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Photo by Celia Mitchell (2015/16 Semester Photo Contest Entry), Indonesia Semester.

Gamelan Beats

In the village of Kedungmiri, nestled in a river valley south of Yogyakarta, there lives a man named Pak Sugiyo. On one of our three nights staying in the village, we had the opportunity to join in weekly gamelan practice with the village seniors, and they put on a beautiful performance for us that echoed throughout the entire village. As we sat, watching, it occurred to me that the gamelan is not an instrument that you just listen to passively, but rather the sound and the vibration of the gongs can be felt throughout your entire body as you listen, encompassing you into the experience of the gamelan.

When the time came to try the instruments ourselves, I was drawn to the gongs. The largest and simplest of the instruments in the orchestra, they are also the most powerful, providing structure for the entire group and creating the encompassing sound that is a trademark signature of gamelan. This is when I met Pak Sugiyo, a slender old man, sitting quietly between the gongs in his batik sarong and t-shirt. He was unassuming, and equally quiet, yet he had an air of well-meaning friendliness that had become unmistakably recognizable at this point in our travels. After taking a seat and greeting him, he showed me the simple rhythm he kept: three taps to the right, one to the left, repeated four times and culminating in one final hit on the massive gong hanging in the corner, and then we played. The playing was rhythmic and meditative, but incredibly satisfying too. During each break, Pak Sugiyo and I talked and smiled together with my limited Indonesian, and he continually offered me more sweet tea to drink or krupuk – a crunchy chip essential to the Indonesian diet – to eat, taking care to see that my cup never emptied.

Eventually, the evening did wind down, and our group of students went back to our stay at the village elder’s home, but the gamelan remained audible for several hours more into the night. Pak Sugiyo’s age, occupation, and family life all still remain a mystery to me, and I may never meet him again, yet he was one of the kindest people I have ever had the pleasure of meeting, and memories of him and the gamelan will remain with me for a long time to come, both in Indonesia and beyond.