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American Musicians Make Balinese Gamelan Their Own

  • Gail Wein

The members of Dharma Swara were drawn together by their interest in Balinese culture and music

On Sunday afternoons, the clang of traditional Indonesian percussion music known as gamelan wafts down the street, audible on the approach to the Indonesian Consulate on Manhattan's east side.

Gamelan is also the word for the kinds of instruments that produce it: various sizes of metal xylophones, large gongs, drums and wooden flutes. The 20 musicians playing these instruments are members of Dharma Swara, a New York-based group that specializes in Balinese gamelan, the indigenous music of the Indonesian island just east of Java.

Eastern music with a western sensibility

They've been rehearsing intensely, preparing for the gamelan competition at the annual Bali Arts Festival. Dharma Swara, which means The Sound of the True Path, is the first non-Indonesian ensemble ever to be invited to participate in this decades-old competition.

The members of the group are almost all from North America, and getting to understand Bali culture through music has been a big revelation. Canadian Vivian Fung plays the Calung, a xylophone with five bronze keys. She says gamelan has changed the way she thinks about music.

"One of the biggest differences is the collective mentality of the gamelan, and of Balinese society," she explains, comparing it to western society, which she says "is all about the self. Everything [in Balinese society] is based on the group. Even the mentality of how you play. You're playing paired with someone else. So you really have to be together with your partner. And it's wonderful because gamelan is like a microcosm of how the Balinese live."

Different paths to Dharma Swara

Fung has been playing with Dharma Swara for two years, and was first introduced to gamelan music through a world arts fellowship six years ago.

Like others in the group, she was drawn to play because of her fascination with the music and the culture.

Dharma Swara musicians rehearse in Bali before competition
Dharma Swara musicians rehearse in Bali before competition

Nicci Reisnour is a doctoral student in musicology at Cornell University, and she makes the five-hour commute to New York City every weekend for Dharma Swara rehearsals. She first heard a student group play gamelan a few years ago, and "it blew my mind. I just thought it was most amazing sounding thing. It sounded like nothing I'd ever heard before, I guess."

Andy McGraw was studying jazz and classical percussion on the east coast in college and at home in Kansas City. He recalls hearing Balinese gamelan music for the first time in an introductory world music class, and absolutely hating it.

"It sounded radically out of tune, and disorganized. And I couldn't make any sense of it. Then, when I first heard it live, it was in Bali, and it was in a contest between two of really the best groups on the island in a temple contest. I couldn't believe it was same music I heard on this cassette that I detested so much!"

McGraw is now a professor of ethnomusicology at the University of Richmond in Virginia, and executive director of Dharma Swara.

Performing for an audience that knows its music

Unlike western classical music competitions, where a panel of experts rates each performance, McGraw explains gamelan competitions in Bali rely mostly on audience reaction. "And the audience lets you know in real time exactly how they feel about your performance. And any slight mistake this audience goes crazy and will hoot and holler.

"It's really more like a soccer crowd"

The month-long Bali Arts Festival is an enormous affair, with multiple stages of music and dance, plus fashion shows, food stalls, and events for children, in addition to the traditional music and dance performances and competitions.

Dharma Swara includes dancers as well as musicians
Dharma Swara includes dancers as well as musicians

Some of what Dharma Swara will perform is very traditional. Other selections are new compositions by members of the group – works that sound very different from anything the Balinese people will have heard before.

Vivian Fung thinks that audiences will be surprised – and pleased – by the fusion of East and West, and old and new. "What we're doing is infusing our personality into the gamelan. And some of the composers have these jazzy licks, and there's one composer that has very atmospheric avant garde sound. She's using the gamelan in an entirely different way. And it's very experimental."

Fung sees the competition as a sort of cultural exchange. "[They're thinking,] there are these foreign people that are coming in, playing our music. But I think that we have put our own stamp on something very traditional and we can add our own personalities to it. And that's the best that we can do.

"We're a group from New York so we have this New York mentality," she points out. "And I think they will love that, actually."

The test will come on July 8th, in the final days of the Festival, when New York's Dharma Swara faces off against the best local gamelan groups in Bali.