Paul Budde's History Archives

The Gamelan Digul was brought to Australia

One of the very few physical artefacts of the Digulists in Australia is their Gamelan.

When the concentration camp in Tanah Merah  was evacuated, the prisoners brought with them to Australia a gamelan that had been constructed by them with the assistance of the Javanese court musician and political activist Pontjopangrawit, who had entertained at the court of king Paku Buwana X as a child. It was here that he learned how to build gamelans and became a sought-after teacher.                                                                  Digul Gamelan Monash University   He was imprisoned here from 1926 until 1932 but was later arrested by the Indonesian government during the 1965 revolution and died in custody.   De camp doctor L.J.H. Schoonheyt mentions the gamelan. In translation: Tanah Merah didn’t lack a gamelan (a Javanese drum orchestra) and this was especially in later years excellent. At the start they had to improvise, and it was made from empty tins of sardines and ‘patjols’,  (stolen) blades from shovels. Later the prisoners were, at special festivities, allowed to borrow the gamelan from the military and it soon became clear that there were several excellent musicians amongst them. The native gamelan music fits much better with these people than the imported jazz music. Hopefully modern music will never replace it[1].   A gamelan is the traditional ensemble of musical instruments used mainly in Java and Bali, made predominantly of percussive instruments. The most common instruments used are metallophones played by mallets and a set of hand-played drums called kendhang which register the beat.   In the case of the Gamelan Digul this one was made from prison materials including pans and utensils – it was taken by the “Digulists” to the Cowra POW camp and from here it was taken by some of the musicians to Melbourne, where it was used in performances during the war. On the repatriation of the Digulists, it was presented to the Museum of Victoria and ended up at Monash University; some pieces are now in the Australian Museum in Canberra[2].  

[1] Boven-Digoel – L.J.H. Schoonheyt https://www.papuaerfgoed.org/files/schoonheyt_1936_digoel.pdf

[2] The Gamelan Digul and the Prison Camp Musician Who Built It – http://profiles.arts.monash.edu.au/margaret-kartomi/2002-book-the-gamelan-digul-english-translation/