Javanese and Gamelan Class

I settled happily into the back of the group of students in my gamelan class. If I’m honest, I’ve always been better at music than dance—faking my way through numerous orchestra performances even while I began facing up to the fact that ballet was only ever going to be a hobby. The same is as true in Java as it was in the United States. Though I consider dance my primary artistic pursuit here, the fact remains that I’m just better at gamelan. Last semester, the gamelan exam was the only one I felt truly prepared for and this semester I walked into the class with confidence.

My good mood was only strengthened as the teacher began discussing the theory behind the ketawang form. I’d learned a tiny bit of this last semester in the gamelan-for-foreigners class and so felt like I could handle a bit more theory. After copying down the song for the next few weeks into our notebooks, we spread out to our various instruments.

We rotate through all the instruments, but we have to go in the order of the attendance sheet—something that I am only tangentially a part of. I always end up hanging back and waiting to see what instruments are left open. This first day I started out with the kenong: the largest set of pots, usually used to accent the middle or end of a phrase. Except for getting a little overzealous trying to play behind the beat, I could handle kenong fine. The next instrument—meant only to keep the beat—was also simple. I even handled the gong well, if we leave out some wrong notes that were quickly corrected by one of the teachers sitting nearby.

But then—then came kendhang.

Kendhang, if you remember, is the drum used in gamelan. It’s almost essential to keeping everyone together and thus extremely important. And I had no idea how to play it. I could read the notation, but something was not clicking. Awkward foreigner moment #21, I thought a little hysterically, nodding my head in an attempt to keep time.

The teacher seated next to me, immediately noticing my plight, began saying the kendhang part beside me, speaking each beat. I tried to concentrate, eyes focused on the notation on the white board. Inevitably2, I bypassed beats in my rush to get to the end of the song.

This was when the amazing thing happened—the teacher started speaking to me in Javanese. Her advice—mainly to stay calm—ended up being in a combination of Javanese and Indonesian, the way everyone here tends to speak when they’re not concentrating too hard. That’s the thing, though. She never stopped mixing in Javanese. When the song mercifully came to an end, she made me run through a particularly hard section on my own, giving me directions only in Javanese.

I know this doesn’t sound like much, but truly it is. Javanese is one of the main frustrations of my day-to-day life. At this point, I understand a fair bit of it, enough to get by in class and enough to know when people are talking about me. I can say very little, though, and my accent is so bad that almost no one takes me seriously when I say more than a few word at a time. Because of this, I tend to use it sparingly and only around friends3 and because of that most people assume I don’t understand it all. Since everyone has an almost unconscious preference for Javanese, this assumption creates a barrier that I have yet to break through in any meaningful way.

Recently, one of my friends commented that now he can’t use Javanese when he wants to say something without me understanding. This sentiment has been echoed by a few other people here who know me extremely well. Apart from them, though, there is a disconnect with other people that I feel almost constantly.4

That’s what makes the teacher’s use of Javanese so significant. Most likely, since she was someone I had never met before, she assumed that I was another Indonesian student, albeit one who was inexplicably bad at kendhang. Nevertheless, the simple assumption that I understood Javanese, its implicit acceptance, felt amazing.

“Again,” she said.

I drummed out the lick again.

“Again.”

My fingers moved over the drum and my shoulders, slowly, relaxed.

1Awkward foreigner moment #1 occurred earlier in the day during the girls’ dance class. The teacher instructed everyone to pick groups. I was not picked for any group. In actuality, this is fine, because the dance is quite difficult and I don’t want to drag anyone else down. Nevertheless, it wasn’t exactly a terribly positive way to start the day.
2The pianist who accompanied me during high school always said that I would speed up during competitions. I still haven’t managed to shake this habit. The more nervous I am, the faster I play.
3With some notable exceptions. Once, I had to ask a teacher whom I’d never directly spoken to before about the homework she’d assigned. Psyched out by the huge assumed difference in social status between students and teachers, I ended up spluttering out my question with a bit of formal Javanese in an effort to be very, very respectful. That said, I’m usually not stressed enough to warrant an attempt at formal Javanese.
4This same week, a woman who I’ve known since my third or fourth month in Indonesia expressed—in Javanese—disbelief that I’d be able to understand a somewhat flippant comment that the boys’ dance teacher had directed at me. She was utterly shocked when I was able to reply that I did, in fact, understand.

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