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In 1995 I joined a gamelan club to understand and learn the basics of playing this traditional percussion orchestra.
I did not know then that the club I had joined would evolve into a formidable contemporary gamelan ensemble, through the inspiring and innovative direction of its founder, Sunetra Fernando.
Kelab Kawan-Kawan Gamelan Universiti Malaya (Friends of Gamelan Club, University Malaya) became The Gamelan Club with a debut show in 1997 called Rhythm in Bronze.
In 1999, the name “Rhythm in Bronze” was taken to become the official name of a separate ensemble led by Sunetra.
Its inaugural show: Rhythm in Bronze 99: A Concert of Gamelan Music, marked the beginning of a concertised series of shows that brought in a new audience and fan base for contemporary Malaysian gamelan.
Rhythm in Bronze operated under the umbrella of Five Arts Centre with the founders, Marion D’Cruz “as staunch lead and steer” and the late Krishen Jit (the iconic Malaysian author, playwright, theatre director, critic) as creative mentor.
An ethnomusicologist by training, Sunetra studied music at the University of York. There is also where she cultivated her interest in Javanese and Malay gamelan followed by a period of Javanese gamelan study at the School of Performing Arts, Surakarta, Indonesia.
She then pursued a Master’s in ethnomusicology at the University of Malaya (UM) where she explored ‘angin’ as an indigenous concept of energy in the music of the ancient shamanic Malay theatre form ‘Mak Yong’.
From 1994 until she left for the UK in 2005, Sunetra was a music lecturer at UM (while pursuing her Master’s).
She was awarded her Master’s in 1997. Within this time, she completed full musical scores for theatre performances such as Scorpion Orchid, SkinTrilogy, Trees, as well as performative work for Five Arts and TheatreWorks, Singapore.
As founding director of Rhythm in Bronze, she created new compositions for the gamelan with a conscious endeavour to find a musical identity that was separate from the Javanese and Balinese genres and her own Western classical training but which still incorporated aspects of their musical motifs.
“I was very conscious not to colonise gamelan in any way. Was I incorporating western chords on an instrument that shouldn’t have that kind of vertical, more linear relationship? I feel we also have to be careful of labels in defining these new works. Here I relate with the historian, Prof Sumit Mandal’s aspect of ‘transethnic solidarity’.
“Through the gamelan music we created, we could create a larger space of knowing and understanding in this multi-ethnic, modern life we live in as Malaysians, a space where we could re-imagine ourselves.”
Sunetra is the daughter of Malaysian author, Lloyd Fernando who wrote Scorpion Orchid which was produced as a play in 1995.
She created new gamelan compositions for it, one of them being “Epilogue” which Rhythm in Bronze continued to play.
Prof. Dr. Mohd. Anis Md Nor of NUSPARC (Nusantara Performing Arts ResearchCenter), was the Dean of UM’s Creative Arts Faculty in 1994.
It was Prof. Anis who suggested the name, Kelab Kawan-Kawan Gamelan, UM, and who gave her the space with the UM gamelan instruments, when she contemplated starting a group.
“Sunetra has very strong Javanese gamelan fundamentals. She imparted to her players the same necessity of reverence and respect to the instruments and understanding the psyche of gamelan. The ensemble is her image, to me, the sensuality of who she is, the embodiment of the arts of who she is. She has multiple layering,” Prof. Anis said.
“When the opportunity presented itself, she took it but did not play to the script of what was expected. Her sound is completely unpredictable. Really so exciting to me. Every performance, every moment is such a surprise. Three different performances of the same piece will give you three different experiences – so many layers to her work. She is truly a “living” artiste pulsating with the “now.”
Susan Sarah John (SSJ), who created Tchaikovsky on Gamelan, had been part of the gamelan club and Rhythm in Bronze since the beginning.
She was also a student at the former Akademi Seni Kebangsaan (ASK), now known as ASWARA, with Sunetra as her teacher.
Sunetra saw SSJ as a young student who was “incredibly talented, incredibly musical, incredibly rhythmic.”
SSJ’s first experience with Sunetra, as a performative player was in a theatre performance.
“The first time I played Sune’s composition was in this theatre performance called Trees, a Five Arts Centre and Actors Studio collaboration,” SSJ said.
“Sune wrote the full score. I was assigned to play the gong, for the whole show. Yes, it was very hard; to get the right touch and tone. It seems easy to just knock and hit. That performance helped me to learn the gong sound. I love her compositions because I could really hear as a musician, the things she tried to do. When a musician plays with a natural feel through a composition – now that is the mark of a good composer. Even when her compositions are structured, the flow is so fluid. Every function of the instrumentation is so clear.”
