,” Avanti said. “But hey, when you are here (Buffalo), anything about your country is exciting to you.”

Purwanto said it’s a surprise experience for Indonesian gamelan players living in Buffalo, who learned to play after leaving their home country.

“It super sort of friendly here. Because we come from the same country. We came from different islands, but it’s the same country. It makes us have a special connection,” he said.

When Avanti was a child, her mother, who was from Java, used to sing lullabies that come from Gamelan.

“When you were a kid and your Mom was singing a lullaby, you don’t even know what it is. But then it sticks to your mind. You know what I mean? And then when we get here and we start playing songs, that’s when I start thinking, ‘Wow. I remember that song.’ So that kind of, wooooooo,” she exclaimed, “brought my memory back to my mom.”

Several instruments make up a Gamelan ensemble. Avanti now plays the saron.

“It’s nerve wracking too,” she laughed. “Because I’m not a musician. I do this because I feel like as an Indonesian I should know how to play this.”

Avanti describes Buffalo as a melting pot and says Gamelan exemplifies that.

“When you listen to the music, it’s kind of meditation,” she said. “It’s really enchanting.”

Gamelan now has roots here in Buffalo. And it looks like it has plenty of room to grow.