Wayne Vitale, appearing with Gamelan
Sekar Jaya in the orchestra's 20th
Indonesia's Tempo magazine describes El Cerrito's Gamelan Sekar Jaya as "clearly the finest Balinese gamelan outside of Indonesia." On occasion of their second tour of Bali, the local Bali Post extolled: "This time they have come with bold exuberance, surety of purpose, richness of spirit, experience and new concepts -- all of which are supported by the technical skills needed to give rise to something truly new." First taking root in the sonic garden that is the Bay Area's world music community in 1979, Sekar Jaya fervently embraced Bali's living music and dance tradition and thereafter has grown steadily in achievement and acclaim. The ensemble is now widely heralded as having risen into the ranks of the idiom's most formidable adherents. Founded by a group of enthusiasts initially as a six-week workshop, Sekar Jaya met with such immediate success -- its first concert at the Fort Mason Center sold out -- that the "workshop" continues to this day. The group has gone on to earn its accolades by holding to an impressive resident-artist program through which leading Balinese musicians and dancers are invited to California to train and inspire a troupe that has, in the words of the Boston Globe, "... far exceeded its founders' wildest dreams as the ensemble has become an honored participant in the evolution of Bali's musical culture."
In 1999, Gamelan Sekar Jaya celebrated its 20th anniversary through the presentation of a world-class series of programs that featured eight of Bali's most prestigious artists and dancers, including I Wayan Dibia, director of the island's National Institute of the Arts. They were joined by a roster of special guest performers ranging from Swapan Chaudhuri, the North Indian tabla virtuoso currently associated with San Rafael's Ali Akbar College of Music, to Hasanari, a West Javanese dance troupe, to The Residents, stalwarts of the Bay Area's alternative rock community.
Sekar Jaya's general manager is Wayne Vitale, who also performs with and composes for the orchestra. The following interview with Vitale coincided with the 20th anniversary festivities.
WBR:Viewed from a distance, the types of instrumentation used in indigenous music through-out the Philippine and Indonesian archipelagos appear very much alike. What distinguishes gamelan from the other regional styles?
VITALE: Well, in a very general sense, they're quite similar. Gongs and metallophones are instruments known throughout Southeast Asia. Also, pentatonic scales are common throughout the region. But when you say the word "gamelan," it usually refers specifically to the Indonesian version of these percussion orchestras which typically have bronze instruments, bronze suspended gongs. The two most famous gamelan traditions are Javanese and Balinese. Again, from a certain perspective they're very similar. Aside from the instruments themselves, the general idea of a large percussion orchestra that maintains a core repertoire, mostly in an oral tradition, and plays together as a kind of "club" is pretty much the same. But in stylistic terms they're very different. Javanese music is gentler, more atmospheric, more perfumed so to speak. Whereas Balinese musicSSthis is just kind of a surface impressionSSis much livelier, brasher, and energetic, although Balinese listeners tend to focus in on the central melody in the middle of it all which is much slower and more regular.
There are also plenty of differences in terms of the evolution and musical demographics. The most well known Javanese music was developed and maintained in a court tradition, and now it is carried on by a relatively small number of experts, most of whom are in academic institutions or those same courts. Bali, on the other hand, had a similar background, but all the religious connections to Bali-Hindu ceremony transformed it into a more popular, village-based tradition. I like to point out in lecture-demonstrations that, despite its sizeSSBali's about the size of Rhode Island, where I grew up!SSthere are more than 25 different kinds of gamelan orchestras on the island today. And literally thousands of active groups on the island.
WBR: Is gamelan limited to bronze instruments?
VITALE: Actually there are many kinds, including iron and bamboo ensembles. But the bronze ensembles are the most widespread, kind of the default gamelan type. There are also orchestras of bamboo flutes, where the melody is carried entirely on flutes, accompanied by various non-pitched percussion instruments. Flutes are also found in the bronze or bamboo gamelan orchestras to reinforce and decorate the melody.
WBR: And bamboo gamelan orchestras would be...?
VITALE: ... Made up of various sized bamboo marimbas. In fact almost all the gamelan types are organized the same, in a sense, as a Western string orchestraSSan entire family of similar instruments which in turn is divided into various sections. Each section covers a certain range and musical function, at least for traditional music. But instead of violins, violas, cellos, and so forth, you have a higher-range section of the ensemble that plays the melodies and faster melodic figurations, a medium-range section that carries the primary melodies at a slower rate, and a bass section which moves even slower. That's the idea with all the gamelan types, whether they are bamboo, iron, or bronze; the only difference is that most of them also have other, non-pitched instruments like drums and cymbals.
WBR: How does the music make the jump from Bali to El Cerrito?
