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Discover how award-winning Malaysian ‘gamelan’ group Rhythm in Bronze weaves music with themes of seagrass conservation

By Kenny Mah Malay Mail Wed, May 3, 2023


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Rhythm in Bronze is a Malaysian contemporary gamelan ensemble founded in 1997. — Picture courtesy of Rhythm in Bronze

KUALA LUMPUR – Albert Einstein once exclaimed “Creativity is intelligence having fun!” and one can think of no better description of a performance by Rhythm in Bronze, a Malaysian contemporary gamelan ensemble.

The mallets dance over the gangsa (a type of metallophone).

The gongs and the drums. The singing and the xylophones and the beats, all wielded with both precision and playfulness.

A Rhythm in Bronze performance in George Town, Penang. — Picture courtesy of Rhythm in Bronze

Founded in 1997 by composer and ethnomusicologist Sunetra Fernando as an all-female gamelan group, Rhythm in Bronze is now led by Artistic and Music Director Jillian Ooi and Executive Producer Sharmini Ratnasingam, with a team of 10 gamelan musicians and two guest drummers.

Ooi says, “From the beginning, Rhythm in Bronze embraced collaboration with composers to breathe new life into Malay gamelan music. By working hand in hand with these artists, they blended traditional melodies with modern elements, keeping the music fresh and appealing to today’s audiences.”

Towards this goal, Rhythm in Bronze experimented with new approaches to their performance, “by weaving gamelan music together with movement, song, dance and text, all performed by the gamelan musicians themselves, in order to break the boundaries between the usual disciplines of the performing arts.”

Ooi considers this approach, where conventional gamelan performance is “transformed into a captivating, multi-dimensional experience that highlights not only the music but also the rich cultural heritage it represents” to be nothing less than “Gamelan Theatre”.

No surprise then that the composers, dancers and other artists that Rhythm in Bronze have collaborated with are a veritable Who’s Who of the local theatre scene including directors and choreographers such as Dato Zahim Albakri, Krishen Jit, Namron, Joseph Gonzales and Loh Kok Man.

Indeed past Rhythm in Bronze concert performances – including Laras Gong (2003), Wujud Antara (2004), Monkey Business (2005), Alih PungGong (2007), Hari Jadi (2009), MaYA (2011) and Arus Gangsa (2014) – have won numerous BOH Cameronian Awards and gained the group recognition for their artistic mettle.

For those who are intrigued, Rhythm in Bronze will be staging a performance at BoboKL from today to May 6, followed by a seagrass conservation themed concert at klpac (Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre) Pentas 2 from August 25 to 27. (More details on their website

These two performances are each meant to offer a different and distinct experience. Ooi says, “Our May performance at BoboKL is designed as a relaxed concert-style show, perfect for unwinding and immersing yourself in the world of gamelan music. We’ll play our favourite pieces, some of which date back to the 1990s.”

The following August concert, on the other hand, will feature specially commissioned pieces by composers that explore the beauty and significance of our local seagrass ecosystem.

Ooi says, “The creative process behind Gamelan Theatre brings together diverse artists and experts to create captivating performances that combine music, dance, visual arts and storytelling. This approach allows us to explore and push the boundaries of traditional gamelan, creating a rich and immersive experience for our audiences.”

She adds, “This unforgettable experience is Rhythm in Bronze’s ode to Mother Nature and the enchanting realm of Neptune.”

Why chose seagrass conservation as a concert theme, though? Heritage music and environmental concerns seem to be disparate matters. That is until one realises that Ooi is also a marine biologist specialising in seagrass.

She explains, “We believe in the power of music to unite and inspire change, and what better way to raise awareness for Malaysia’s endangered seagrass ecosystems than through the captivating world of performing arts?”

The performing troupe’s journey with environmental themes had, in fact, begun earlier with Arus Gangsa, Ooi notes. She adds, “We would like to take this narrative to the next level to bridge the gap between environmental issues and the performing arts. Seagrass conservation feels like a natural extension of our mission.”

To that end, an “Immersive Lab” was designed to help Rhythm in Bronze members understand the importance of seagrass ecosystems.

Ooi says, “During a four-day creative retreat in the coastal community of Tanjung Kupang in Johor, our team explored the local community’s perception of seagrass, fishing and gathering activities. We learnt about the history of seagrass use by local families and their visions for the future.”

The hope is that this hands-on approach would enable the gamelan team to connect deeply with the subject that would later inspire their compositions.What makes the “resonating rhythms of the gamelan percussion” so unique in provoking emotional reactions, compared to other musical traditions, however?

Ooi reasons that, “For those more familiar with the classical or Western musical styles, gamelan offers a refreshing and exciting experience. Its unique sound, different from anything most people have heard before, triggers strong emotions and creates a special connection with the audience.”

And it’s the special connection that the gamelan ensemble is counting on when audiences new and old experience their latest performances.

Or as Ooi so elegantly puts it: “The harmonious interplay of sound waves and vibrations in gamelan music creates a captivating atmosphere that sweeps everyone away.”

Learn more about upcoming performances and seagrass conservation through Rhythm in Bronze at

SOURCE: Malay Mail, Malaysia Wed, May 3, 2023

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