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March 25, 2009
Islands in harmony: Musical groups join
in cross-cultural learning

Cornell's Breaking Bread Initiative to encourage the sharing of diverse perspectives got off to a ringing start with two musical ensembles blending Indonesian and Filipino music.

University Photography
Musicians in the Cornell Gamelan Ensemble and 14 Strings! collaborated in two performances supported by Cornell's Breaking Bread Initiative.

In two collaborative concerts reflecting Muslim and Christian traditions and European, Hindu and Buddhist influence audiences were given a chance to learn about musical and other traditions in Indonesia and the Philippines, where many cultures are related, but many are not.

The concerts were the first of three programs supported this year by the initiative, administered by the Office of the Dean of Students.

The 28 musicians in the two groups, the Cornell Gamelan Ensemble and 14 Strings!, performed a Feb. 26 Midday Music program in Lincoln Hall and a Feb. 27 evening concert, titled "Music from 24,615 Islands," in the Sage Hall atrium. The latter drew an audience of about 120 people.

The members of 14 Strings! -- a Filipino Rondalla ensemble, a folk tradition first brought to the Philippines, along with Christianity, by the Spanish -- wanted to learn more about the music of Filipino Muslims, usually played by a kulintang ensemble. With no local kulintang group, they approached the Cornell Gamelan Ensemble, which focuses on the music of Java, a predominately Muslim island.

The Breaking Bread program helped fund the participation of guest artist Priscilla Magdamo, a Grammy Award-winning musician and ethnomusicologist who works to preserve the cultural diversity of the Philippines by performing folk tales illustrating social and cultural dynamics.

In preparing for the concerts, the groups also studied the cultures and musical practices of each other's traditions.

"We all sat down and had some learning sessions about Indonesia and the Muslim part of the Philippines. We didn't know Indonesia had the fourth-largest population in the world, or that it had the largest Muslim population in the world," said Jane Maestro-Sherer of 14 Strings!

Their performances weaved Christian and Muslim influences, and the gamelan ensemble played two pieces reflecting earlier Hindu/Buddhist traditions. In turn, 14 Strings! performed Filipino songs and pieces based in European, classical and contemporary music.

Gamelan Ensemble director Christopher Miller arranged the finale, Bengawan Solo, featuring both ensembles in a display of kroncong, a variant of rondalla, the Portuguese brought to Indonesia more than four centuries ago.

"We had such a tremendous learning experience from this," Maestro-Sherer said. "It just confirmed for us how culture is a patch to so many things. While we were doing a musical collaboration, we were learning about religion, about rituals, and the differences between the Muslim and the Christian worlds."

Graduate student Nesha May Octavio Andoy of 14 Strings! called the collaboration "a good experience, at least for me. It was the first time that we played with another group. The most interesting part was to actually hear the music of both groups together. I grew up in the southern part of the Philippines, so I'm quite familiar with the sound of gongs, similar to what the Gamelan is using."

The Breaking Bread Selection Committee chose three initiatives to fund last fall, promising up to $250 for a small group dinner and up to $1,500 for a jointly organized program for the Cornell community, according to Catherine Holmes, associate dean of students for student activities.

The Cornell Women's Resource Center and the Cornell Coalition for Life are planning a joint event. The staffs of the student publications Triple Helix and Kitsch recently met for their dinner at Cayuga Lodge, and their collaborative project will follow.

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