What Can One Learn in Gamelan Ensemble in One Semester? A Performative Ethnography of a World Music Ensemble

By Wangcaixuan (Rosa) Zhang (University of Pittsburgh)

*This article also appears in SEM Student News 14.2, Fall/Winter 2018.

The 1950s marked the establishment of ethnomusicology as a discipline in United States universities. In conjunction with Mantle Hood’s concept of “bi-musicality,” world music ensembles (WMEs) became part of ethnomusicology university programs to allow students to explore the music of the “Other.” Although these ensembles promote a decolonized attitude[1] toward understanding the “Other,” constrained within a Western university setting, they end up encouraging students to approach the “Other” with a colonized gaze. Through a performative ethnography[2] as an ensemble member, performer, and researcher in the Sundanese gamelan ensemble at the University of Pittsburgh in both Fall 2017 and Spring 2018, this article re-visits how we teach WMEs and questions what representations of the “Other” we are passing on to our students. This, I argue, serves as a good starting point for unfolding the politics of representation within ethnomusicology today.

End of Term Open House—What Have We Taught?

At the end of Fall 2017, the gamelan ensemble held its final event, an open house concert/workshop, through which I conducted a final evaluation of what had been taught over the course of one semester. Unlike a traditional Euro-American concert setting where the audience was separated from the performers, this open house event invited the audience to engage with the instruments, music, and musicians, asking the members to demonstrate musically and verbally what they had been taught by the instructor.

Observing their demonstrations during the workshop session, I could ascertain that each of the members had internalized the music in their own ways and were able to confidently communicate their understandings and learning processes to the audience members. Sitting next to the kendang player, Maddie, I overheard her conveying how she, as a player with no percussion training, learned and engaged with the instrument to guide a non-musician audience member. Instead of counting in her head, she instructed the girl to clap the empty beats with her right hand in order to guide her left, while following the sound of the jengglong as a sonic cue. In short, in one semester, Maddie had internalized the pieces that we had learned and developed her own approach to playing them.

In addition, from the way ensemble members “tutored” the audience, I noticed a deeper appreciation for gamelan that was not apparent at the beginning of the semester. For example, Dan, a student member who had previously indicated his fear of peking as the “fastest” instrument (pers. comm., September 14, 2017), was demonstrating the peking for an audience member. He began by explaining the peking as interlocking with the panerus, and played while illustrating the damping technique. “It is not easy. It is much more difficult than it looks,” Dan suggested as he eagerly encouraged the audience member to try it out for himself. “The interlocking might not come to your ear at first, but once it [does], the melody makes much more sense.” In learning more about the instrument and its function, Dan not only conquered his insecurities but was able to play the peking and, more significantly, was more informed when listening to the instrument, thus appreciating, instead of being overwhelmed by, its complexity.

Demonstrating musical understandings of and appreciation for gamelan was not the only thing I witnessed during the open house. All of the members made time to arrive beforehand to help with the heavy lifting and rearranging of the instruments. We shared food and stories before the performance started, and the night ended with some more heavy lifting. Although it had been a long evening, everyone helped and the deep sense of community was memorable and palpable.

So, What Are Students Learning?

What did the gamelan students think of their experience as members of the ensemble? In the end-of-semester survey that I distributed to undergraduate members, one of the questions asked them about the most memorable thing that they had learned throughout the course. The responses were personal yet consistent with the three aspects above, namely gaining musical understanding, building appreciation, and learning to be members of an ensemble. Rodica, another student, was surprised by the feeling of playing gamelan music, saying

Gamelan ensemble created a very therapeutic environment which I immensely enjoyed. This course simultaneously created a feeling of focus and relaxation as you were prompted to follow your instrumental part and tune into different instrumental parts within the ensemble.

Maddie emphasized how she was not confident with musical instruments before but this course reconstructed her assurance by creating a safe space for learning and embodying a different kind of music:

The most memorable moment happened probably when playing the bonang “clicked” for me. I was very nervous because I didn’t think I’d be good at it and it looked so overwhelming. The class and the instructor was so supportive, so when I went into class and played it well after practice it felt really good.

Dan also mentioned his learning experience of participating in an ensemble, stating

Though each students’ experiences and interpretations of the gamelan course differed, the growth of musical knowledge in Sundanese gamelan was evident through just one semester. Their newfound confidence in playing Sundanese gamelan, along with developing their techniques, enhanced musical understandings and appreciations as well as ensemble consciousness. However, what understandings of the “Other” are we disseminating through the WMEs courses? What are we missing in our teaching?

What Are We Missing in Our Teaching?

