‘It teaches you how to just vibe’: UNC’s Indonesian music ensemble

Rich sounds of Indonesian brass instruments and song lyrics pour through the doors of Hill Hall on Wednesday evening by the Nyai Saraswati Gamelan Ensemble.

The Gamelan is UNC’s Indonesian musical ensemble, featuring melodies from male and female voices alongside dozens of unique instruments ranging from metallophones to wooden xylophones.

The instruments have been housed at the university for over 20 years since they made a three-month voyage across the ocean from Central Java, a province of Indonesia, to Chapel Hill in December 2000.

Although the gamelan is a musical ensemble, it differs from any other major musical group, said James Peacock, UNC’s retired anthropology professor and influential organizer for the university’s ownership of the instruments.

“It’s not like a symphony orchestra that has a lot of separate instruments that can be coordinated with each other,” he said. “You have to build the instruments in such a way that they are matched to each other the way they are built.”

Over the past 20 years, the UNC Gamelan has performed at a variety of events and kicks off its fall season this week. The ensemble’s first fall meeting will be on Wednesday, August 17 from 7:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. in Hill Hall Room 107.

John Caldwell, the current ensemble leader and teaching associate professor at UNC, said Gamelan welcomes a wide variety of members – with or without prior musical knowledge.

“One of the cool things about gamelan is that you don’t just decide on one instrument and specialize – you can try anything else,” he said. “And everyone should have an idea of ​​how to play all the instruments.”

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When UNC Music Major Jaidan Pearce-Cameron first saw the roster of the ensemble’s instruments last year, she hadn’t heard of most of them. Since then she has been playing gongs and finding community in the gamelan.

“I think it’s important for UNC because especially when it comes to music programs, they really focus on western art music, which is 16th and 18th centuries, white male dominated and basically only in the United States,” she said. “So this gamelan ensemble really offers a different perspective of tonality and a different understanding of what music can and is beyond what we’re used to.”

Pearce-Cameron encourages anyone interested in the ensemble to engage not only with the music but also with the lessons the experience offers.

“It’s really more than teaching you how to play music,” she said. “It teaches you how to just vibrate and interact with people. It teaches how to listen to each other. It opens your ears to what you’re not used to, and you can’t broaden your horizons until you’re exposed to it.”

Caldwell echoed Pearce-Cameron’s enthusiasm for others to engage in gamelan as a way to unwind from the stressors of college life. He said the performances remind some attendees of a trance or meditation experience.

“Once you get into the groove, it’s very relaxing,” he said. “I think it’s right brain versus left brain and whatever music does it really helps release the tensions of the day. I would highly recommend it to students.”


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