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Emily Welker, Published December 08 2013

Sounds of Indonesia: Class’ students perform in traditional musical ensemble known as gamelan

MOORHEAD – Bamboo sticks and mallets in hand, seven people seated on the floor ministered to the instruments before them, the carved wood shimmering with gilt vines and grinning green dragons.

Outside, it was 5 degrees, and the neighborhood was getting ready for Christmas.

But in here, as it has every Sunday night since before Halloween, the air vibrated with the tropical sounds of Southeast Asia, and the traditional Javanese and Indonesian music ensemble known as the gamelan.

“You can’t really practice gamelan by yourself,” said Jeff Meyer, Concordia music professor and instructor of this FM Communiversity gamelan class.

Meyer said part of the reason he wanted to teach the class was to have the experience of playing the gamelan himself.

“It’s a great world music experience in the classroom,” he said.

And unlike most Western music classes, 20 students, all of whom are beginners, can play together, he said.

It’s hard not to compare the collection of instruments that make up the gamelan with more familiar Western instruments.

One instrument looks and sounds a lot like a hefty version of a xylophone.

Another, referred to as “the pots,” resembles a long, low buffet table crowded with lidded gold casserole dishes.

But for all the vague familiarity of the percussion instruments, the language for what they’re playing is entirely different.

“There aren’t English-equivalent terms,” Meyer said. “You do that, you start to make it too much like Western music.”

Student Celeste Johnson of Fargo, who already plays the alto saxophone and the piano, joined the gamelan class out of curiosity.

“I wondered,” she said. “Because I knew nothing about it.”

Traditional gamelan music has a pitch and rhythm that are unfamiliar to most Western listeners, and Meyer said the students don’t need to come to this class with musical training.

The musicians’ synchronized beat began to overlap and layer with one another, and one xylophone player breaks out in double-time. The beat crosses back over into synchronization again, and the song ends with everyone breaking into giggles.

“You just have to think about where we were a few weeks ago,” said Meyer. “We didn’t know what we were doing.”


Readers can reach Forum reporter Emily Welker at (701) 241-5541