The Kontra-GaPi in the music video for their version of the 'Game of Thrones' theme.
Culture Spotlight

United we sound: On the Eheads, Edru, and my days as a Kontra-GaPi

In college, the author joined the wildly original cultural group—which is celebrating its 30th year—because the Eraserheads were once Kontra-GaPi. Little did he know that playing with Edru Abraham’s gamelan will bring its own rewards, lessons and, well, ligaya.
Clang Sison | Sep 07 2019

I joined Kontra-GaPi on the first day of freshman year in U.P. Diliman. Two factors convinced me to make the decision: I was moved by their performance at that mammoth 12-hour concert Bistro sa Amoranto: Tugtugan Pamorningan, which gathered 70s Bistro mainstays at the Amoranto Stadium in ‘93; and two, because all the members of the Eraserheads were once members of Kontra-GaPi.

And you know how big the Eheads was in 1993. 

To those who don’t know, the Kontra-GaPi is the Kontemporaryong Gamelan Pilipino, a group that takes sounds and practices from our Philippine indigenous groups and interprets them in a performance that almost always involves music and dancing and mime and song.

Every performance is an event. Each member artist gets to play as many as 10 instruments in the gamelan, which is “the quintessential orchestra of Southeast Asia.” Most people assume the group plays authentic indigenous sounds — but what we play are actually contemporary pieces built on the original modes and patterns of indigenous sounds.

The Kontra-GaPi in 1997 (with the author in dark glasses at bottom left), at the College of Arts and Letters. 

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Because I was young, I just went along for the ride most the time, learning and unlearning a lot of things from the countless gigs around the country. Performing different configurations of the sounds and also doing the same things over and over and over again. Sometimes it all amounted to this almost Zen-like confusion in my head — where I begin to notice which parts of what we did resonated with audiences and which ones did not. 

Our leader, of course, was Prof. Pedro “Edru” R. Abraham Jr. of the Department of Arts Studies at the College of Arts and Letters in UP. He founded the group after he conceived a score for Dulaang UP’s production of August Strindberg’s A Dream Play in 1989. The score, which was described as possessed of a “stunning exotic appeal,” got tremendous acclaim.

Edru was great on and off the stage — serious when he’s serious, crazier than you think when there’s room for craziness, compassionate, and communicates best with a wink, a nod, and a smile. 

 

The gamelan

During my early years with the group, things were different when it came to the instruments. The kulintang and agung stands were made of wood and the gongs stored in big, heavy handwoven baskets. Slowly, we changed this and used collapsible metal stands and frames for the gongs. We stored the gongs in better, tour-worthy compartments where they were cushioned and transported more easily. 

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At the Luna Arts and Music Festival

Back then, from what I remember, we really had a lot of nicer, older instruments but we started using them less and less to keep them from getting damaged from the realities of touring. The instruments that were easier to acquire and replace were used more often, with the more valuable ones reserved for special occasions. We had two good sets of kulintang, and two other sets with a bigger diameter which produced a lower tone—we called them the senior kulintang sets, but only among us members. We also had a set of babandir (like an agung but with a shallower body) that sounded great when played together. I remember a good set of angklungs which we seldom used because they were a bit frail being made of bamboo. All these were important instruments but we also had a good supply of kubings, kulibaws, bungkaka, tongatong, and kulibets (look them up on Google) which get replaced more often because the bamboo gets bad and some get accidentally broken. 

In 1997, the Kontra-GaPi in their real life clothes. In most performances, the group just wore the group shirt, jeans, camisas and a tubao.  and 

Of all of them, it was the agung, a pair of wide, suspended gongs, that was my favorite; and the sarunay, which is like a xylophone made of knobbed metal plates strung together—but later on I had a permanent position at the drums, supporting Edru. 

 

The mentor

Edru is one of my mentors, and I am thankful for having been gifted, through him, a key to understand “stuff” better. He loved the stage, and I learned to love it because Edru loved it. Apart from my orchestra duties, I would help him email proposals and mail outs for the group — via a 56k modem which was fast at the time. I helped plot logistics for the world tour.

My favorite moment with Kontra-GaPi was when we got the grant from the CCP to produce a show called That Place, Our Home, which gave us a chance to perform with Mon David, Noel Cabangon, and both Garys: Valenciano and Granada. 

One of the group's performances this year. Photograph from ABS-CBN News on Twitter

Ay, grabe yan si Edru. He gets hot-headed especially when under a lot of pressure and stress — like all people from theater and the arts. I learned how to wrestle with him so we can work together. Others would get scared when he starts raising his voice — but I tried to understand what was up and what really needed to be done. Being in Kontra-GaPi taught me how not only to work but get along with creative people, and how to make working with difficult people a breeze. Edru always liked to say something that I think sums up my whole Kontra-GaPi experience: “It’s a unity within diversity and it’s a diversity within unity.”

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Doing a cover of the Game of Thrones theme.

The look

For our costumes, Kontra-GaPi plays in a lot of different configurations. The most intricate come out in stage performances, like the play we debuted at the CCP. For other gigs and performances, we agreed on a uniform: jeans or black pants and a Kontra-GaPi shirt, colored camisas and tubao (woven hankderchief) — so that things were kept simple and still communicated that we were students.

The main actors/performers/soloists use a lot of handwoven fabrics from various parts of the country. Two specific materials were the banig and the malong, because culturally, I was told, they are closely tied to our life cycle: you are born on the banig/malong, and you are wrapped in a banig when you die. 

Surely, most of these things just slipped past me at the time because I was busy having fun. The lessons came later. My experience with mounting shows, I get to tap on it now while helping my musician and artist friends explore what’s possible for their own productions. From playing mostly percussive instruments in the gamelan, I get to bring the pulso of that into the things I do now — film and video editing, creating live visuals, and deejaying. 

Parting with Kontra-GaPi was bittersweet. I stayed with them for a bit even after college, but I knew it was time to move on to other things. The group was a huge part of my college life and it introduced me to a wealth of people in my periphery, and I am forever grateful. Will I do it all over again? As the Eheads song in that '93 debut album goes: “Baby, you can bet your pwet.

 

Photos courtesy of Clang Sison.