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Bang a Gong

Gamelan Raga Kusuma readies for a performance at the Firehouse Theatre.

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In “Final Transmission,” the “Documentary Now!” parody of Talking Heads’ concert film “Stop Making Sense,” Fred Armisen’s character incorporates Indonesian gamelan into his new wave band’s sound, poking fun at David Byrne’s love of world music.

Bill Hader, playing a stand-in for the Heads’ Chris Frantz, isn’t pleased: “It just sounds like a dozen dumb doorbells,” he complains to the camera.

While he finds the exchange hilarious, Andy McGraw, cofounder of the local Gamelan Raga Kusuma, disagrees with the sentiment.

“How would I describe it? Not as a dozen dumb doorbells,” says McGraw, whose group will perform at the Firehouse Theatre on Thursday. “What we have is about 2-tons of bronze bells and gongs and drums.”

In this style of traditional music that’s native to the Javanese, Balinese and Sundanese peoples of Indonesia, percussive instruments are played together with mallets. McGraw says the music can be an acquired taste for western ears.

“You hear something that sounds very different, both in the tuning and in the sound of the instruments themselves, because bronze, struck bronze makes … a complex or noisy sound. It’s really rich. It’s got all these transients, all these overtones,” McGraw says. “All of that in combination can make it very different sounding for western audiences, and sometimes, if you’re not an adventurous listener, it can be overwhelming.”

Unlike a band or an orchestra, gamelan music is not perceived as different instruments coming together, but as one enormous body of an instrument. Because of this, an entire gamelan is created at the same time so that the bronze shares the same sound.

Gamelan Raga Kusuma was named by its cofounder Gusti Putu Sudarta, a Balinese musician, shadow puppeteer, composer and dancer. Reflecting both the sound of their gamelan and the feeling of the group’s playing, the name means “intense togetherness” or “intense hanging out.”

McGraw says the name is indicative of the fact that gamelan is intended to be community-based music. After shows, Gamelan Raga Kusuma often invites audience members to come on stage and play their instruments.

“Anybody can play the gong,” says McGraw, an ethnomusicologist who’s an associate professor of music at the University of Richmond and chair of the music department. “If you can count to eight and hit it, you can do it.”

McGraw’s introduction to gamelan came after he agreed to do a temporary house trade with someone living in Singapore. Prior to going, a fellow musician told McGraw that he should visit Bali while he was overseas. In Bali, McGraw was taken under the wing of I Wayan Gandra, who was part of the first Balinese gamelan to perform in the United States, including an appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show” in 1952. In Bali, McGraw studied and performed gamelan music, and learned how the instruments were made.

Gamelan predates the Hindu-Buddhist culture that was present in Indonesia’s earliest records, meaning it represents an Indigenous art form. In Javanese mythology, it was created by a god who ruled all of Java during the Saka era, circa 230 A.D. Gamelans once employed smaller numbers of musicians, but grew in size after the Dutch began colonizing parts of Indonesia in the 1600s. When Indonesian rajas saw western orchestras of 30 and 40 musicians, they began to grow their gamelans as part of an informal cultural competition.

Gamelan Raga Kusuma is in residence at the University of Richmond and was founded in 2007. Numbering around 20 members, the group has toured Bali, performed at the Indonesian embassy and played universities all over the East Coast. Before the pandemic, the group played roughly four performances a semester.

In their performance on Thursday, the group will perform works by I Komang Astita, I Wayan Lotring, Alvin Lucier, Steve Reich and I Nyoman Windha. McGraw says the Lucier piece involves manipulating gongs over microphones to produce controlled feedback. The performance will also include “Ketawang Puspawarna,” a composition famous in Central Java that was included on the Voyager Golden Record that was sent into space aboard Voyager 1 as a greeting to extraterrestrials who might encounter it.

Though the music is welcoming and community-based in its tradition, McGraw says it’s never watered down to appeal to western ears.

“This is the real music. It’s not music that was made for westerners to zone out and chill,” he says. “It’s the real tradition, and it demands your full attention. It demands your respect, or not.

“It’s on the music’s terms, and I really respect that.”

Gamelan Raga Kusuma plays at 7:30 p.m. on June 2 at the Firehouse Theatre, 1609 W. Broad St. Tickets are $8 in advance, $10 at the door. For more information, visit firehousetheatre.org or call (804) 355-2001.

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