The First Smile – Cirebon Gamelan

The First Smile is a set of gamelan instruments and accompanying set of wayang kulit puppets, from Cirebon, West Java, which were brought to New Zealand in 1974 by Allan Thomas. They are now housed at The Long Hall, Roseneath and are played regularly by a small group of dedicated musicians.

A major exhibition of the Cirebon wayang puppets at Pataka Museum in Porirua was held from 5 Feb to 13 March 2016, with a live puppet show as part of the opening festivities.

Contact: Jennifer Shennan (jennifershennan@xtra.co.nz )

 

History

The Cirebon gamelan was the first complete gamelan set in New Zealand, although Liong Xi had played Balinese dance accompaniment on the gender and kendang he had brought to New Zealand in the 1950s, and subsequently taught and toured extensively here. (An interview with Liong conducted by Allan is published in Balungan Vol.6, nos1-2, 1998, that issue, on Gamelan in New Zealand, being co-edited by Jack Body and Allan Thomas.)

Allan Thomas first spent some years in the early 1970s studying and teaching at Dartington College of Arts in Devon, England. Following this, he then studied gamelan music with Ernst Heins in Amsterdam, and also delivered BBC radio talks about the historic Raffles Gamelan from  Java  (now housed in the British Museum in London. The script of Allan’s talks is published  as a BBC offprint, held in The First Smile files.)  Allan then undertook fieldwork in Java, and studied in Cirebon, under the tutelage of Pak Jusuf Dendabrata. From Ibu Paramita Abdulrachman, he gained further insights into arts of gamelan, wayang and batik within social and historical context. In 1974, he imported this antique gamelan into New Zealand, initially to Auckland where he lived at the time.

Allan was appointed ethnomusicologist at Victoria University School of Music in 1977, and the gamelan (after a year, 1976,  at Wellington Teachers College) then came to be housed at Victoria University.   Courses of introduction were taught and the gamelan was active in a range of performances both on- and off-campus, including tours within New Zealand. David Farquhar was the first New Zealand composer to write for gamelan, and his Ostinato, 1976,  is in our current repertoire.

The name of The First Smile was given to the gamelan by Allan who noticed how the players  were always silently smiling when packing away the instruments after playing. Wendy Pond, researcher and historian of Tongan traditional culture, had told Allan of the village atop a high plateau on Tafahi Island, Tonga,where she had lived and worked. Villagers sitting in their houses  would look out and realise that visitors who had left their boats on the beach below, were now ascending the steep mountain path to the village. The first they knew of their visitors was at the point on the path where “The First Forehead” (presumably of the tallest visitor) appeared to rise from the cliff edge. The villagers would break into smiles at the prospect of the visitors due to arrive any minute.

The Central Javanese gamelan, now Gamelan Padhang Moncar, was gifted to New Zealand in the early-1980s and housed at Victoria University School of Music.  The Cirebon gamelan was then less often played, although Allan did lend it to the University of Otago for two years in the early 1990s when gamelan studies were becoming established there. Once returned to Victoria, it was then stored away at the back of the Gamelan Room.  Allan did try for a number of years to find a suitable new home for the gamelan,  offering it to a number of institutions in Australia, America and Europe, hoping that it might be curated and played somewhere. However, this is a set of antique instruments and the conservation of antiques is always a business requiring  considerable resources. Although a number of institutions did express initial interest, this challenge of conservation was always the reason given for their declining the offer.

Allan retired from teaching in 2005. Some time after his death in 2010, Jennifer Shennan (Allan’s wife, who had been a member of the original playing ensemble in 1974) enquired into the feasibility of returning it to Cirebon, but this proved inadvisable. She then arranged for The First Smile  to be housed in  The Long Hall on Point Jerningham in Roseneath, a recently restored arts and community centre.  In January 2011, the instruments and puppets were transported there, with assistance of Jack Body and GPM members. Nell Thomas, Allan’s and Jennifer’s daughter, has played gamelan, built a contemporary gender instrument, and taught workshops at Roseneath School using The First Smile gamelan. A group of players has, since 2011, met regularly and taken part in several wayang kulit performances, in 2012, and the Winter Wayang in June 2014, with dhalang Joko Susilo, to mark 40 years since the arrival of gamelan in New Zealand.  “New” compositions for TFS have been produced by Gerard Crewdson, Judith Exley, Chris Francis, and are played together with traditional pieces, as well as two compositions by Lou Harrison from 1983 when he was resident in New Zealand - Lagulagu Thomasan, and Lagu Victoria.

Indonesian Ambassador to New Zealand 2013 - 2016, Jose Tavares and Ibu Rennie Tavares, have taken a special interest in the Cirebon antique gamelan and offered support for its maintenance and restoration. Some of this work has been completed by Daniel Beban, and there are further plans for several replacements of musical keys or gongs. The vintage of the instruments is not precisely known. They had lain unplayed for 50 years in Cirebon before coming to New Zealand 40 years ago. Before that, there is no clear record of when they were built – but they are clearly of considerable historic provenance, possibly several hundred years.