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

Burat Wangi practice

Finding Cultural Identity in Gamelan

On top of a hill glowing with golden fall colors, a rare spectacle in Los Angeles County, a classroom glows with golden musical instruments and costumes shipped from 8,600 miles away. Under the fluorescent lights inside, 17 focused students evoke the music and culture of Bali, Indonesia, with the bright, exotic sounds echoing into the art studio courtyard at the California Institute of the Arts in suburban Valencia.

CalArts is one of over 300 schools in the United States offering courses in the traditional folk music of Indonesia called gamelan. Literally meaning to strike or hammer, the term gamelan applies to three entities: the genre of music, the collection of instruments and the group of performers. Every weekday, Bali native I Nyoman Wenten teaches gamelan classes in the world music BFA program and the Balinese and Javanese music and dance MFA program.

But on Saturday mornings, a particularly dedicated ensemble of students, graduates and unaffiliated gamelan enthusiasts — some driving from as far away as Long Beach and Claremont — gather in the classroom to rehearse as an active performance club, Gamelan Burat Wangi.

This year marks Burat Wangi’s 40th anniversary as a group — four decades of rehearsing, hosting music workshops and performing in large concert halls and arts festivals. While the ensemble’s members have changed over the years, especially as CalArts students come and go, its goals have not: to teach an appreciation and deep understanding of Balinese music and to spread Balinese culture in Los Angeles and beyond.

Even removed from the context of its tropical island origins, and loosened from its context in a university classroom, this ensemble creates a palpably passionate atmosphere, joking and gossiping between stretches of extreme concentration. Instead of classmates, they are a community. Instead of music lessons, these are social, spiritual and creative gatherings.

Kebyar > The music

Burat Wangi, meaning “fragrant offering,” was established as a performance group in 1972. They play in the gamelan kebyar — “flowering” of “lightning” — style unique to Bali, developed in the early 20th century during Dutch domination. The music is appropriately lightning-quick and thunderous, blossoming into increasingly complex melodic layers and rhythmic patterns.

Most instruments are cast from bronze, an alloy ancient Indonesians revered for using all the natural elements in its creation. Large hanging gongs, smaller gong “pots” and parallel bars like the keys of a xylophone are set in wooden frames, intricately carved and painted with floral patterns and faces of Balinese spirits.

In the practice studio, they are arranged in a V, with rows of paired instruments facing each other, two leading drummers in between, and the almighty gong at the crux. Each player has easy sight-lines to the accompanying dancers, drummers and — most importantly — their neighbors. Eyes constantly shift to the hands of the more experienced players, attempting to mimic their rapid movements while the unyielding melody crashes along.

“It’s all representative of nature and life in Indonesia,” says veteran player Adam Berg, a self-defined “Hinjew” Balinese-American who grew up between Bali and Santa Cruz. “If you go there, it sounds like gamelan.”

Each song is based on the simple, cyclical patterns of the large hanging gongs. From there, a low and slow melody emerges from the jegog, bronze keys suspended over a wooden frame with bamboo tube resonators. Complex rhythms flow from the reong, series of small gong pots placed horizontally on a frame. Several more keyed instruments embellish the melody, each faster and more complicated as the pitch increases. Suling bamboo flutes add more textural layers of improvisational sound.

The overall tempo and dynamics fluctuate wildly, following aural cues from the kendang hand drums and visual cues from dancers. While each musician appears to play a different melody, some at half speed and some at double speed, each pattern leads up to the same simultaneous note, usually at the end of every measure. A set number of measures then leads up to the largest gong, signaling the end of a cycle. The song starts over, moves to a new section, or comes to a pulsating conclusion.

The intricate patterns of the music, since its creation, reflect the strong social community within the group, with pairs of musicians on matching “male and female” instruments in each octave playing alternating, interlocking melodies. Players count on each other’s sense of rhythm and interact through subtle sounds, slight gestures and sidelong glances, creating a unique kind of bond.

These social communities, in turn, reflect the necessary intimacy of families and villages in Bali, where geographic proximity and economy demand cooperation. Neighboring families must coordinate planting cycles and irrigation systems to maximize rice production. They are mutually dependent for their livelihood, a societal symbiosis.

