The Gamelan Raga Kusuma ensemble at a performance (Photo courtesy GRK)
The music could catch anyone off guard, the noise comparable to a restaurant kitchen during a serious earthquake. If this were played through an amplifier, it would be at 11. However, the tones are more dulcet than abrasive, containing melody, harmony and interlocking rhythms. Through the cement walls of the basement of University of Richmond’s Weinstein International Center, the Gamelan Raga Kusuma (GRK) Balinese ensemble explodes into vibrant sound. The sound of gongs vibrating pierces the stale air as the players fiercely beat their instruments with a collection of mallets. The musical energy flows from high to low as Professor Andrew McGraw, playing the kendang, or leading drum, conducts the ensemble through segments of pieces they're rehearse for the evening.
The Global Sounds Studio where practices are held is like a portal — a realm removed from the boiler room-esque basement of the Weinstein Center and immersed in the history, culture and tradition of Southeast Asia. Poster-sized tapestries hang low and the floor, covered with oriental rugs, is littered with music and ornate instruments one might expect to see in a museum. A gamelan set is a collection of antique-looking percussion instruments, mainly played with different sizes of wooden, ice-pick shaped mallets. There are the gendér and the gangsa, which are coffee-table sized metallophones, reminiscent of decorative vibraphones with tubular resonators underneath. The wood carving on each instrument is unique, displaying Hindu gods (Bali is one of many Indonesian islands, and a Hindu enclave within the predominantly Islamic country) with artistry and precision. The bonang and kenong are bell-shaped, hammered gongs and make a sound similar to banging a kitchen pot, but are played with the finesse of a wind chime. Between them, these instruments balance the melody, harmony and rhythm of each piece; without one, the ensemble is lacking in tone.
It is 6:30 p.m. on a Sunday night back in the fall, and the ensemble is playing together in their final practice before choosing a select few to perform at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. McGraw brings the cacophony to a halt. He beats his drum as a conductor would his baton, and instructs a section of bonang players to play individually. Instead, someone from the back of the room cracks a joke directed at McGraw. The two laugh while a din of conversation forms among the musicians. “We should really get back on track,” McGraw states to the room, nearly unheard over sidebar conversations. “I’d like to get out of this rehearsal with at least some confidence in our work.”
An old, stringless guitar rests atop a gong. The instruments sit on one side of a table piled with artifacts and sheet music collected around the world. In the corner of the office, a small Javanese gendér sits in anticipation of a solo practice. This is the office of Professor McGraw, a soft-spoken man well-versed in topics ranging from the avant garde music scene in downtown Richmond to the Southeast Asian communities he visited in his days studying ethnomusicology. His role as the founder of GRK correlates to his hiring at the university a decade ago, when he brought with him the concept of the gamelan ensemble. His perseverance allowed this community ensemble to evolve into a very welcoming company of players.
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A dancer from the GRK ensemble performs at Hardywood Park Craft Brewery. (Photo courtesy GRK)
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A member of the gamelan ensemble plays the ugal. (Photo by Randall Rehfss courtesy GRK)
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Another GRK performer mans the gong. (Photo by Randall Rehfss courtesy GRK)
One may not expect an underground world music community to come from University of Richmond. Yet for 10 years, GRK has been a tight group of people from all backgrounds interested in traditional Balinese music. The musicians are diverse: there are mothers, fathers, grandfathers, teenagers, and undergraduate and graduate students all participating in the practices on campus. The motley bunch of performers may not all fit the image of a traditional Indonesian musician, but they are uniquely Richmond in that sense: “We’re a little hipster,” McGraw states with pride.
Live performances are a focus of the group, as they continually find creative ways to be active in the Richmond area. Their shows usually involve dancers, creating a cultural atmosphere befitting an embassy or museum performance. McGraw admits Richmond is not necessarily a hub for world music, though GRK has played in area eateries and at venues such as Hardywood brewery, the Camel Club and Strange Matter, and has done a number of performances with local noise musicians, and played at nearby ambient music festivals.
GRK embodies the practices of Balinese culture and tradition, infused with their own American style. Whole communities in Bali and Java get together in public meeting houses to discuss civic projects or community issues and play together on the community set of gamelan instruments. Paralleling this, halfway through GRK's two-hour rehearsals, there is a break where members share food and socialize. The players chat, tell jokes and update each other on their lives. Friends of members sometimes ride with them to a practice, and almost as quickly as they arrived, they're invited to sit in and play a (simpler) instrument to participate in the music making. “The parts are graduated,” says McGraw. “There’s always a part for somebody.”
“The rehearsals are kind of public events,” McGraw adds. Gamelan instruments have been bringing people together for centuries; it's no different with GRK. “One would be sitting and playing for a while, and then they would have to go and take care of their kids,” McGraw says, initially referencing tradition, but also referencing his son, running around the room, absorbed in a pretend world of his own creation making.
During the rehearsal, Richmond local Chris Lumpkin is one of a few newcomers who wishes to witness the members playing. After 20 minutes of watching, he joins in on the gong; by the end of the night, he has become integral to the group's rhythm, keeping tempo on the kenong. “I feel like those guys are a snake charmer, and I’m a snake,” Lumpkin says after getting up from playing. This openness reflects the culture of gamelan, one where anyone is able to participate at any level, and all are welcome. The Richmond gamelan community displays this sentiment with exuberance.
The practice ends as it began: suddenly. The movement the musicians had been playing moments before with vigor comes to a halt as McGraw raps on his drum to signal a stop. With ears ringing, the players begin to pack up their instruments. The members place gongs are into cases and then file out of the room. McGraw believes their music is best displayed when the whole ensemble plays together. Regardless of their casual, welcoming sensibilities, it is this greater sense of community that allows GRK to perform at a professional level.
The Gamelan Raga Kusuma ensemble celebrates its 10th anniversary with a performance Sunday, March 19, at the Grace Street Theater, 934 W. Grace St. For this performance, the ensemble will be joined by master musicians and dancers from the Indonesian Embassy in Washington, D.C. The show will be immediately followed by an "Indo-Noise-ia" performance across the street at Strange Matter in a benefit for Planned Parenthood featuring the bands Beleganjur, Feminacci, Azitrax and Tavishi. Tickets for the Grace Street Theater show are $12 for general admission and $7 for students.