VITALE: Through three peopleSSI Wayan Suweca, Michael Tenzer, and Rachel Cooper. And through the situation at the time. In 1979 Michael had just returned from a long stay in Bali and returned with a whole set of gamelan instruments. Rachel is a dancer and musician, and had also just returned from Bali. She had been involved in other gamelan programs around California, including the Center for World Music in Berkeley. Suweca is ... well let's just say one of the best drummers and gamelan musicians in the whole islandSSand that's saying a lot! It was Sekar Jaya's great fortune that he was in the Bay Area at that point, though it took us years to realize how lucky we were. In the fall of 1979, the three of them organized a six-week workshop in Balinese dance and music. They had no idea what this would become. To make a very long story short, the six-week point came and went. Everyone was so excited. And it's still going on now, with no end in sight. In fact the ensemble is thriving more than everSSwe've got forty members, and five different ensembles within the organization.
Anyhow, as I said Rachel had been involved in the Center for World Music. But she wasn't the only one. A lot of the people who joined Sekar Jaya initially had already tried gamelan music in that program. Later, the Center moved back to San Diego, after kind of bouncing up and down the West Coast during the 70s. In its heyday, it was located at Berkeley's Julian Morgan Theater. The Center for World Music invited a lot of amazing artistsSS30 or 40 I thinkSSfrom all around the world, many at the same time, to teach classes and workshops. There were fantastic Indian artists, African artists, musicians and dancers from Java and Bali. Bob Brown, its director, had brilliant taste in musicians and dancers; he went out and chose the very best. It was an amazing thing that he did. So when this new workshop happenedSSit wasn't even called Sekar Jaya yetSSpeople were already primed from that experience and became a kind of core group. It was filled out by others who heard about the workshop, largely through a flier we circulated. We still have that flier on our wall, "Six Week Workshop in Gamelan Music and Dance," in Suweca's handwriting.
WBR: Since then, what kind of people have been drawn to the troupe?
VITALE: Well, over the years it seems like every possible type of person has shown up. There's a wide range of backgrounds, a wide range of approaches that they bring to this music. Some people went to Bali just as tourists, and the music they heard there blew their minds. Then they came back and heard they could do actually learn that music here. So they just tried it out, with no idea of where it would take them. That was the case for Jim and Maddie Hogan, two of our founding members who are still playing with the group, still as devoted as ever. Other people were more like myself or Michael, who were getting formal musical educations at universities, and then "discovered" Balinese musicSSa life-changing musical experience, especially after a few years in the dusty halls of academia. Others found their way into the group by attending one of our concerts, joining a workshop, or whatever. In those days the word "gamelan" has such a buzz to it. Even in February 1980, when we did our first concert, there wasn't even room in the hall to fit all the people who showed up. It was so thrilling for us. People are always coming up to us after shows and saying, "this is fantastic, how can I get involved?" Now we have regular workshops in gamelan and dance. Somehow it always works out that there are enough talented people around to keep the group full. In the workshops there are often at least one or two who really stand out as talented; if there's an opening in the group we invite them to join. At this point Gamelan Sekar Jaya has three large ensembles, the gamelan gong kebyarSSour original and largest orchestra, which takes between 25 and 30 musiciansSSthe gamelan angklung, which takes 18 to 20, and now a gamelan joged, a kind of bamboo orchestra of about 12 players. Some people can't get enough and play in two or more ensemblesSSquite a time commitment.
WBR: Were you part of that initial six-week workshop?
VITALE: No, I didn't join until a couple of months later. Michael Tenzer and I were classmates at the time at U.C. Berkeley, studying music theory and composition. He told me about the gamelan: "Wayne, I do this thing, Balinese gamelan music"SSI didn't even know where Bali wasSS"you have to check it out."
WBR: Wasn't Jody Diamond's American Gamelan Institute active under University auspices around then?
VITALE: At the time, as far as I know, Jody was a teaching assistant in the Javanese music program at U.C. Berkeley. For me there was a bit of irony surrounding that program: Most of the music students barely knew it existed. Part of the whole dynamic in the UC Berkeley composition program, at least at that time, was that there was "real" music, which for them meant Schoenberg and Webern and the like, and then there were these elective courses, like gamelan and African music, which weren't "really" music in their eyes. I'm painting this in the starkest possible colors... but that was how it felt. Gamelan music was over there; they just had a little room and did their thing Wednesday nights and that was out in the hinterlands as far as most of the faculty was concerned. So I never played in the Javanese ensemble.
