Canadian was like a godsend to S'pore gamelan orchestra

SINGAPORE - Earlier this month I attended a memorial at an old terraced house in Little India to celebrate the life of a remarkable Canadian, Nicole Gena Lewis.

Niky, as she was known to those who knew her, would have turned 36 next month if she had survived a car crash last month in Toronto, where she lived with her husband, Diego Andres Garcia, and children Carmencita, 10, and three-month- old Francisco.

Her sudden death was felt deeply by those who turned up at 63, Kerbau Road, home of Gamelan Asmaradana, Singapore's first professional gamelan company.

For four years until she returned to Canada last December to have her baby, Niky was the artistic director of SingaMurti, the company's Balinese section. She was known to many for her passion for gamelan, the traditional Indonesian musical ensemble comprising instruments such as bronze bars, gongs, cymbals, bells and two-sided drums.

She first encountered gamelan as a music student at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver where she learnt it from renowned musicologist Michael Tenzer.

After graduating with a bachelor's degree in orchestral performance in 2000, she spent five months in Bali to learn more, playing gamelan music and learning to dance as well.

Eight years later, she arrived in Singapore when her husband, a videographer and diver, began a new posting. She was keen to play in an ensemble.

"She sought us out because she wanted to take part in our activities just for fun," recalls Ms Chan Mei-yin, 49, executive director and co-founder of Gamelan Asmaradana.

"Niky was like a godsend, turning up at just the right time. She could complement our already substantial programme of Javanese gamelan and Sundanese degung.

"We'd been trying to develop our Balinese section with little success because Balinese gamelan is much more intricate and difficult to teach than other styles. I couldn't have found a better instructor of Balinese gamelan than Niky."

The Canadian's eclectic background proved particularly valuable to the company, which has a youth arm and a fusion group. She had helped run an Indian classical dance company back home and her mother had been the manager of a punk rock band.

So Niky was soon Gamelan Asmaradana's arts consultant, on top of being an instructor. And life became busier when she started teaching gamelan at St Joseph's Institution International (SJII) and running workshops in other schools.

She not only performed regularly with the SingaMurti ensemble but also led members on annual study trips to Bali to improve their skills. Later, she also taught Balinese gamelan at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music of the National University of Singapore.

Ms Chan remains grateful that Niky groomed Singaporean Rosmaini Buang to take over from her as artistic director of SingaMurti before she left.

I got to know Niky through my wife Susi, the teacher in charge of SJII's gamelan ensemble, and she would get a ride home with us after gamelan practices. I had also attended a number of her performances.

Among those at the memorial was Pak Nyoman Kariasa, 40, Niky's lecturer at Institut Seni Indonesia in Denpasar, who had specially flown in from Bali. He broke down and sobbed, saying: "Niky was like my family. She did so much in the teaching of Balinese music in Singapore."

Vietnamese Huang Nam Nguyen Vu, 19, who studied under Niky, said: "Her passion when teaching and performing gamelan was like fire that kept us going and filled the air with pulsating energy."

SJII student Emmanoel Pratama Hastono, 18, from Yogyakarta, admitted feeling embarrassed that he knew nothing about gamelan when he first met Niky. "Although I studied gamelan with Ms Niky for only six months, I want to champion the art in future and tell people it's because of this passionate Canadian teacher."

SJII alumnus Petrus Bosa Layarda, 21, an Indonesian too and now studying at New York University Abu Dhabi, said in an e-mail tribute: "Whenever I tell people I do gamelan, I never fail to mention my teacher was this Canadian lady who was so passionate about Indonesian music that I was inspired each time we played gamelan together. She taught me to value and love a piece of my own culture."

SingaMurti member Jeremiah Pereira, 21, a Singaporean and first-year medical student at the National University of Singapore, said he regards Niky not only as a teacher but also a good friend.

"Despite her Western music training, she embraced wholeheartedly music from a different culture. She really taught me to be more open," he said.

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