The splendour of the traditional Indonesian gamelan orchestra hits my eyes as I enter the Space Theatre inside Adelaide’s Festival Centre, venue of the on-going OzAsia Festival 2019.
The brass gongs, drums, xylophones and other instruments that make up this ensemble gleam invitingly even in the subdued lights on the stage. This is the majestic set-up for the concert Ghost Gamelan of well-known U.K.-based singer and composer Susheela Raman. She has produced an album of the same name with associates Sam Mills, who happens to be her husband, and Indonesian composer Gondrong Gunarto.
Susheela was born to Tamil parents in the United Kingdom and learnt Carnatic music growing up in Sydney, Australia, where her family migrated. As she tells Indian Link, there was always the very intense curiosity within her to discover music. She is known for her adventurous musical projects embracing diverse cultures, and her music keeps evolving constantly. Ghost Gamelan bears good testimony of this evolvement.
On stage Susheela is accompanied by Sam on guitar, Malcolm on drums, Peter on Bass, Raven on violin, Hugh on percussion, and of course, the contemporary gamelan orchestra of Gondrong, with his band members Agus, Ndaru and Rano provides the musical foreground.
Tonight Susheela looks magical in her shimmery white apparel and her flowing curly strands. And magic it is, as the music starts flowing, starting off with a timeless chant by Susheela that sets in the mood of mystery as well as meditation at OzAsia Festival 2019.
Tanpa Nama, meaning nameless, is the first song of this evening. It is set to an invigorating rhythm with a fine balance of sounds from the various instruments on stage. One hears the twang of the guitar and the trill of the violin in tango with the deep sounds of the bass and the gongs, and the compelling beats of the xylophone together with the western drums.
Gondrong’s gamelan is contemporary in style, and he produces mind-blowing rhythms on it, and at times the sonics are enhanced by audio intonations by one or more members of his band. At times too, Hugh leaves his drums and plays a soft percussion on the grand piano placed on the side. A novel and rich tapestry of music indeed, in which the oriental dominates, and makes the music special.
Susheela positions her soft, breathy and melodious voice into the music with admirable skill. The impression is that she sings not to transcend the music but to adorn it, and she does it very well! Altogether it is a great musical idea. The singer sways her body as she sings, and sometimes she waves her hands in gentle motion. She exudes a sense of being in an enchanted trance and comes across as a mysterious priestess of solace and peace.
On a query from Indian Link about her ethnic identity coming through in most of her music, Susheela replies, “My Indian heritage is always there and always present and informs practically everything I do.” She and her husband Sam spent a lot of time in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh over the last 15 years involving themselves with the musical traditions there.
Susheela informs further, that the song Tanpa Nama in her album Ghost Gamelan is based on Raag Shanmuga Priya and the composition Beautiful Moon uses a modulating version of Raag Dharmavati.
All the songs of this album are played through during this one-and-a-half-hour concert. Emotions are evoked ranging from sadness to meditation to ecstasy. The song Annabel, about a friend “who left us young” is particularly poignant. And despair sets in deep with the song Going Down, which was the dying lament of a soldier stationed in Afghanistan, hit by enemy fire.
The sound effects with the last-named song deserve special mention. The orchestra expertly simulate the sounds that scream out in a war zone, namely the ricocheting of gunfire, the threshing of machines, and the screeching of metals. And the lyrics echo the hopelessness of it all: “Stuck inside a killing zone, where it’s do or be done to”.
The deeply meditative song Ghost Child provides special musical moments when the talented musician Gondrong rises up like a phoenix and plays the flute. This song presents the idea that adults are but ghosts of their own childhood. What an interesting thought!
Ending on a joyous note, the last song Tomorrow Never Knows also happens to be the first song recorded by the group. And we are cajoled by Susheela to get up and sway. We do!
Click here to enjoy the dynamism of Ghost Gamelan. But it is the live show that mesmerises with its visual richness together with the sonic feast as witnessed at Oz Asia Festival 2019.
Photo Courtesy: OzAsia Festival 2019