About the writer
Glossary of terms

The Story
Finding Cultural Identity
in Gamelan

The Video
Barong Dragon Dance

The Sounds
Audio Organology

The Photos
Golden Beats:
Burat Wangi Rehearsal

Presented by Elisa Hough
Specialized Journalism (the Arts)
Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism
University of Southern California
© 2012

About the writer

me playing the bonang

At the beginning of 2007, I timidly entered the UC Davis Gamelan Ensemble practice room for the first time. I was midway through my junior year of college, feeling bored with all my English classes and in need of a new challenge.

It had been many years since I gave up playing music, fruitlessly paying for guitar lessons and scheming up bands that would never be. I gladly resigned to my position as a “behind-the-scenes girl,” organizing concerts, hosting a radio show, working stage lighting and sound, writing about music and generally promoting those who could do what I could not.

But something about gamelan music, which I heard first on CDs at my radio station, possessed me to try again. Immediately, the mysterious red and gold instruments crammed in this off-campus studio intrigued me.

The first few weeks were tough, as I tried to regain a steady sense of rhythm and mathematically memorize the sequences of numbers we used as notation. It wasn’t until a friend told me, “Don’t think about it like patterns and equations — just think about what it sounds like,” that the music clicked for me. I learned to trust my ears and my classmates, and I learned to finally enjoy playing music.

I continued playing with the Davis ensemble for three years after I graduated — and when I briefly lived in Olympia, Wash., and Okinawa, Japan, I found gamelan groups to play with there, too. Now in Los Angeles, I practice with a Javanese ensemble at the Indonesian consulate.

My obsessions with gamelan as a musical genre and the joy of playing with a community have been mutually perpetuating. I can’t tell which of the two aspects I enjoy more because, as they should be, they are inseparable. Gamelan is community. Gamelan is my community.