OUR SOUTHEAST ASIAN ROOTS
The gamelan is the quintessential orchestra of South East Asia. Africa may lay claim to massed polyrhythmic drums, Europe the symphony orchestra and North America, the jazz and rock bands, but no musical ensemble typifies this part of the world – its mysticism and timelessness, its grandeur and beauty, its heritage and feeling of community the way the gamelan does. The wonder of it is that while the tradition may be shared by many cultures, each one has evolved a sense of aesthetics, a style and a mode of presentation unique to itself – a mirror of its people and society, ecology and climate, history and lore, perceptions and values.
The word gamelan derives from the Javanese “gamel” which means to hammer. Characteristically, a gamelan consists of percussion instruments such as gongs and drums of graduated sizes, wood and metal xylophones of varied timbre, flutes and whistles, assorted bamboo, wooden and metal percussion and voices for expressing vocables and for singing.
In Kontra-GaPi, music is dance heard even as dance is music seen. A performance is an event where each artist may, in turn, sing, dance, mime and play as many as ten instruments. This total-theater approach also takes in the audience not as a conventional crowd but as an essential participant in the creative process transforming the occasion into a unity – a tribe, as it were, in primeval ritual. The ensemble exists on the assumption that every human being, by definition, is creative, alone or as part of a community. Creativity is not the exclusive preserve of ‘experts’ and excellence can be attained by individuals who possess varying levels of artistic ability. No auditions are held to recruit members. Any student, faculty, or worker from the university or anyone from anywhere else interested may join to discover for themselves how far and how deeply they can go as instrumentalists, singers or mime-actors. Each one makes a valuable contribution according to their ability with dedication and discipline, responsibility and enterprise, and most important of all, love for the nation’s cultural heritage.
“Gapi” means to shackle. The group takes affirm stand contra what stifles freedom, individuality and inventiveness. It also takes a strong stand contra the idea that Filipino excellence in art must derive from the West. Instead, Kontra-GaPi asserts, even as it proclaims, that the arts of the Philippines and South-East Asia including the gamelan are every bit as deserving of adulation and highest renown the world over as those of other traditions – confidently, a true and resounding source of pride.
Kontra-GaPi had its beginnings when Prof. Pedro R. Abraham Jr. of the Department of Arts Studies of the College of Arts and Letters in the University of the Philippines (U.P.) in Diliman was asked in 1989 to conceive a score for “A Dream Play” by August Strindberg. Produced in Filipino translation by Dulaang U.P., the resident repertory theater company, the director had only one guideline: that the music be distinctly Filipino and Asian.
Throughout the run of the play, the music, for its ‘stunning exotic appeal,’ consistently received excellent reviews by critics, academics, students and regular theater-goers alike. This encouraged the then ad-hoc band to transform itself into an independent performing organization. Soon after, they were invited by the Heritage Arts Center in Quezon City for their very first concert performance.
In February 1993, Kontra-GaPi was appointed resident gamelan or ethnic music and dance ensemble by the Dean of the College of Arts and Letters. For their significant trend-setting and visionary contribution, the group was awarded in February 1996 the U.P. Diliman Chancellor’s signal plaque for Outstanding Achievement in the Arts (Performing Arts Category).
Over the years, the ensemble has presented more than a thousand shows for audiences of all types and age-groups in all kinds of venues, much more if one includes lecture-demonstrations, workshops in music and dance and other types of engagement. From the state-of-the-art theaters of the Cultural Center of the Philippines, hotel pavilions and lobbies, school auditoriums and yards, church naves and parks, to make-shift stages, barangay or community all-purpose halls, basketball and other sports courts, private residences, rice fields, the streets and market places, Kontra-GaPi has brought its art to where the people are or to where they can or choose to come together.The troupe has gone on road tours to virtually all the regions of the Philippines. The provinces of Agusan del Norte, Bataan, Batangas, Benguet, Bontoc, Cagayan, Cavite, Cebu, Ilocos Norte, Ilocos Sur, Isabela, Camarines Norte, Kalinga, Laguna, Misamis Oriental, Masbate, Mindoro Occidental, Nueva Ecija, Nuava Vizcaya, Palawan, Pampanga, Pangasinan, Rizal, Sorsogon, Tarlac, Quezon, and Zambales have all played host.
From April to October 1007, Kontra-GaPi went on a concert tour of Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland in Europe, and the United States and Canada in North America, with a stop in Hawaii before returning home. Tours of Laos, Vietnam and, again, the US took place in 1999. A half-a-year return tour of Canada and, for the third time, the US in the year 2000 proved to be a resounding success as all the others were. In 2003, Kontra-GaPi visited Australia to equally rave reviews. In 2009, Kontra-Gapi was invited as UP’s delegates to the ASEAN Youth Cultural Forum in Bangkok, Thailand. And most recently, Kontra-Gapi is one among the performers featured as live exhibits in the Philippine Pavilion in Shanghai World Expo 2010, from May until October 2010.
All international engagements were arranged upon the invitation of festival organizers, impresarios, host government bureaus, international organizations, Philippine diplomatic missions, Filipino expatriate communities and friends.