Kelantan-born multi-instrumentalist, Kamrul Hussin, is another one of Sunetra’s students at ASK, who describes her as “a musician’s musician.”
“Her teaching style was based on an eastern, village-style approach, where we could eat and discuss things together. Sune was my cikgu for “ear training” as well as choir and western music history. It was not stressful to learn from her. She used to campur –English, and Malay when she taught classes, for me to have a better grasp. She never screamed at her students and was a very nurturing teacher. If you couldn’t follow a certain method, she would show you another way.”
For Sunetra, Kamrul represented the core of Rhythm in Bronze, as a traditional master drummer.
“I am humbled by his brilliance as a musician and by the generosity of his spirit. He is truly a global phenomenon. So deeply embedded in his Kelantanese artistic heritage and so able to perform and collaborate from such a position of strength with different musical styles and musicians.”
In 2004, Rhythm in Bronze became the first Malaysian group to perform as part of its international series at Dewan Filharmonik Petronas (DFP), home of the Malaysian PhilharmonicOrchestra (MPO).
“There was a lot of pressure in becoming the first Malaysian ensemble to play at the MPO. It was a very high-stakes event, complex, and not really feasible or sustainable. We were all completely exhausted. Why? Because it was so highly orchestrated, so many different strands. We rehearsed for 3 months and in the last 2-3 weeks, it was six to seven times a week. But yes, we did it,” said Sunetra.
The late Krishen Jit had this to say about the performance:
“Rhythm in Bronze’s local and ‘global’ strategy, its traditional and contemporary trajectory, is testimony to the passion of Sunetra Fernando. We need to remember that Sunetra’s gamelan pedigree is plural.
“Therefore, we should not be startled by the dialogic vibrancy of Rhythm in Bronze. It is doing what the best and more advanced gamelans in the world are doing: the music genre, the gamelan has definition, but the musical sounds in it defy borders.”
Fast forward to 2021, now 17 years since she left Malaysia for the U.K. She lives in her North London home with her husband, Adrian, and their two sons, Fernando who is 15, and Caspian, 13.
As a full-time secondary school music teacher, her days are frenetic, as any mother with two teenage boys would know.
“My boys are amazing, wonderful human beings. Both play piano and cello. Both are sporty. Fernando is into cricket. Caspian is a climber and cyclist. My husband Adrian(also a composer) is busy completing the music for a mixed reality exhibition. I am humbled by my family.”
Gamelan continues to play a part in her life. Sunetra directed the Kayu Gangsa gamelan ensemble (based in Nottingham, UK) in two residencies and was consultant music director together with Adrian for the ensemble’s tours to the World Gamelan Festivals in Malaysia (2013-16).
She has done group compositions with the Nottingham gamelan group as well as conducted a gamelan workshop at her son’s school.
From 2009 to 2014 she was freelance co-facilitator for the charity, Good Vibration’s music programme in communal-music making to support people in challenging circumstances with additional needs.
She was recently awarded the Arts Council England’s ‘Developing Your Creative Practice’ grant (2019) to support a CPD project in creative music leadership based on the Malaysian gamelan as a vehicle through which everyone can experience music &creativity.
I asked Kevin Field about the Sunetra sound. He was Associate Conductor and Head of Education at the MPO from 1999 to 2014, today the Director of Academic and Artistic Development at Bentley Music Academy, Malaysia:
“Sunetra is a natural musician who does not let her intellect get in the way of her innate musicianship.
“Of course, she does “think” of her music. But it is coming from the right place: from her heart, from her soul. There is space, structure, form, all those things I understand as a western art music practitioner. When I first got here, I did not get it – gamelan. Fusing the traditional. Forging new horizons. How many colors can you get from a gamelan? Obviously a lot. Her music comes from the right place. It speaks. It resonates. And she is a good person.”
There are those that bemoan the loss of the awesome sound of her music when she left. But her compositions and arrangements remain for all to enjoy without any need to analyse or critique. One can only imagine what else can spring forth from the extraordinary creativity of such a talent, distilled through 17 years of marriage, motherhood, and the dimensions of personal and musical experience.
For now, all this writer can say is: Thank you Sunetra Fernando, you have enriched my life in more ways than one.
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Cover image sourced and edited from Five Arts Centre. This post was edited by Ista Kyra with additional edits made by Sukhbir Cheema.