Watch a performance from an entirely different realm.
IN a little industrial lot in Petaling Jaya, Selangor a group of music lovers gathers regularly to practise a rare, traditional art – gamelan.
The rhythmic clang of brass plates and knobs produces a majestic, mystical sound that reverberates through the hall.
This is the world of Rhythm in Bronze (RIB), a local contemporary gamelan troupe noted for its spectacular performances.
It likes to be known as the new Malaysian gamelan.
Its specialty is gamelan theatre, an artistic production with a rich sensory appeal as it fuses traditional arts with the contemporary and incorporates dance and other movements into the storyline.
Currently, the ensemble of 15 is busy preparing for its upcoming concert, Maya: Gong Illusions, which is its fourth theatre production.
It includes a creative and diverse range of instrumentation from Malay, Javanese and Balinese gamelan to Cyanotic music, Chinese drumming and Sufi poetry, a mystical Islamic art.
In Maya: Gong Illusions, RIB collaborates with renowned dance choreographer Joseph Gonzales and 20 other guest performers such as singer and songwriter Reza Salleh, bassist Zailan Razak and award-winning Battery headz Percussion.
RIB began in 1997, when artistic director, composer and Universiti Malaya ethnomusicology lecturer Sunetra Fernando pioneered a new breed of Malaysian gamelan musicians to produce a performance that caters to an international audience.
With fellow music aficionados, she brought the music to a contemporary concert stage and developed an audience for its unique sound.
In those days, it collaborated with the likes of local veteran musicians Hardesh Singh, Jillian Ooi, Indonesia’s Ben Pasaribu, British and New Zealander composers Adrian Lee and Gareth Farr.
Through the years, RiB even joined forces with Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra associate conductor Kevin Field.
Sunetra has since migrated to Britain and is not directly involved with RiB, which is now headed by Sharmini Ratnasingam, a 46-yearold with a lively personality.
“That’s the essence of our shows, the collaboration with different composers. It brings a different element to the production each time,” says Sharmini who is the executive producer.
“Dear Mama Sharm”, as the troupe endearingly calls her, sits among them in rehearsals, mingling easily, managing and performing in the productions.
Its passion is evident. Jolly banter fills the air as it comes together on a Saturday afternoon before practice, preparing bulletins for its upcoming production.
Behind each gamelan set, the musicians work in pairs.
“It’s all about chemistry,” says producer Christine Yun, a Universiti Malaya research assistant who has been with RiB for four years. “It’s imperative that it connects and learn to play together.”
The group is tight-knit and there is a familial ease that’s especially evident in performances.
One of its more notable performances was Alih PungGong, a 2007 production held at the Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre, which comprised power-packed short pieces. Like RiB’s other productions such as Hari Jadi in 2009 (its 12th year anniversary concert), Alih PungGong scored praises for its contemporary music for gamelan orchestra.
Swaying to the reverberative rhythm in light, fluid movements, the troupe’s movements are dreamy, purposeful and perfectly in sync with the melody.
Most of the cast members are recruited from monthly workshops that RiB runs. For a monthly fee of RM180, students gets exposure while RiB identify fresh talents.
A willingness to learn and fierce commitment to train are imperative.
“A fundamental understanding of music and being able to sing in key are necessary, of course, but ulti- mately, we welcome people who are passionate about what we do,” says 31-year-old RiB music director Ann Salina Peter, who is a music teacher in a private school.
This unique group is eager for the audiences to understand and appreciate the magic of gamelan theatre.
“People think that it’s just about the way we play the instruments, but really, it’s the after-effect, that lingering sound that resonates within you,” Sharmini says.
“See that huge, brass piece over there?” she says, pointing. “That’s the gong Agong. Those who made the gong had to fast before hand. Gamelan is a highly spiritual thing.”
Sharmini also points out that, contrary to common misconception, gamelan is not what many might perceive to be old-fashioned and unsuited for modern taste.
“Gamelan is traditional but it can change and grow,” Yun said. “Like how we have interpreted English songwriter Reza Salleh’s song For Her into gamelan.”
Sharmini refutes the common misconception that views RiB as a Malay gamelan. “We are a Malaysian gamelan. We use many techniques – Sudanese, Javanese – anything, in fact, so we prefer to not be stereotyped,” she emphasised. “We’re all about the music and visual.”
They’ve got rhythm: The cast of rhythm in bronze rehearsing for their fourth gamelan theatre production,