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Bang a Gong 

Gamelan lives (slight return)

Wednesday, Jan 8 1997
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March of 1996 -- a time of innocence and civil idealism, luxuries that too often seem unaffordable today. An era so carefree, so different from our contemporary wont, that we might be considering another world, or a tomorrow that will never come to pass. And to hundreds of local hipsters -- in this bleary sci-fi world of January 1997 -- no trappings of that elapsed golden era beckon so insistently as the early March gamelan craze.

"It's wild," says Meltya Chabit, a Bernal Heights enthusiast of the post-ironic urban gamelan retro-retro. She smirklessly wears the common polyester sarong and paddy hat and sips sincerely from a carved teak mug full of clarified fish alcohol. "It's like, we can enjoy what our slightly older friends did, without making fun of our slightly older friends, like they did theirs!"

Behind Chabit, the floor of SOMA's small Kenning Club teems with gongs both large and small, xylophones, chimes, and cymbals. Vandyked musicians smoke clove cigarettes during intermission and pick scales from their teeth between swigs of fish liquor. Soon, the Kenning will vibrate with a tumult of metallic percussion, and the young fans will nod along post-appreciatively. Already, the club's movie screen is lighted so that audience members can put up their hands and make shadow puppets.

The Kenning Club, only just now recovering from the remission of the kenning fad (wherein spoken-word artists reclaimed kennings, the intricate metaphors penned by Norse skalds), has become a vital center for the latest post-ironic retro-retro. Every Thursday and Saturday, hundreds of youngsters in synthetic Indonesian garb, rendered street-smart with Nike and DKNY decals, flock to listen to atonal cycles of crashing brass. And the growth of the new post-ironic retro-retro shows no signs of slowing down.

Gamelan, a form of orchestral music originating in the Indonesian countries of Java and Bali, and brought into domestic prominence by January Morris dancers tired of February's zydeco, must have seemed strange indeed to those first pre-Ides audiences. But the form flourished in March. Even today, in secondhand stores, we can occasionally find time-faded Polaroids of our slightly older friends' slightly older friends, sitting back and sipping fish liquor in earnest appreciation while their visionary peers bang the gongs center stage. In their faces, we see the easy countenance of an untroubled worldview. In their hands, urban shadow puppets -- taken from the wayang kulit shadow plays of Indonesia, to which gamelan provided accompaniment -- amateur-crafted to the point of pride, played against screens in time to the gamelan as if summoning up an even more innocent, even less troubled, Indonesian island existence.

"They were fooling themselves," says Matty LaBiche, an Excelsior holdover from August's ironic urban gamelan retro. "And they're fooling themselves now." Speaking with a hoarse-voiced wisdom that belies the passage of five months, LaBiche recounts the crass commercialization that flooded the scene -- products that LaBiche coolly collected when July's jaw-harp craze petered out. LaBiche flaunts boxes full of unopened name-brand sarongs and videocassettes of various forgettable gongsploitation movies. "I paid tall money for this one," he says holding up a vintage poster for Gamelan 2: Concentric Bugaboo. "Can you believe how stupid this got? How ugly?" he sniggers.

LaBiche and many like him were part of the pre-post-ironic revitalization of urban gamelan appreciation. They, unlike the current retro-retro, chose to admire the urban gamelan in contempt of consumer culture, as an outlandish, garish symptom of a tasteless era. "Can you believe the clothes they wore?" LaBiche asks, modeling his polyester sarong. "I mean, what were they thinking?" LaBiche now makes his living selling off his post-earnest pre-retro collection to various members of the new post-ironic retro-retro, who will pay almost anything to sport LaBiche's vintage wear at places like the Kenning Club. "It's really something," LaBiche admits. "I'm exploiting exploitation, and I feel great."

At the Kenning Club, Chabit shows off her LaBiche Collection sarong. "I still have the shrink-wrap," she bubbles.

Participants in the new retro-retro have nothing but admiration for the post-earnest precedent as practiced by slightly older friends like LaBiche. Chabit recounts the carefully honed sarcasm demonstrated in merely ironic clubs of the era. "The ironic gamelans used good vintage gongs and cymbals, but they could also use kooky things like baking pans and stuff," chortles Chabit. "When they didn't use old shadow puppets, they just used their hands like we do now, to make these really sarcastic birds and spiders -- only we're post-sarcastic about it." Meaning? "It's like being stupid for stupid's sake, not smart for stupid's. Or, I mean, the other way."

Such subtle distinctions are not apparent in tonight's post-ironic performance. The musicians stub out their cloves and set down their mugs. Chabit stirs and joins her companions near the blank movie screen, hands at the ready. The members of the orchestra pick up their various cymbals, mallets, and gong hammers. On the conductor's count to four, they're off, bashing and clattering and thundering and flailing upon their instruments. A smirk flashes across the face of one Vandyked musician sledging a 5-foot gong, but he catches himself and continues without expression. Chabit and her peers grin and start making shadow animals upon the screen -- dog heads, crabs, and cranes. The umbral shapes of Chabit's hands meld, flowing eerily into the likeness of a hopping rabbit. Chabit twiddles her thumb just so to make the rabbit sniff.

About The Author

Michael Batty

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