Tuesday, May 29, 2007


Here is the first of some sixteen videos at You Tube of Ki Anom Suroto, probably the best-known of contemporary dhalangs in the Javanese Wayang Kulit (shadow puppet theatre). The dhalang is narrator, actor, puppet master, gamelan conductor, lead vocalist, percussionist, and master of ceremonies both spiritual and otherwise, and in the nine-or-so hours of a wayang performance, the universe -- at least that part of the universe that casts shadows on the screen and makes noises sweet or rough -- is under his or her total control, and he or she does not move from his or her position between the screen and the gamelan.

This set of videos include a series of eleven from the Gara-gara scene and five from the Limbukan. The Limbukan, initially a passing scene of little importance involving an emaciated old servant woman and her enormous daughter, has emerged as the principle scene for humor in the wayang, much of it an opportunity to talk very directly about sex. The Gara-gara (pronounced goro-goro) usually begins around midnight, and was initially a moment of contemplation away from the action of the story, during which the hero, for example Ardjuna in the Mahabharata-based plays, takes refuge and is given comfort and counsel by the group of clown-servants, led by Semar, an enormously fat, old, slow, and flatulent figure who is actually an earthly incarnation of the god of love, Sang Hyang Ismoyo. The Gara-gara (the name indicates a time of great strife, chaos, uncertainty) had been a mostly humorous interlude, but has become, in recent years, the central opportunity for musical display by the dhalang, the gamelan, and the corps of female singers, the pesindhen. Ki Anom Soroto has innovated by including a large number of musical items representing repertoire well beyond the courtly traditions of Central Java, and in the case of this video, provides a musical tour of Java, including traditional works from across the island and representations of more popular genres, among them Kerongcong (with some portugese roots), Jaipongan (an urban music originating in the 70s, often with a highly erotic content), and Dangdut (a genre with cosmopolitan borrowing -- Arabic and Malay music, Indian film music, and recently, house and hiphop). Anom Suroto's virtuosity is well on display in this performance, as he leads his soloists and ensemble smoothly from one musical genre to another, and manages to do so within the framework of the Gara-gara and the tonal universe of the slendro-pelog gamelan.

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