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‘It teaches you how to just vibe’: UNC’s Indonesian music ensemble


John Caldwell, current music ensemble teacher, teaches students at Hill Hall on Monday, Aug. 15, 2022.

Rich sounds of Indonesian brass instruments and song lyrics flow through the doors of Hill Hall on Wednesday nights from the Nyai Saraswati Gamelan Ensemble. 

The Gamelan is UNC’s Indonesian musical ensemble that features melodies of male and female voices alongside dozens of unique instruments ranging from metallophones to wooden xylophones. 

The instruments have been housed at the University for over 20 years since their three-month journey across the ocean from Central Java, a province of Indonesia, to Chapel Hill in December 2000.

Though the Gamelan is a musical ensemble, it’s different from any other large musical group, said James Peacock, retired UNC anthropology professor and influential organizer for the University’s possession of the instruments.

“It's not like a symphony orchestra, which has many separate instruments that can tune to match each other,” he said. “You have to build the instruments so that they are tuned to each other the way they're built.”

Over the past 20 years, the UNC Gamelan has performed at multitudes of events and is kicking off its fall season this week. The first fall meeting of the ensemble will be held on Wednesday, Aug. 17 from 7:00 p.m. till 9:00 p.m. in Hill Hall Room 107.  

John Caldwell, the current ensemble director and teaching associate professor at UNC, said the Gamelan welcomes a wide variety of members — with previous musical knowledge or not. 

“That's one of the cool things about the Gamelan is that you don't pick one instrument and specialize — you can try everything else,” he said. “And everyone's supposed to have some idea about how to play all of the instruments.”

When UNC music major Jaidan Pearce-Cameron saw the list of instruments included in the ensemble for the first time last year, she hadn’t heard of most of them. Since then, she has begun playing the gongs and has found community within the Gamelan. 

“I think it's important to UNC, because especially when it comes to music programs, they're really centered in Western art music, which is the 1600s, the 1800s, white male dominated and basically just in the United States,” she said. “So this Gamelan ensemble really provides a different perspective of tonality and a different understanding of what music can be, and is, outside of just what we're used to.”

Pearce-Cameron encourages anyone who is interested in the ensemble to engage in not only the music, but also the lessons the experience presents.

“It's really more than teaching you how to play music,” she said. “It teaches you how to just vibe and interact with people. It teaches you how to listen to each other. It opens your ears to what you're not used to, and you can't broaden your horizons to anything until you're exposed to it.”

Caldwell echoed Pearce-Cameron’s enthusiasm for others to engage with the Gamelan as a way to relax from the stressors of college life. He said performances remind some participants of being in a trance or meditation experience.

“Once you get into the groove, it's very relaxing,” he said. “I think it's right brain versus left brain and whatever music does, it really helps to kind of get rid of the tensions of the day. I would highly recommend it for students to do.”

@livvreilly | 

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