When I asked about essentialization and cultural appropriation, which are historically associated with WMEs, the students’ faces went blank. They could not connect WMEs with essentialization, despite abundant examples throughout the course. For one, the repertoire of this course changed little from semester to semester. This is to say, the students were only introduced to a specific volume of pieces from a specific period. Although these limitations, oftentimes the result of framing WMEs as one-semester-long courses, may not be deliberate, they nevertheless result in the reduction and essentialization of Sundanese gamelan over time. This is compounded by overgeneralization displayed in a Fall 2017 concert poster (see figure below). By titling the program “Sounds of Indonesia,” and presenting merely one type of gamelan music from West Java, the concert was subtly constructing the impression that Sundanese gamelan represented Indonesian music. While the students were aware of the fact that gamelan music is one of many musical practices in Indonesia, they were unaware of the implications of performing gamelan music as the “sounds of Indonesia” to a larger audience.

Poster for the performance at Chatham University
featuring the University of Pittsburgh Gamelan in Fall 2017.

Instead of problematizing this issue, the course simply avoided such inquiry. Although we covered the history of gamelan and some cultural facts about Indonesia in the first class, the history of WMEs, which are based on a colonialist approach of “collecting” different musics from around the world, was never mentioned. The end-of-semester survey that I took in the Spring 2018 gamelan likewise demonstrated this “collecting” approach. When I asked about the purpose of having WMEs, particularly gamelan ensembles, in our university curriculum, one of the students responded “exposure to music and culture we wouldn’t have otherwise.” Instead of clearly showing enthusiasm or appreciation for the opportunity to learn about (and practice) another musical culture, this answer is rather ambivalent, both acknowledging the precious opportunity while also suggesting that this is not strongly needed. This response implies a Eurocentric view that learning about other cultures is not necessary yet alludes to a “we do it because we can” attitude, reflective of cultural exploitation and appropriation. If we, as ethnomusicologists and WMEs instructors, do not start confronting serious problems like cultural appropriation and essentialization, WME courses will continuously define the “Other” in essentialized ways, further reinforcing “Western” hegemony and colonizing power (Smith 2007).

However, mindfully discussing and evaluating the colonial baggage of WMEs can become a good entry point to begin deconstructing colonialist understandings. Though the notion that WMEs are colonial may be unsettling, and may disrupt the fun of new musical experiences, we and the students need to know what is at stake here. I suggest that an introduction to the history of WMEs and additional discussion sessions devoted to this topic might be good places to start, encouraging further inquiry and raising awareness of cultural appropriation, essentialization, and colonialist views of the “Other.” To take gamelan ensemble as an example, an instructor could introduce both the history of WMEs and the musical culture in Indonesia in the first meeting, pointing out how musical cultures may be essentialized in the context of WMEs and build a foundational understanding for future discussions.

“Tradition is not about slavish imitation,” Alan Bishop, the CEO of Sublime Frequencies, stated when asked about “respect” in the world music industry. “The last thing I want to see is a bunch of . . . white guys playing Javanese gamelon [sic] proper. . . . They are being disrespectful because they are not evolving the situation. They are not rolling the dice” (Davis 2004). His comment ruthlessly points out some of the key issues associated with WMEs in the university setting. However, if we teach the history of WMEs, and problematize them throughout the course, their troublesome framework may encourage us toward a decolonized future by understanding the colonized past.


1. The introduction on the official web page for the University of Pittsburgh’s gamelan ensemble states that “Participants in the gamelan program are encouraged to use Sundanese processes of learning as much as possible; oral transmission of musical parts is preferred over written notation. . . . [E]vents are intended to increase the community’s awareness of Indonesian performing arts and culture.” According to this introduction, rather than showcase one’s mastery in different musical cultures, the ensemble aims to understand Indonesian culture through an emic perspective and to use this knowledge to help promote Indonesian culture in local communities.

2. I borrow the term “performative ethnography” from Deborah Wong (2008).


Davis, Erik. 2004. “Cameo Demons: Hanging with the Sun City Girls.” http://www.techgnosis.com/scg.html.

Said, Edward W. 1985. Orientalism. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Smith, Linda Tuhiwai. 2005. “On Tricky Ground: Researching the Native in the Age of Uncertainty.” In Sage Handbook of Qualitative Research, edited by Norman K. Denzin and Yvonna S. Lincoln, 85–107. 3rd ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Solis, Ted, ed. 2004. Performing Ethnomusicology: Teaching and Representation in World Music Ensembles. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Tuck, Eve, and K. Wayne Yang. 2012. “Decolonization is Not a Metaphor.” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society 1 (1): 1–40.

Wong, Deborah. 2008. “Moving from Performance to Performative Ethnography and Back Again.” In Shadows in the Field: New Perspectives for Fieldwork in Ethnomusicology, edited by Gregory F. Barz and Timothy J. Cooley, 76–87. New York: Oxford University Press.

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