Anyhow, a couple of months after I started as a grad student, Michael coaxed me to sit in on a Sekar Jaya rehearsal. Suweca, the teacher, told me to play the kajar, which is the beat-keeping instru-ment. Of course, in my smug feeling as a trained musician, I thought "this will be a piece of cake; I'll just sit here and play the beat; what could be easier?" The piece they were doingSSI still remember this vividlySSwas Sekar Ginotan, which in the middle has this irregular phrase, nine and a half beats, played twice. The second time through the pulse is shifted because of the half-beat. So I was sitting there playing and suddenly heard the musical world turn upside down. It blew my mind ... I just couldn't figure out what was going on. Not that it was such a unique thing, but the music was put together in such a perfect and unexpected way. It was one of those moments, where the music just grabbed me and pulled me in. And that was that, really.
I was ready for it, too, because my music education at U.C. Berkeley was not the most exciting thing in the world at that time, to put it mildly. It wasn't what I expected when I moved to Berkeley from the East Coast. I thought Berkeley was going to be a center of liberal thinking and excitement and exposure to new music. Well, I did get that exposure, but not in the UC music department. The other thingSSthe contrast was so tangible to meSwas that in Sekar Jaya we sat there and learned directly from a master musician, who was a performer, a composer, and a scholar, all wrapped up in one. In Bali those are not yet pulled apart into different roles. Suweca would literally give us the music, hand it to us, show us exactly what to play, and we'd imitate him; go over and over it again until we knew it, without notation. Everything was learned by heart, a tradition that we still maintain. I know it's not unique in the world, but I loved the fact that this was a truly complex and formally sophisticated musicSSnot an improvised, groove musicSSthat was all learned by heart. It seemed to combine different things from my own background. It gave me what I always loved about Western classical music. But at the same time, it had the rhythmic drive and interest of rock and roll, which I had played as a teenager.
WBR: Is the music taught completely from memory only, without notation?
VITALE: Notation has existed for centuries in Bali but it's seldom used in the actual playing of music. That is, there is a kind of notation used to document pieces, but it's just a way to keep a record of a piece and not part of the performance practice. And traditionallySSthis is changing nowSSit only records the main melody notes of the pieces, sometimes called the core tones or "pokok." That's the slow moving tune which usually moves at a steady rate throughout a piece or section. Some-times the notation also shows the important points at which the gongs are played, the punctuation of the music. But even then the notation is no more than a sketch or outline that doesn't try to capture all the detail of the interlocking parts or drum rhythms. As the Balinese might say, the notation just shows you the skeleton, without the "fleshing out" of the faster parts. It's like a jazz chartSSyou can pin a tune down to a few lines and chords. Again, this is speaking traditionally. If musicians in Bali want to revive a piece from the lelambatan repertoireSSthe body of classical instrumental music played in the templeSSthey might get the main tones of the piece from a notation. That is, if there's no one around who remembers it. Once the teacher learns or remembers those tones, he teaches the tune directly to the players, by imitation, and then fleshes out the other, faster parts according to more or less established rules and stylistic constraints.
WBR: But there must be new works being generated.
VITALE: All the time.
WBR: And if you have 2000 years of 25 villages constantly generating new works, aren't experts and teachers then faced with an enormous task when it comes to preserving it all?
VITALE: Well, not all new work is notated, except perhaps as a compositional aid for the composer. But if you mean, how can the groups in Bali learn and remember so much music, that's a different question. A particular group doesn't even try to know all the pieces that there are in their performance tradition. It's impossible. They only learn a certain number of pieces, which they maintain and use for the purposes at hand, for the amount of time that they need it. Sometimes they'll add to their core repertoire, if for example a neighboring group has a good piece. In that case it takes a proactive effort to learn that piece as well. What's interesting is that a composition never occurs exactly the same in different placesSSit will always be in a slightly altered or varied form. That's one of the wonderful things about an oral tradition. But there's no feeling of necessity to learn a piece just because some other group plays it. They'll make their own tunes with whatever resources they have. You just can't compare it to a Western classical tradition where every orchestra, sooner or later, is going to play Beethoven's symphonies, pretty much just like he notated them. Again, Bali is much closer to the jazz tradition. John Coltrane might have written tunes that many groups want to play, but different jazz groups will make their own versions, apply all their own techniques and way of improvising. Copying it exactly is just not as much fun. On top of that, in Bali there's an element of pride: Each group wants to have their own unique version. Each group develops a special style and soundSSpartly a result of the particular set of instruments they playSSbut also meaning special details of inflection and phrasing and ornamentation and so forth, which are uniquely their own.
Balinese Dancer I Nyoman Wenten
enlivened Gamelan Sekar Jaya's
August, 1999 outdoor festival
WBR: With such emphasis on variation, have subgenres of gamelan emerged?
