Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Concert Review: Electric Junkyard Gamelan at Barbes, Brooklyn NY 3/20/10

If there’s a more original band in New York than Electric Junkyard Gamelan, we need to know about them. Their shtick is to take found objects and turn them into percussion instruments, all of them their own creations (they should patent them if they haven’t already). Among their creations tonight: the barp (a drying rack for clothing used as low-register percussion, strung with what looked like rubber bands); the terraphone (a clarinet with a regular reed mouthpiece fastened to a handmade body made from copper tubing); the clayrimba (a perfectly tuned marimba made from clay pots of various sizes) and the cachoptar, sort of a mbira (thumb piano) strung over a section of an old futon frame. The drum kit has kitchen pots in place of cymbals, a plastic pickle drum for a snare, a 20-gallon plastic trashcan for the kick, what looks like the bottoms of several aluminum Chinese takeout pans on a stand for a hi-hat…and a small cast iron skillet on a kick pedal for a cowbell. A discarded circular saw blade became a small gong; half of a school bell became another. Considering that the kit was originally assembled for and required two players, drummer Lee Frisari did a mind-bogglingly impressive job flailing around, half of what she was hitting completely out of her field of vision.

What did their show sound like? Psychedelic, hypnotic, impossible to sit still to. The back room at Barbes was packed but surprisingly, nobody was dancing, considering what a groove they laid down. True to their name, they’re gamelanesque: pointillistic, gently and incisively clattering but also crashing and bashing or slinking and swaying. Several of their songs were basically acoustic trip-hop instrumentals, almost parodies, except that in place of a cold, mechanical drum machine there were four warm bodies rotating betwen instruments. Considering that in Indonesia, gamelans are community organizations where everybody plays pretty much anything (New York’s own gamelan, Gamelan Dharma Swara, of which Electric Junkyard Gamelan’s frontwoman Terry Dame is a member, works the same way), they held true to tradition. Julian Hintz alternated between the aforementioned instruments and another with multicolored rubberbands strung between two wire hangers and rapped on their hip-hop flavored numbers, and didn’t embarrass himself – if he’s the one writing the lyrics, his worldview is smartly aware and his flow is effortlessly smooth, hardcore Brooklyn circa the here and now. One of their later numbers centered around a couple of pairs of Balinese cymbals striking up a ferocious clatter like New Years Day in Chinatown, which was borderline painful considering Barbes’ cozy confines; by contrast, the slinky Space Kitty worked permutations of a woozy bent-note melody on the cachoptar while Life on Mars (an original, not the Bowie song) was mesmerizing and impossible not to get lost in. They also did a funny, fun tribute to their touring van, Fred Beans. Even before the hip-hop lyric and the audience-response part came in, the pans and the gongs were playing off his name – another band’s vehicle should be so proud. They closed with their most Indonesian-sounding number of the night, complete with a big crashing crescendo followed by an impossible series of trick endings. The packed house screamed for an encore and got one, a fiery, conscious hip-hop tune. By now they’d been onstage for over an hour and a half and it was time for the next band – smartly, the waitress had turned on the AC, because considering how hard the four percussionists had been working, they needed it. Electric Junkyard Gamelan do a lot of live shows: watch this space for the next one.

March 20, 2010 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: Gamelan Dharma Swara’s 2008 Fall Show

For those new to the concept, gamelans are the community-based bell-and-percussion orchestras common throughout the Indonesian archipelago. Sunday afternoon, Gamelan Dharma Swara, New York’s very own Balinese-style gamelan treated a standing-room-only crowd to a performance that was as beautifully hypnotic as it was bracing. In keeping with tradition, this group is a community organization, holding an open workshop on December 7 for anyone interested in joining. True to form, this group of 24 musicians plus dancers is multi-ethnic and represents a wide range of ages including a young guy who is their star performer and looks about 12. Musicians from a wide range of completely unrelated styles have found a home in this group, including the bass player from Chicha Libre, one of the singer/arrangers from Brooklyn Balkan folk choir Black Sea Hotel and noted Chinese guzheng player Wu Fei.

 

Bell players in a gamelan typically play a set of four. Because the bells have so much sustain, half the work involves muting them, requiring both split-second timing and impeccably precise teamwork. This group excels at it. Their percussion includes hand drums as well as a boomy one-piece tom-tom played with a single stick, and a set of two massive gongs that produce resonant, echoey low bass tones. Perhaps also in keeping with tradition, everyone in this group multitasks: dancers play, players dance, percussionists switch to flute or bells and vice versa. Each of eight pieces they played featured a different crew, but regardeless of who was doing what, the result was equally captivating. The most intricate, lush pieces of the afternoon opened and closed the show, the first featuring a quartet of dancers who closed by pelting the crowd with flower petals, the second illustrating a mythical battle between brothers (one ends up killing the other – but then he gets up and starts dancing again) featuring some remarkable call-and-response between the flutes and percussion. To the eyes of one not versed in traditional Indonesian dance, the dancers seem to blend a herky-jerky, googly-eyed eeriness with slowly undulating grace, and to the group’s credit, they made it look perfectly natural.

 

The rest of the program was a mix of hypnotic lushness and percussive fire, frequently in the same piece. The quietest and most captivating featured a trio of bell players set up in the middle of the stage doing a traditional gender wayang piece typically used as a musical backdrop to Balinese shadowplay theatre. The most intense and percussive piece was in the barong style, in its loudest moments something like a more mellow, less chaotic Chinese New Year celebration, the group’s young star dressed in a strikingly elaborate, oversize dragon costume, keeping perfect time as he clacked the creature’s big wooden jaws together. Unlike Western music, the gamelan repertoire doesn’t utilize chords per se, although a couple of the pieces the group played actually did have chord changes along with some dizzyingly repetitive melodic hooks: one that kept coming back again and again was a 1-3-4-3 progression (for those who don’t play an instrument, that’s the intro to Add It Up by the Violent Femmes – catchy, huh?). In addition to a set of program notes handed out before the show, the group’s spokesman would often entertainingly explain the mechanics and stylistic differences of the various pieces.

 

One unexpected if very auspicious development was to see how popular this group has become, and not simply among the expat population: the crowd was every bit as polyglot as the crew onstage. Adventurous listeners interested in Gamelan Dharma Swara’s next show should plan on getting tickets the minute they go onsale, considering how quickly both this past weekend’s concerts sold out. 

November 26, 2008 Posted by | Live Events, Music, New York City, Reviews | , , , , , , , | 2 Comments