GamelAwan: Reviving traditional tunes with technology

We spoke with Kholis Kurniawan (who goes by the name Awan), a musician from Indonesia. His band GamelAwan creates unique songs by fusing the centuries-old tradition of gamelan, a traditional type of music played in Java, the most populous island in Indonesia, with more contemporary pop tunes. His music videos on YouTube have been watched millions of times, helping him launch a career as a musician while sharing his love for his Javanese culture with the world.


Why did you become a musician?

Music is in my blood. I was born into a family of artists in Lamongan Regency in East Java. My mother used to be in a band. I never received formal musical training, but I learnt how to play my first instrument—the drums—from my brother, Arjuna, when I was 10. He’s also a member of GamelAwan. The two of us having been making music with our friends and playing in bands since we were kids.

Arjuna

Awan’s brother Arjuna (right) taught him how to play his first musical instrument – the drums.

What got you interested in gamelan?

Javanese people are losing touch with our culture and playing gamelan is my way of helping to preserve our traditions. I have also discovered that a lot of other people share my desire to remain connected to our heritage. When I first started uploading songs on YouTube, I didn’t get many views. But the videos became much more popular when I incorporated gamelan. We hit more than three million YouTube views for our first cover song that used gamelan.

Gamelawan band
Gamelan has been played in Java and Bali since antiquity. In this image, Gamelawan band members are playing the kendang (drum), bonang (kettle gong), and gambang kayu (xylophone).

What challenges did you face in building your career?

I’m from a rural area in Java where a career in music is discouraged. People think that musicians are unable to earn a decent living. Besides dealing with society’s expectations, I also faced the same challenges experienced by other performance artists. One particular show in Bali was a disaster because the sound system stopped working as we were performing. But I learn from these experiences and it motivates me to work even harder for success.


How has YouTube helped you?

YouTube is a perfect place to publish my work because everyone uses it. Two years after we published our first video, YouTube invited me to perform on stage at YouTube FanFest in Jakarta as part of a collaboration with Weird Genius, who plays electronic music.

I am really grateful for that opportunity. FanFest is the most prestigious event a YouTube creator can play at. After our performance there, subscribers to our YouTube channel grew a lot faster. We have received a Silver Button for passing the 100,000 subscriber mark. But what we did not expect was that YouTube could get us noticed offline. Since we performed at FanFest, we have made appearances on national television and gotten requests to play at a lot more events.

YouTube was even my match-maker! I met my future wife after she left a comment in one of my videos.

AwanandSani
Awan and his wife Nur Farida Sani.

What are your plans for the future?

The Indonesian and international creators we met at YouTube FanFest inspired us to work on an album of original music. It is a huge shift from our original approach of just covering other artists’ songs. We want to create unique music for people to enjoy, while staying true to our culture and musical traditions. So we will continue fusing gamelan and more contemporary music genres in our next album. Our mission is to use the universal language of music to help communicate Javanese culture to Indonesians and people across the world.

YTFF Gamelawan
Gamelawan playing at YouTube FanFest in Jakarta.

GamelAwan: Reviving traditional tunes with technology