“There you live with your family, your extended family — you know everybody and everyone has responsibilities for daily life and not themselves,” Berg says. “That’s why gamelan is so communal in the first place. I think it’s so cool that you have to share parts.”

The musical emotion can rapidly change from solemn and meditative to joyous and turbulent, as the tempo instantaneously doubles or quadruples with a single drum beat. However jolting the transitions sound to listeners, the frenetic melodies and movements seem natural to musicians, always anticipating the transitions by interpreting signals indiscernible to untrained ears.

It’s chaos, confined to a song. Burat Wangi captures all the intensity of Balinese life, with the all-encompassing percussive sounds leaving students’ eardrums ringing.

“Old court gamelans sounded a lot more mellow,” Berg explains. “And when the courts dissolved because the Dutch came through, a lot of villagers started making these kebyar ensembles. So this kebyar music is much more representative of everyday villagers’ lives, and that’s why it’s so crazy, like dunn da dun dun da dun! People here think Balinese are just chill rice farmers, hanging at the beach. Balinese are intense.”

The chaotic sound is likely foreign to Western ears, with a five-note musical scale bearing little resemblance to our diatonic do-re-mi. When notation is required, it’s a simplified sequence of numbers — 1 through 5 — each digit representing a short pattern leading up to that note.

But instead of using sheet music as a crutch to guide through ostinatos and segues, most gamelan players learn by listening and depending on fellow musicians to follow along. Students must train their ears to hear how their part fits with the rest of the ensemble.

“There’s something to be said about each one of us in our musicality when we learn something by ear and have truly memorized it and known it, as opposed to sight-reading it,” Berg says. “The music becomes alive at that point.”

Besides the absence of written musical notation, the egalitarian nature of gamelan can be a difficult adjustment for students trained in Western music, who are accustomed to vying for first-chair positions and solos. While there is a progression of instruments that members must prove themselves capable of playing, starting with the slow gongs and ending with the polyrhythmic drums, there is a sense of equality and mutual respect among the group — ideally.

“There’s people that come in, in all gamelan groups in the United States, that get good, and then they get possessive,” says Berg, who took his first gamelan lesson in Bali at age 8 and has played in several California ensembles. “They don’t realize that what they’re learning is one way of one area of Bali or Indonesia. Most of those people tend to lose the heart of what gamelan really is.”

Students only learn one way because, even though there are codified tuning systems, every gamelan set is tuned slightly differently. The instruments are handmade, rendering each ensemble unique. Each practices a regional style, with minor variations in pitches and patterns. This collective singularity among the instruments and players, even in America, adds to the communal nature of the weekly rehearsal.

When the group harnesses these communal ties, every variation of the melody from each instrument precisely interlocks, creating an integrated, singular sound from up to 30 players. It’s in the same spirit as Indonesia’s national motto, inspired by the unity of its 17,000 islands, Bhinneka Tunggal Ika: “many, yet one” — bearing strong resemble to our own E Pluribus Unum: “from many, one.”

Desa kala patra > Cultural adaptation

In this unified mindset, the performers in Burat Wangi channel their Balinese counterparts from across an ocean. But besides Berg and most of the dancers, who meet in the same room earlier Saturday morning, the group is almost entirely white Americans. It’s almost an aural-visual disconnect, to hear such foreign, unfamiliar music coming from white people in T-shirts, jeans and backward baseball hats.

But the Americans in Burat Wangi are part of a long tradition of Western fascination with gamelan music, which was introduced to Europe in 1889 at the World’s Fair in Paris and to the United States in 1893 at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Composers Claude Debussy and Erik Satie began incorporating structural elements of Javanese gamelan into their own works after these initial exposures.

In the 20th century, avant garde composers like John Cage, Steve Reich and Philip Glass also took influence from Indonesia. Composer James Tenney, whose daughter Adrian now plays in Burat Wangi, experimented with integrating gamelan instruments into Western art music. While Californian composer Lou Harrison exposed the West to Javanese music through his own reinterpretations, Canadian Colin McPhee was the first composer to study Balinese music in depth.

As general interest in the music and culture grew through these composers and the availability of Indonesian recordings, Americans began traveling to the main islands, kickstarting Bali’s current economic dependency on tourism.

“Many of these individuals were attracted to the Asian arts in general, and Indonesian music in particular, because they seemed to embody both a spirituality and a sense of permanence that they felt was missing from modern Western expressions; the connection of the arts to people's daily lives was another attraction,” writes ethnomusicologist Henry Spiller, who started Sundanese gamelan ensembles at Kenyon College and UC Davis.

The first university gamelan performance program was founded in 1958 at UCLA by Mantle Hood, who established the scholastic practice of ethnomusicology and invited Indonesians to teach classes. According to author Judith Becker, Hood wanted his students to be “bi-musical,” like being bilingual, with the ability to understand foreign music by learning to perform it. This teaching system was powerful enough that many of his students went on to start gamelan ensembles of their own.

While the majority of gamelan instructors in the United States are like the majority of students, white Americans, a few are Indonesian natives, like Burat Wangi director “Pak” Wenten, who has taught on both sides of the Pacific.

Wenten believes Americans are attracted to gamelan as a contrast to the Western classical mentality, in which one masters a single instrument well enough to play in a rigidly structured orchestra. Even a group like Burat Wangi does not demand complete mastery. Because there are so many instruments with overlapping parts, beginners can play along with advanced students.

But teaching gamelan to beginners in this setting — a classroom, in California, in the 21st century — requires different methods than in Wenten’s native land. Balinese children grow up learning the stories behind each song and dance and the history of gamelan from their families, so these basic contexts do not need to be established in a scholastic setting.

“Here, you have to explain,” Wenten says. “The beginning is very important, how you grab the student to become interested to learn, not just musically but your culture as well, because it going to be take and give. The more you know the culture, the more you love to play!”

Yet even with the best intentions and the deepest understanding of Balinese culture by these Americans , the musical culture of gamelan takes a transformation. Instead of hearing gamelan in outdoor pavilions, where the sharp sounds are softened by open air, most U.S. concerts are in university concert halls where the sound, bouncing off walls and seating, may be abrasive to audiences.

In Indonesia, concerts can last all night, straight through until dawn, with single songs potentially drawn out for hours as players explore incremental improvisations in the melody. Attendees move around the performance area to view the gamelan from all angles, even adding in their own rhythmic cries. Here, concerts are seating room only, standard quiet-please etiquette, one intermission, no longer than a movie.

Along with the shifts in performance settings and conventions, Wenten admits that the meaning of the music also changes when performing gamelan in the Western world.

“Of course, we have to adapt — what we call in Bali desa kala patra, so adapt wherever and whenever you need it to,” he says. “Desa is place, kala is time, patra mean feeling. So you have to adapt this according to place and time. It’s not rigid, like oh, we have to do this. Like in Bali, the art is like a snowball — it keep rolling and get bigger and influence by many different culture. So that very important to adapt is, desa kala patra.”

This cultural appropriation might seem false to an outsider — a second wave of colonization, except instead of the Dutch claiming Indonesian land, Americans are claiming their art. But Tyler Yamin, an MFA student who started playing gamelan as an undergraduate at CalArts, believes the most devoted musicians are exempt from accusations of artificial imitation.

“Most of the time, Balinese really like it when foreigners actually take a liking to their culture and respect it, which not very many people do,” says Yamin, who has traveled to Bali five times since he started gamelan. “Even a lot of people who come to play gamelan never make the leap. So when someone’s actually really into it in the right way, then Balinese people are really accepting.”

When people are into it in the right way, it’s a pure kind of human identity, propelled not by naive nationalism but by true desire to understand a culture. This propulsion leads to what ethnomusicologist Mark Slobin calls “affinity groups,” communities of people who reject their default ethnic backgrounds or mainstream cultural trends — or never learn them to begin with — and construct their own identities from alternative cultures and art forms.

These affinity groups are especially prevalent in the United States, where young people grow up as second, third, fourth or further generations of immigrant descendants, inevitably losing pieces of their hereditary cultural identities. Ethnic detachments can become even stronger in California, where over 5 percent of individuals identify as being more than one race. The greatest population of multiethnic individuals in the state, now over 200,000, is in Los Angeles.

L.A. is a fitting setting for these groups, not only as a society of ethnically confused and discontented citizens, but as a city that itself has ambiguous identities, a hundred misnomered neighborhoods haphazardly connected by freeways. The city has long been regarded as a place without a centralized community or unified culture, unlike its East Coast equivalents.

But there is arguably one unifying aspect: Where the East Coast takes societal and artistic influence from across the Atlantic in Europe, the West Coast looks across the Pacific to Asia, and L.A. is no exception. Gamelan affinity groups growing out of CalArts and other local universities are proof.

And so these devoted Angelenos in Burat Wangi start to identify with the faraway culture through their love of gamelan. They cook Southeast Asian food, learn bits of the language, mail-order their own instruments to play at home, compose their own pieces, integrate gamelan instruments and structures into other musical projects, open their minds and ears to other regions of the world.

Through adaptations to current place and time, gamelan musicians continue a centuries-old tradition, creating their own culture that is constantly influenced by past and present elements.

Banjar > Family community

The weekly Burat Wangi rehearsal is broken into two periods, with a potluck lunch in the middle. After breaking for roasted duck, curried chicken, a huge pot of rice and three cakes — someone realized that with about 50 musicians and dancers, they end up celebrating birthdays at each practice — two young girls take over the dance floor.

The older, age 8, is currently the youngest dancer ever trained by Burat Wangi. With the requisite fluttering fingers and darting eyes, she seems confident in the intricate dance steps, which are based on the precise and somewhat unnatural movements of traditional Indonesian shadow puppets. Her pigtailed little sister absentmindedly imitates the jerky gestures while eating a sandwich. At the end of the song, she flops into the lap of a musician.

“I saw you dancing!” he exclaims, proud of his daughter’s interest in this art form.

This familial connection is not uncommon. Even in the United States, the gamelan family tree is expansive, rooted in melodies that are equally tangled. Wenten is married to his dance director, Nanik Wenten, who is the daughter of renowned Javanese gamelan composer and performer “Pak Cokro” K. P. H. Notoprojo — the three of them founded Burat Wangi together. The current ensemble has resulted in one marriage and a handful of couples, including Yamin and his girlfriend, Jessica Ross.

“I mean, I’m not with you because you play gamelan,” she says to him. “We’re doing something together.”

“I think gamelan just attracts the kind of people who end up clicking,” he replies.

The sense of family within gamelan groups extends beyond blood and romantic relations, however. Everyone shares responsibilities of providing food and drinks, transporting the instruments for performances, carpooling to CalArts. They celebrate together and mourn together. One morning, Wenten solemnly began the practice session by announcing one member was absent because his brother had just passed and suggested they send flowers to the family as a group.

This kind of connection reminds Berg of the cooperative nature he grew up around in Bali, which is hard to find in a city as sprawled and disjointed as Los Angeles.

“The sense of community is something they get every week by coming,” Berg says. “It’s my banjar. It’s my extended family.”

One member goes further to say that their musical community teaches the practice of being a good citizen. Another says that even though the music can be abrasive, focusing all her energy on playing leaves her calm and uplifted by the end of practice, getting her through the rest of the stressful week.

Ancient Indonesian kings used gamelan, with its cyclical, meditative patterns, to preserve cosmic order in the universe, fighting the preexisting universal chaos. Now, chaos of life in Los Angeles may not be as overwhelming as the void of outer space. Musicians are more likely concerned with preserving their own daily routines than the order of the cosmos. But the practice of gamelan, on whatever scale, in whatever decade or century, is just as musically and emotionally harmonious.

“It’s just cleansing,” Berg concludes. “It’s like church for people, or synagogue. That’s what it is to me, personally. It’s one happy, constant thing in your life in this crazy-ass city.”