When it comes to music, Wellington and Indonesia go way back. As far back as 1974 in fact, when Allan Thomas travelled to Indonesia and brought back more than just a travelling high. Enamoured of the gamelan music that he encountered there, he returned to Wellington with a collection of instruments. This would be the beginnings of New Zealand’s very own gamelan group, which Thomas implemented with the assistance of Jack Body. Earlier that year the Indonesian Ambassador had gifted the NZBC Symphony Orchestra with a set of gongs, which were added to the newly established gamelan. The gongs were incorporated into a composition by Jack Body upon his return from Indonesia, as an appreciation of the Indonesian Ambassador’s gift. Wellington and Indonesia, it seems, were always meant to be.


Small Javanese ensemble at Sonorous Circle event at Newtown Community Centre 1 Nov, 2014 – Photo credit: Thomas Lambert / Sonorous Circle

Gamelan is the term for a traditional musical ensemble found in Indonesia. It consists mostly of percussive instruments, but can include strings and woodwind. Gamelan music is almost haunting in the rhythmic surreal atmosphere that it creates, though it can also be upbeat and joyful.

Gamelan Wellington has become something of a local  treasure. They are a signature sight at cultural and musical events, gracing functions with their impressive instrumental spread and even more impressive skills.  They perform a mix of traditional and contemporary music, with the group musicians composing pieces from “outside” instruments, like violins.

Playing as part Gamelan Padhang Moncar on Wellington Open Day 2015 – Photo credit: NZSM

Carina Esguerra has been part of Gamelan for six years now. She first stumbled across it in high school, before really discovering it in her first year at Victoria University. She decided to officially join the Javanese group, Padhang Moncar,  in her second year at university. The New Zealand School of Music (NZSM)  offers courses to complement the group activities, allowing students to get a bigger picture of the cultural context that gamelan originates from. Those who choose to do so continue on to become a part of Gamelan Wellington, and many stay on.

Carina at Gamelan Taniwha Jaya rehearsal 2012 – Photo credit: Dominika Zielinska – Not to be used anywhere else

For Carina, the communal atmosphere that the group fosters is especially important.  “The social, family aspect and diverse make-up of the group(s) are definitely the main reasons I enjoy it”, she says. She belongs to three different groups: Padhang Moncar (Javanese), Taniwha Jaya (Balinese) and The First Smile (Cirebon). “The First Smile was the first Gamelan to arrive in NZ over forty years ago”, she says.

The group travelled to Bali and Java for a tour, an experience which Carina describes as “incredible” and “surreal at times”. The group played almost daily, journeying as wide as Jakarta, Yogyakarta, Malang, Solo, Sanur and Denpasar and more. Their travels gave them the chance to encounter a lot of local gamelan, as well as another touring group from Canada.

Carina recalls how strange it felt to be given the VIP treatment. For someone who “just felt like an amateur community musician who liked to relax and play music with friends once or twice a week”, the grand welcome was certainly a little overwhelming. The Mayor of Solo held a dinner to honour the gamelan guests, billboards announced their presence, and they were given the only double decker bus in Solo to travel in.  The community were friendly and welcoming, appreciative of the group’s interest in their country’s traditional music.  “It was most definitely an unforgettable three weeks,” says Carina.

Gamelan Padhang Moncar in Solo, Indonesia in 2013 – Photo credit: Hayden Isaac

Carina appreciates the opportunity that the group provides in terms of encountering new music styles and different cultures. Gamelan music varies greatly from other styles and that comes with its own challenges and exploration. For her it’s all about “becoming familiar with the unfamiliar”. Carina enjoys the experimentation that comes with playing the different instruments as she moves between the different groups and pieces. This fluidity means Carina is able to learn and discover as much as she can, an opportunity which she relishes. “It’s not too bad switching,” she says, admitting that she’s often used as a ‘sub’ to fill for those who are away. Though a few instruments are elaborate, her familiarity with the main melodic ones means she can adapt to various positions  in the group.

As a member of Gamelan, Carina feels there are multiple benefits to the experience. She sees cultural exchange, understanding, and sharing as extremely important. “I think it is fantastic being able to achieve that through music and other art forms.” The group is extremely open, and people of all backgrounds, experience levels, and nationalities are welcome. The range of instruments means there’s something for everyone. “A lot of our performances are free” says Carina, pointing out that this artistic and cultural experience is accessible across the board.

