Saturday, April 09, 2005

(T) April 9, 2005 - Monkey Business

Like most experiments, it takes many wrongs before we get a right. And Monkey Business is just learning how to swing.

Everything about this production spelt “experiment” – from the order of appearance of items, to the way the instruments were handled, positioned and repositioned, and to the incorporation of other genres of performing arts. A work-in-progress was staged. This is not to say that the performers were ill-rehearsed, but rather, the ideas are not fully formed and it would take years before the artists are to be accomplished in the new styles under development.

Rhythm in Bronze (RIB) has made a name for itself by experimenting with new styles within its genre. Sunetra Fernando, artistic director, composer and ethnomusicologist, had pioneered the emergence of a Malaysian gamelan with a global resonance.

Now, moving on to the next plane of experimentation, RIB is breaking boundaries by going cross-genres, incorporating voice, drama and dance.

If you put the production under a microscope, you would find some amazing breakthroughs in the process of evolving gamelan. Two very important questions are: how many ways could gamelan come to the fore instead of remaining accompaniment; and how could a symbiosis be created between gamelan and other genres of performing arts?

RIB also found new ways of producing sounds from the traditional instruments, specifically the bonangs (bronze kettles). The bonangs were inverted and filled with water, rubbed around its rim, taken “out of the box” literally, or were simply hit very hard to create new sounds.

Purists and traditionalists would jump from their graves or seats, and say, “Ladies, have more respect for the instruments please!”

But such is the business of evolution – to adapt and change; this message was sung in a wholesome manner by Sunetra in the opening piece entitled From Here to There. She croons,

Bagaikan ditelan gangsa
Ke depan tidak, ke belakang jangan
Bagaimana ada pembaharuan
tanpa silam?

Putting theology aside briefly, Neanderthals precedes Man. Grateful as we are for their initiating existence, we surely do not wish to remain in the original state. So, on that note, Sunetra chose to head forward with her obsession.

There were eight pieces altogether, performed in almost random order. In addition to Sunetra’s piece, there were His Face, Her Eyes (by Jillian Ooi), 180 Degrees (by Sharmini S. Ratnasingam), Carbon (by Susan Sarah John), Main-Main in Details (by Mohd. Sobri Anuar), Single Soul (by Ann Salina Peter), There Was This Dream (by Melvin Ho) and Borderless (by Bernard Goh).

Of the eight pieces, Borderless was my favourite while the other pieces seemed to be trying too hard to be "unique".

Despite having experienced only a very “tempurung” world of gamelan, I shall attempt to offer some observations on the basis of how gamelan moves away as accompaniment and moves toward symbiosis.

Gamelan and Voice

Gamelan and voice actually worked very well together. This does not refer to singing accompanied by the gamelan. Firstly, this concept is not new. And secondly, the ability to sing is another talent altogether, which takes many years to hone.

Gamelan and voice works when the musicians both play their respective instruments and sing at the same time. This form of singing is communal in nature and does not require talent. I am very tempted to call this form “Dikir Gamelan” – the sitting down in a group, singing, and playing percussions stylised with upper body movements.

Very often, gamelan musicians would sit quietly in a corner while some dance or drama or singing takes place on centre stage. Now, the singing musicians take centre stage.

Gamelan and Dance

Gamelan and dance could have been exploited further. By this, I do not mean that more dance should be incorporated, accompanied by gamelan. A symbiosis must take place so that gamelan and dance are wholly entrenched.

The Korean drum dance is a good example. The performers are trained to dance and play music at once. These two elements simply cannot be taken apart.

The drummers from the Hands Percussion Team understood this concept better. After all, Chinese drummers had long been infusing movements and acrobatics into its drumming sequence.

However, it is difficult to take this concept whole because the gamelan is made up of various instruments, some, less portable than others.

I also turn to the Hand Bell Choir in my church as an example of how gamelan and dance can be further exploited. There are many hand bells and each carries a note. The choir comprise of a few musicians and each one of them is in charge of two to three notes. To play a tune, tremendous concentration and coordination is required from each musician.

With Gamelan, the same concept can be applied to instruments that can be “taken apart” such as the bonang. In one instance, the bonangs were “taken apart” and we saw Judimar run about the stage to hit them, coming in at certain points of the score. We also saw two performers moving along the line-up of gongs to play a melody. This is uncommon because gongs are not the melody bearers in a gamelan. Taking the gambang apart would be a nightmare!

Gamelan and Drama

This combination fared the worst in this production. Again, acting requires a different sort of talent and vigorous training to boot. On several occasions, it was fairly obvious that one who plays music may not necessarily know how to act.

The themed fillers were interesting and funny at first but later lost its allure when it became predictable.

Each composer seemed to be sharing their own experience with gamelan but I'm still not sure as to how each item in the production relates to the title "Monkey Business". As a whole, the production lacked clarity.


Can a musician also be a dancer, an actor and a singer all at once? Nothing is impossible. However, this is reasonably not achievable within the span of time that they took to put up Monkey Business.

(Monkey Business was put together by Rhythm in Bronze, Five Arts Centre and The Actors Studio)

It is with regret that I jot this. On this day, 11 April 2005, Cikgu Ahmad Omar, joget gamelan maestro from Kuala Trengganu, succumbed to bone cancer.

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