Who is Gamelan Mitra Kusuma?

Founded in 1997, Gamelan Mitra Kusuma is an ensemble composed of members from many different backgrounds, who all have a common interest in learning about and performing Balinese music and dance, as well as encouraging the enjoyment, experience, and appreciation of the culture and performing arts traditions of Bali, Indonesia. At residence at World Arts Focus in Mount Rainier, Maryland, the group draws its members from all over Maryland, Virginia, and Washington, DC. The name Mitra Kusuma means "Flowering Friendship," which describes the warm and creative relationship cultivated by this group of musicians and dancers.


 

 

 

 

(Photo by Cory Weaver)

I Nyoman Suadin, Founder and Artistic Director

Nyoman is a teacher, composer, and dancer from Tabanan, Bali. He first experienced gamelan music at an early age by participating in a children’s gamelan group in his village of Kerambitan and later received formal training at KOKAR, the Conservatory of the Performing Arts, in Denpasar, Bali.

Nyoman has actively promoted Balinese arts and culture by traveling and performing throughout the United States since 1988. Mr. Suadin currently also teaches at Eastman School of Music, Cornell University, Swarthmore College, and the University of Maryland.


Latifah Alsegaf

Hometown: Jakarta, Indonesia
Occupation: Office Administrator
Gamelan Experience: 12 years

My background is in mainly in dance. I studied several forms of dance -- Irish, modern, jazz -- and only later in my teens, at the encouragement of my mother, began studying Indonesian dance styles (from Bali, Java, Sumatra, Sulawesi). I was especially drawn to Balinese dance because it is so dynamic and it is based in spiritual devotion. One of my favorite memories in Bali was participating in a welcome dance for a temple ceremony with generations of young and old women dancing together.

I began studying gamelan to understand the movements and structure of the dance. I have come to appreciate gamelan as an integral part of dance and also the communal aspect of being part of a musical group. Also, the experience of listening to live gamelan is so much better than only hearing recordings of it. For many years, I only viewed myself as a dancer. But now I see myself as both dancer and musician because Balinese dance and music are so intertwined.


John MacDonald

Hometown: Silver Spring, MD
Occupation: Graphics technician; meddlesome landlord
Gamelan Experience: 17-21 years, depending on how you count it

I found out about gamelan in 1987 from several friends of mine who played in the community gamelan that was active at the University of Delaware. I attended one of their concerts and, while I didn't really care for the music at the time, I was interested in how the instruments were constructed, since this gamelan was not from Indonesia, but was constructed by the director, Dr. Michael Zinn (Jonny Quest fans, please note: this is not Jonny's arch nemesis, the evil Dr. Zin. Michael spells his name with two n's.)

Dr. Zinn made his gamelan out of aluminum sheet metal, copper pipe, terra cotta flowerpots, plywood, PVC and coffee cans. On at least two occasions, Dr. Zinn sent us to the garden store with a mallet and electronic tuner to find flowerpots to match the pitch of ones that had broken. However, it was the gongs that really interested me. They were round pieces of aluminum of varying sizes, tuned by hammering a boss in the center, and had a really pure and beautiful sound. Who would think aluminum could sound so good?

After the concert, my friends invited me to join the group. As I said, the music didn't really appeal to me, but two other friends who went to the same concert decided to join, and so I joined too. I guess I started playing gamelan out of peer pressure. (I also wanted a chance to play those aluminum gongs!)

I played with this group for a couple of years, and my attitude toward gamelan changed from indifference to total fascination. It was completely new, with different tuning, rhythm, and aesthetics than anything I'd ever heard or played. When I moved to Washington, DC, I heard that you could join the Embassy of Indonesia's gamelan groups, so I started attending rehearsals there, and that's where I met Nyoman Suadin.

I first went to what I thought was a rehearsal, but it turned out to be a performance. Not wishing to be rude hosts, Nyoman and his supervisor at the time, Mr. I.G.A. Ngurah Supartha, invited me to join them. They simply sat me down at what turned out to be a gangsa (I didn't even know the names of the instruments then), and handed me a mallet. Mr. Supartha pointed to another player and said, "Just follow her," and added, "Don't worry about what you play. It's just the action that's important."

My only recollection of that concert, besides sheer terror, is that as soon as I just barely started to figure something out, the whole song would change. Anyway, I guess I must've passed the audition, because that was the first of hundreds of performances with Nyoman. He's taught me most of what I know about Balinese gamelan, and has encouraged and challenged me to learn new instruments and techniques.

Gamelan Mitra Kusuma has given me the opportunity to make friends with people that I don't think I would otherwise had the opportunity to meet. Hundreds of people, with all kinds of backgrounds and perspectives on life, have joined or been associated with the group throughout the years, and I've been so lucky to have worked and played with them.


