It’s all junk — until it’s not.
Clay flowerpots, a washtub, garbage cans, assorted kitchenware, an old futon frame, circular saw blades, cast iron skillets and more. What may look like clutter piling up on a small stage at Washington’s Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts is junk that has been given a second life as finely tuned, amplified musical instruments played by the New York-based group, Electric Junkyard Gamelan (EJG).
“Believe it or not, the frying pans are all pitched,” musician, composer, and instrument maker Terry Dame says, pointing to a black cast iron skillet standing upright on its handle near the front of the stage.
Dame is the leader of the veteran musicians who have been performing together as the EJG since 2000. The band members, ranging in age from 31 to 51, include drummer Lee Free, bass player Mary Feaster and Julian Hintz, a classically trained percussionist.
Dame built all of the band’s unusual instruments. “I’m a fabricator, I just love to make things with my hands,” she says.
Most of strange-looking contraptions taking shape on the stage bear little resemblance to musical instruments as we know them, although some of the names may sound vaguely familiar. There’s the ‘sitello’ — a combination electric cello and sitar; the ‘terraphone’ — a horn made from copper pipe; the ‘clayrimba’ — a marimba made from garden-variety clay pots; a ‘big barp’ and a ‘rubarp’ — electric harps made with rubber bands.”I don’t care what it looks like, it if makes a beautiful sound, I’ll figure out a way to play it,” states Dame.
The band’s eclectic music does not fit neatly into any category and often sounds nothing like what audiences might expect to hear, Dame says. “Some venues are kind of scared of us because it seems like it’s going to be a lot weirder than it is.”
Originally inspired by Indonesian music, EJG’s song list includes hints of familiar styles such as jazz, funk, pop, world music and even hip-hop. The term gamelan refers to musical ensembles from Java and Bali in which gongs and metal xylophones are the predominate instruments, explains gamelan scholar, Sumarsam.
The group’s sound — as much as its unique instruments — caught the ear of the organisers of the Music for People and Thingamajigs Festival in Oakland, California, where EJG is booked to play in late September.
Festival spokesman Edward Schocker said even in the small world of artists who use found objects of recycled materials to make instruments, Dame’s group stand outs.
“What was really great about Terry and the Electric Junkyard Gamelan was that they found a way to make non-musicians interested in what they do,” Schocker says. “She’s able to take these instruments and create music with it that is open to so many different people.”
Published in The Express Tribune, August 22nd, 2011.