Gamelan can be spotted frequently at Wellington cultural events. They’re an easy “diverse” card, laughs Carina. With their large numbers and elegant instruments, they cut a striking image. The group has an impressive repertoire , with the Java and Balinese groups having played at Trade Aid, APRA Silver Scrolls, South East Asian Night Markets, Indonesia Day, for wayang kulit (a form of Indonesian shadow puppetry), WOMAD, Homegrown, and even contributed to the soundtrack to The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. The Cirebon gamelan, The First Smile, provided the accompaniment to “Shadow Play”, a wayang kulit exhibition  at Pataka Museum. Carina believes that the group does “add something special to the cultural makeup and the art scene.” Plus, the gamelan has also been a great positive force in building the Indo-NZ relationship.

Gamelan Taniwha Jaya playing at the APRA Silver Scroll Awards 2014 – Photo credit: Bradley Garner

Carina is a strong believer in music and other arts being a powerful force in bringing about positive change. “I want to empower people through it,” she says. It seems she’s already well on her way to achieving that. Along with “fostering positive cultural exchange through gamelan,” Carina also holds angklung workshops. Angklung is an Indonesian bamboo instrument consisting of two or four vertical tubes fitted to a main frame. The tubes are constructed to give out varying pitches when struck or shaken. Carina holds these weekly workshops at Alpha Art Studios, where she works with people with learning disabilities and sensory impairment. She has seen the music bring about change, saying “I’ve noticed such incredible improvement in our performers.” Both she and other staff members have observed drastic improvements in the performers’ focusing and musical abilities. “They learn new techniques, they work as a group, they improve eye contact, and they are really enjoying it and taking pride in their abilities.” The group also holds annual performances, which demonstrate the numerous benefits that the classes provide. The members are able to take pride in these performances, which are a culmination of all their hard work, their improving fine motorskills, their increased concentration, and their strengthening teamwork. The workshops are a doorway to a wholly different music style and cultural experience, both for students and staff. It builds connections and expands worlds for all involved.

Carina playing suling with Ganmelan Padhang Moncar at Newtown Festival 2016
Photo credit: Catherine Gossage

Carina’s passion for communities and the arts is inspiring. “My main goal,” she says, “would be to always be involved with working within communities, especially minority groups, to benefit them through music and other arts.” One of her objectives is to produce an angklung resource book to complement her workshops. Not only would it be a source of information about the group and its benefits, but it would also contain sheet music, and art work created by the Alpha members. Carina has noted the incredibly positive reception that angklung brings about in children, “so hopefully if a teacher wanted to teach angklung to their students,” Carina points out, “this resource could help even if they weren’t a musician, or familiar with Indonesian culture.” It would spread the benefits of “team-work, focus, and joy” to many more.

Carina’s work with people from a hugely diverse range of backgrounds drives her interest in the importance of cultural sharing and understanding. Being an alumni of a Young Leaders Programme for youth from ethnic minorities in New Zealand, and working with youth from low-docile schools, Carina has seen first-hand how these children “are misunderstood and stereotyped, and deal with issues relating to identify, community, belonging, and all sorts”. She aims to help with these issues through music. “I feel like so many things can be helped through music,” she says, “even medical issues.” Her work with the YLP, the Refugee Red Cross Resettlement Programme, and her Outreach job have brought Carina into contact with numerous artists who share their joy of being able to express themselves through their chosen art form. “It can be a powerful form of empowerment”, says Carina. “Through art you can deal with personal expression, empowerment, identity, interpersonal relationships, sharing, communication, community and escapism, while also giving people joy.” These are the aspects she would like to incorporate into her work. She wants her work to be “a sustainable thing that everyone can do, and continue to do”, an aspect of life that is implemented into a community, one which grows and thrives as it benefits the participants.

Kulintang workshop at Sta. Teresa School in Batangas, Philippines 2016 – Photo credit: Christine Esguerra

Carina’s list doesn’t stop there, though. Being of Filipino background she is also eager to learn kulintang, and other forms of Filipino music “and make those two worlds (of Indonesian and Filipino music) meet.” Having recently returned from a holiday in the Philippines, she is even more determined to see her vision become a reality. After experiencing some traditional music workshops while there, she is eager to carry on with that in Wellington. She is especially interested in starting a kulintang group, “since there are instruments here in Wellington and kulintang is very similar to gamelan.” Being in Philippines gave her the opportunity to discover more of the diverse music styles in Filipino culture, which has been a life-long goal of Carina’s. “It was great learning some kulintang music,” says Carina, “especially since it’s often associated with women (which is awesome for badass percussive music).” Armed with even more musical knowledge, Carina is eager to add to Wellington’s diverse music scene. “Hopefully I can get a kulintang group going very soon and more good things can follow from that!”

Contact Carina at: carina.esguerra@gmail.com

Alpha Art Gallery: http://www.alphagallery.org.nz/

Alpha Art Gallery and Studio Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/AlphaGalleryAndStudio/

Gamelan Website: http://gamelan.org.nz/

Gamelan Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/GamelanWgtnNZ/


Written By
Faustina Paustin