Maria Paoletti

Hometown: University Park, Maryland, USA
Occupation: Student/Various
Gamelan Experience: 8 years

I grew up in Prince George's County, Maryland, and I was first introduced to Balinese gamelan when I took Nyoman's class at the University of Maryland in the fall of 2001. After having spent most of my life playing and singing Western music, I wanted to try something totally new. At the time, the university offered three non-Western ensemble courses. The perennial favorite seemed to be West African Drumming—it was already full, with a long waitlist. Japanese Koto looked fascinating, but the rehearsals conflicted with my schedule. So I signed up for Balinese Gamelan, which at that point was only in its second semester of existence. I barely even knew where Indonesia was—little did I know what I was getting into. That December, Nyoman needed a couple of people to play jegogan with Gamelan Mitra Kusuma. I started coming to rehearsals and I never looked back!

Even after five or so years, it's difficult for me to accurately describe what it is I like so much about Balinese music, and gamelan in general. It's really the act of playing that's the most enjoyable to me—I don't listen to recordings at home very much. One thing I think is most appealing about learning Balinese music is that there's always a challenge, no matter what your ability level may be when you begin. I started out playing jegogan and jublag, and if I had really wanted to, I could have stuck with those and still have been satisfied. Some instruments are more difficult to master than others, but they all play important roles.

My favorite instrument to play now is reyong (which I also started playing by accident), although I still like all of them. I am so grateful to have had the privilege to learn from everyone in the group, as well as to have had to the opportunity to meet other gamelan musicians in Chicago, Philadelphia, Northern California, Richmond and Washington, D.C. It brings me immense joy to share our music with all kinds of audiences.

When I'm not playing gamelan, I live in Baltimore, where I've lived since 2003. Someday I hope to travel to Bali.


Roger Fox

Hometown: Baltimore, Maryland, USA
Occupation: CPA, Federal Government-International Trade
Gamelan Experience: 6 years

I first learned about Balinese music while a freshman at the University of Maryland, but I never imagined I'd actually be participating in it. I stumbled upon the Balinese Gamelan in the course listings, but just assumed it was for "experienced" players who knew what they were doing; not for someone like myself, who previously had no clue about Indonesian music. This all changed, though, at the end of my sophomore year, when I took a more detailed class about music of the world, and one of our assignments was to come to one of the Balinese Gamelan rehearsals on campus.

Not only did I come to one rehearsal, but I kept coming until I graduated in 2006. During my last couple of semesters, I also started playing in Mitra Kusuma, and continue playing to this day.


Gabe Affandy

Hometown: Bandung, West Java, Indonesia
Occupation: College student in Mechanical Engineering
Gamelan Experience: 4 years

It's a bit comical, I think, that I travelled half way around the world to learn my native Indonesian culture. My gamelan experience started in the Fall 2005 semester. My roommate at the time, I noticed, was leaving for class at 7 PM. Who has class that late? After inquiring I was shocked to hear that he was taking Balinese Gamelan (MUSC129G). It was already too late to register for the class, but I was registered for it the very next semester and have continued my learning through Gamelan Mitra Kusuma ever since. I phoned my parents in Indonesia about this and they are very proud that I have embraced my culture. "But why not Sundanese Gamelan, Gabe?" my Sundanese father asked me.


Junko Nakamura

Occupation: Visual Artist
Gamelan Experience: 16 years

I have a strong interest in the arts and enjoy learning about foreign cultures. Not too long before first hearing that there was Balinese gamelan at the Indonesian embassy, I became involved in a film project with some modern dancers in the D.C. area. I met someone who was already playing gamelan with the embassy group and was invited to see a rehearsal. I attended a rehearsal in the hopes of gathering more information for the film project.

I was initially drawn to the visual aspects of Balinese arts: the music being played -- all the movements of the musicians' hands and the different mallets, the intricately carved instruments, the dance movements, and the colorful costumes. I was later encouraged to try playing the instruments. In the beginning, all of the songs sounded the same to me -- the music was loud and it was difficult to distinguish the different instruments; but now after many years of study, I have a better sense of the structure and layers of the music.

Most of all, I appreciate how lots of different kinds of people can come together in one place for gamelan music and dance and create something that is beautiful and unique. Also, my experiences with the gamelan group have opened the door to learning so much about Balinese culture. Although I’ve never traveled to Bali, I feel very close to the people there.


May May Chiang

Hometown: Kelapa Sawit, Johor, Malaysia
Occupation: Pianist, Graduate student, Music teacher
Gamelan Experience: 3 years

Born and raised in Malaysia, I grew up in a multicultural environment and was exposed to diverse musical cultures. After moving to the United States, I studied classical music at the Conservatory of Music at SUNY Purchase and earned a bachelor’s degree in piano performance. In addition to my piano studies, I also had a strong desire to study my native musical culture. After enrolling in the University of Maryland as a graduate student in ethnomusicology, I met Nyoman and became immediately fascinated with Balinese Gamelan music. I have felt a strong connection with gamelan music because it reminds me of the sounds of the rainforest in Malaysia. I am currently researching Malaysian music, and hope to research and specialize in Indonesian music, as well.