In the beginning there was Sound. And out of the primordial Sound arose the
Universe, and all things in it.
So the ancients believed; and they paid homage to the primordial sound by
making joyous sounds of their own, first with the human voice - the primal
instrument - and later with drums, gongs rattles and whatever means were at
hand. Thus was born the art of music.
As civilization became more and more complex, however, so did music. Finally
the day came when it was decided that the sublime art of music could no
longer be left in the hands of amateurs. And so the creation of music
became the province of the few who devoted their lives to it, while the many
became for the most part nothing more than passive listeners.
But in truth, anyone who can bang a gong or clap his hands or make any sort
of human sound can reclaim the right to create music. All it takes is a
shift in perspective.
Bringing this shift about is the reason for being of Kontemporaryong
Gamelang Pilipino, or Kontra-Gapi. The group's name is not just an acronym.
Gapi is a Filipino word meaning bound, vanquished, conquered. Kontra-Gapi
therefore seeks to free Filipino musical consciousness from the stranglehold
of Western-oriented pop, and from the stifling notion that only specialists
have the ability to create music.
The vehicle that Kontra-Gpai has chosen for this task is the gamelan.
Gamelan is the traditional percussion orchestra of Southeast Asia. It is
said that the sound of the gamelan can only be compared to moonlight and
flowing water, for it is as mysterious as the moonlight and ever changing
like the water.
The sound of the gamelan is at once ancient and timeless. One need only
listen to the hypnotic tones of the gamelan to realize that the music
strikes a resonant chord somewhere deep in the racial memory. It is part of
the Filipinos' roots, buried beneath the colonial overlay, dormant but alive.
Kontra-Gapi had its beginnings in 1989 when Edru Abraham, a professor at
the University of the Philippines was asked to create music for a Pilipino
adaptation of August Strindberg's A Dream Play. The director had only one
guideline: that the music be distinctly Filipino and Asian. Throughout the
run of the play, consistently excellent reviews singled out the music's
stunning exotic appeal. This encouraged the ad-hoc band to transform itself
into an independent troupe, and what followed was a long string of
performances throughout the Philippines. They have performed in diverse
places, from village basketball courts, to hole-in-the-wall rock clubs, to
street demonstrations, to the imposing main theater of the Cultural Centre
of the Philippines.
In 1993, Kontra-Gapi was appointed resident gamelan or music and dance
ensemble by the University of the Philippines. Three years later they
received the university's Outstanding Achievement Award in the Performing
Arts for their significant, trendsetting, and visionary contribution.
On one level, Kontra-Gapi is an experiment in using the gamelan for
contemporary musical expression. To the gamelan, Kontra-Gapi adds a flute,
a jew's harp, a clarinet, a harmonica, even an electric guitar and a
On another level, however, Kontra-Gapi is also an experiment in
empowerment. It aims to remind us that music belongs to the people.
The Kontra-Gapi philosophy is best appreciated in performance. Group
leader Edru Abraham, a wriy, wildly energetic presence, usually directs the
ensemble from his drum kit, around which other instruments are arrayed. As
the concert proceeds, however, the members of the audience soon realize that
they too have a part in the performance.
In one piece for instance, titled Palakpakan o Kapalpakan, the audience
participates through rhythmic handclapping, building rhythms and patterns
that soon fill the hall. In another piece, Abraham has the audience
chanting Kalayaan, Kasarinlan, Kapayapaan sa Bayan (freedom, sovereignty,
peace to the nation) like a mantra.
Kontra-Gapi is eclectic and experimental, and all musical styles, even
Western idioms are grist for its mill. In one piece, the ensemble runs
through a series of Latin rhythms, from the tango and the cha-cha to the
bolero and bossa nova, culminating in a wild lambada.
Anything can happen within the improvisational framework of a Kontra-Gapi
performance. One moment members may be dancing to an ethnic beat. The next
Abraham might be playing the William Tell Overture on his bamboo jew's harp.
Later on, a jazz singer might be scatting along with the kulintang as foil.
And as a finale, the audience might be enticed to rap along with the ensemble.