Buffalo is known for a lot of things, but were you aware that it’s known as one of the epicenters of gamelan (pronounced ga · muh · lon, with an initial soft ‘A’) music, outside of Indonesia? It’s an incredible story actually – one that is best told by Matt Dunning (Artistic Director Gamelan Sari Raras Irama), who orchestrated bringing the music movement to Buffalo.
It all started when Matt moved back to Buffalo in 2013. When he initially arrived, he immediately immersed himself into the bike culture of the city. It wasn’t long afterward, however, that Matt decided that Buffalo would be a prime home for his lifelong passion – gamelan music.
“I grew up here but moved away at 18 for college at Fredonia, lived in Chicago for 6 years, Indonesia for two years, then moved to Buffalo,” Matt told me. “I thought it would be cool to spend some time getting to know my hometown before moving on and just started loving it!”
During his stint in Indonesia, he became a gamelon aficionado. Upon relocating to Buffalo, Matt left behind the gamelan instruments that he had come to love – instruments that, incredibly, needed a home. But how to get these hulking instruments to Buffalo?
As a way to get people excited about gamelan, while raising money to bring his instruments home, he began organizing bike races around the city. Eventually the first wave of gamelan instruments arrived in Buffalo, but by no means was Matt done. In 2020, Matt amped up the efforts to bring a second wave of instruments to Buffalo, which needed to be shipped (by boat) halfway around the world.
“You can’t just go picking up gamelan instruments outside of Indonesia,” said Matt [laughing]. “Due to the digital lecture series that we had during covid, with guest lecturers, academics, and other aficionados, we were able to raise $10,000. That money was used to help struggling Indonesian musicians who had been struck hard during the pandemic. As for the instruments – gong-shaped, saron, bonang, drums, bamboo flutes, bow strings, pluck strings, etc. – we now have 16,000 pounds of instruments in Buffalo… so yes, you might say that we are an epicenter for gamelan music outside of Indonesia. Universities might possess these instruments, but it’s very unusual for a group such as ours to have such a catalog.”
It is interesting to note that the first wave of instruments that were brought to Buffalo are not played with the second wave of instruments. Each group is tuned to accompany themselves, according to Matt.
So, in 2021, Nusantara Arts (as the group is now called) managed to double its inventory of instruments, while picking up 210 shadow puppets, which they are still unpacking from the long journey.
“They are super beautiful, and add so much to the performances,” Matt told me. “These are some of the nicest puppets found outside of Indonesia that are not in museums.”
What I find most sensational about this oh-so Buffalo story is that Matt is (self-professed) one of the most unlikely persons to pull off such a herculean stunt.
“I don’t even have a car,” he said [laughing]. “These are some of the most immoveable instruments on the planet. I need to get a van to move them around. I managed to do all of this in a very grassroots way – the community really came together to support this. That’s what is so great about Buffalo. I couldn’t have done this in NYC. People didn’t even know me that well, or what gamelan instruments were. But it was something new and exciting, and they could sense my passion. Buffalo has a very supportive nature built into its structure. Because of the 2020 lecture series we were able to raise $40,000 for the instruments and the puppets. $15,000 of that came from people outside of Buffalo who heard what we were doing and wanted to help. It blew my mind. People wanted to see a cool project come to fruition. So many people are now involved with gamelan.”
Now that the instruments are here, along with the shadow puppets, Nusantara Arts will begin the ramp up more concerts (stay tuned). They have already had two shows at Kleinhans Music Hall thus far, and plan to host additional concerts at their new home, as well as at festivals.
Aside from procuring the instruments and playing for the public more often, Matt told me that their other main goal – finding a permanent home – has now been achieved. After years of bouncing around the city, they are finally and officially located at St. John’s Grace church at 51 Colonial Circle.
“We’re on the third floor,” said Matt [laughing]. “We always manage to be on the third floor. But we have access to a performance space on the second floor in the old chapel. We held our first concert there – it’s turning out to be an amazing home.”
As Matt and his crew gear up for additional performances in the near future, they are now starting to offer music classes to the public.
“These are structured introductory classes,” Matt told me. “It’s an overview of the music – how to play, and how the instruments work together. People will get a chance to try out three or four instruments, learn a song, and talk about music theory. There will be different people with different aptitudes and speed of learning, with different backgrounds… some musical, some not. This works out for everyone, no matter their skill level or music background. We work together to make the music.”
February 6, 2022 @ 5:00PM — April 17, 2022 @ 7:00PM Eastern Time (US & Canada)
10 week sliding scale music class for participants of all musical skill levels and backgrounds
Class Topics will include but are not limited to:
- Basic introduction to gamelan instruments, form and function.
- Cultural contexts of gamelan music genres and related art forms like wayang and dance.
- How to hold mallets properly and play several gamelan instruments.
- How to listen to gamelan music as a player and listener.
- Structure of a gamelan music piece.
- How do devise elaborating parts on Peking and Bonang instruments.
Classes are every Sunday starting February 6th, from 5-7pm
Only Fully Vaccinated Individuals may join class at this time. All participants must wear n95 mask in the facility (provided). For participants age 13 and higher
Photos by Brendan Bannon: