Visits and extended artist residencies by musicians and dancers from Bali have been a part of Gamelan Sekar Jaya’s artistic mission for the past 25 years. From these seasoned musicians and dancers, the group members learn traditional pieces through the age-old practice of oral repetition and practice, without the aid of notation. Sara Gambin, a young member of Gamelan Sekar Jaya says, “There is a widespread belief that Balinese gamelan music is static, incorporating little change. This is simply not true. Improvisation takes place as you compose music. A visiting artist from Bali will first teach us a traditional piece that is played as part of religious and festival ceremonies. Then, they will ask us to play it differently, making changes, and the final piece takes shape through this process.”
Like Indian music, gamelan affords a lot of room for improvisation, although in a different way. “Indian classical music performances involve coordination between three or four musicians,” says Jim Hogan, executive director of California Youth Symphony, and performer and board member of Gamelan Sekar Jaya, “and improvisation can take place on stage. With a gamelan ensemble of 25 musicians playing on stage, the exciting process of improvisation takes place first, then the piece is well rehearsed, and presented on stage.”
The group is preparing for its upcoming local performances in May, and the premiere of Kali Yuga to be held in the fall. For first-time audience members, Vitale says, “the cycles of gamelan music and dance are easily identifiable with the rhythm that is maintained with the sound of the metallic gong. The dance movements highlight the end of each rhythmic cycle, with the use of the eyes or hand gestures called mudras similar to Indian classical dance. Balinese music also has a unique system of paired toning, where two instruments are played at slightly lower or higher tones. This can also be easily identified and enjoyed.”
Gamelan performances feature many Hindu stories and themes. A much-celebrated recent production, Prince Karna’s Dream, dramatized the birth of the celebrated legong dance. The story was set in the 19th century, when Prince Karna sees a heavenly dance being performed by nymphs, while in a state of deep meditation. When he wakes up, he summons dancers and musicians, and tries to recreate the legong dance. To create this production, a Balinese artist conferred with priests from the temple in which it is set, to bring knowledge of authentic cultural practices to Gamelan Sekar Jaya’s production.
Vitale says that the upcoming performances will feature different ensembles, the largest being the Gamelan gong kebyar (5-tone ensemble) with 25 performers, and the Gamelan gog jegong, which uses giant bamboo marimbas. These performances feature renowned guest artists Made Arnawa (music director), Tjokorda Istri Putra Padmini (dance director), and Dewa Putu Berata. An outdoor concert such as the one scheduled at Yerba Buena Gardens, is the ideal way to enjoy gamelan performances.
The Gamelan Sekar Jaya has attracted members of different ethnicities who hold jobs as teachers, arts administrators, and carpenters. For Sara Gambin, an anthropology major from UC Berkeley, watching Gamelan Sekar Jaya perform Prince Karna’s Dream at the Zellerbach Hall in 2003 whetted an appetite for learning gamelan music and helped her become a performer with the group. “I feel compelled to enjoy an ongoing cross-cultural experience through this group. I was captivated with gamelan music, and while visiting Indonesia felt an even deeper connection with its art forms.”
Her words made me reflect on how easy it is to stay deeply connected within one’s ethnic boundaries. It takes more effort to step out of one’s cultural moorings to enjoy what other cultures have to offer. And, every such effort surely helps expand our personal boundaries of appreciation and enjoyment.
Nirupama Vaidhyanathan is an Indian classical dancer, choreographer, and teacher, who writes about the arts.
* Wednesday, May 3:
Music and Dance of Bali. Gamelan Sekar Jaya will be directed by outstanding Balinese artists-in-residence, composer Made Arnawa and dancer Tjokorda Istri Putra Padmini. With special guest artist Dewa Putu Berata. John Swett Auditorium, 1098 Pomona St., Crockett. 8 p.m. $16 adults, $12 seniors, $8 children 12 and under. (510) 787-1155. www.crockettca-chamber.org
* Sunday, May 7:
Gamelan in the Gardens. Open-air concert led by two of Bali’s most brilliant artists, Made Arnawa (guest music director) and Tjokorda Padmini (guest dance director), with special guest artist Dewa Putu Berata, Sekar Jaya will treat the audience to performances by two large gamelan orchestras: the bronze gamelan gong kebyar, and the ensemble of giant bamboo marimbas, gamelan jegog. Yerba Buena Gardens, 701 Mission St. (at 3rd St.), San Francisco. 1-2:30 pm. Free. www.ybgf.org
* Saturday, June 10:
Music and Dance of Bali. Playing on a variety of gamelan—bronze or bamboo percussion orchestras—the musicians of Sekar Jaya will perform the dazzling music of Bali, filled with complex rhythms and the sounds of tuned gongs and drums. They will be led by renowned musician, I Made Arnawa, who will present two of his newest compositions. The performance will also highlight the refined movements of Balinese dance, led by guest dance director Tjokorda Istri Putra Padmini. Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View. 8:00 p.m. $24 adults, $18 seniors and students, $12 children. $2 facility use fee. (650) 903-6000.
More info from Gamelan Sekar Jaya: (510) 237-6849. www.gsj.org