VITALE: I wouldn't call them subgenres. There are separate genres that are parallel, in a way. It depends on the need, on the use. So you have various kinds of instrumental music that are played on various occasions and an enormous amount of dramatic music and dance that likewise has its own time and place.
WBR: You keep returning to needs and uses. Could you spin out a few more of those?
VITALE: The background is that here, in the Western tradition, music has been relegated in large part to the realm of entertainment and pure art music. That kind of thing is now happening in Bali, at least in certain genres. But traditionally music is played for a particular reason. You're having a ceremony at your home, you've got to have music and dance. There are particular dances that belong with particular ceremonies: a very sacred ritual happening in the inner courtyard of a temple requires particular dances and forms that go along with enacting the ritual itself, and are even considered a part of it. You don't play them on other occasions. Other pieces or forms are more secular in nature. Your village might be having a fund-raising event, having a new building constructed or whatever, and you need to raise funds. So you'll put on an evening of much more "entertainment" type of music and dance. And the same general rule applies hereSSyou wouldn't play it in the inner courtyard of the temple. This is nothing unique or unusualSSwe have it too, even more so in the past. But it's much more clear and characteristic in Bali than in our culture.
WBR: Gamelan, to my ear, strikes me as a particularly seamless style of music, with an emphasis on the group sound. Is that one of its central qualities?
VITALE: Yes. But once again, this is nothing unique. Any good string quartet or orchestra spends a lot of time unifying and blending their sound. The musicians want to make their tone and touch the same, their vibrato matched, and so forth. All musicians ultimately want to meld and create a unified soundSSwell, let's say most! But getting to that point is very different process when you're not playing off a score. You can pay much closer attention cognitively to what everyone else in the ensemble is doing, and to unifying your part precisely with all the other parts, synchronizing it exactly. In Western music this kind of attention might happen more in the realm of pitchSSthink of the fineness of pitch control of any good chorus or orchestraSSwhile in Bali it's more in the realm of rhythm. A lot of the parts are interlocking. So to be able to do that in a way that make sense and works, you have to be very closely synchronized with your partners. That's the only way the parts can come together and form a seamless whole, not two parts but something that sounds as if a single musician's playing them. That's one of the beauties of it.
The idea of unity is very important in Bali. They talk about it in many ways, in the religion, in village society, and so forth; and it's expressed in many ways in the music and in the performance tradition. The group needs to unify not only musically but at an interpersonal level, and you rehearse and hang out quite a bit together to achieve this. In fact, they do ceremonies with special offerings to bring the group together on a spiritual level, to clear their minds and keep their concentration up. The ideal is to get beyond a collection of individuals just playing various instruments in a room together. Sometimes they actually do ceremonies where they marry them-selves to their instruments. Literally. They do the same ceremony and make the same kind of offerings that would be used at a wedding ceremony.
Dancer I Nyoman Wenten, with the Gamelan Sekar Jaya orchestra
WBR: With that kind of strong spiritual relationship to the music, is gamelan also integral to the Balinese cosmology?
VITALE: This is a pretty esoteric realmSSeven for most Balinese musiciansSSbut there are two cosmological treatises that deal with this. One's called the Prakempa; the other's the Aji Gurnita. There's debate about when they were written, anywhere from two or three hundred years ago to a hundred years ago. They deal with the nature of the universe and how sound and music fit into it. For example, each of the seven tones of the Balinese parent scale has an association with a compass direction, a color, a particular god, a particular mythological weapon, and a particular letter in the Balinese alphabet. It's a wonderful cosmology for any musician to encounter. One of the treatises also deals with what happens when these tones come together, unite, producing various states of rapture and so forth.
WBR: What about origin myths?
VITALE: There are origin myths for Balinese music, but as far as I know not for the tradition as a whole. That is, apart from the cosmological treatises I just talked about. But particular ensembles have creation myths associated with them. For example, there's a type of orchestra with iron keys called selunding. One of the well known selunding orchestra is said to have been washed up out of the ocean, a gift from the gods. That's the case for several ritual ensembles: this one fell out of the sky, or washed up out of the ocean, or somehow magically appeared. Certain dance forms also have stories behind them. A famous one is legong, which is said to be the "dance of the divine nymphs." A certain prince in 19th century BaliSSa very powerful one, spiritually speakingSSwent into a trance and saw this celestial dance being performed by young girls in heaven. When he woke, he summoned mask makers to carve the faces of the young women he saw. He taught palace musicians the melodies of the music he had heard. This dance became called "legong bidadari," which is still being performed in an unbroken tradition in that village, Ketewel. Later it spread to the rest of Bali, in a new arrangement that doesn't use the masks. Traditionally it is performed by prepubescent girls.
There's also a lot of mythology connected with gamelan instruments because they are, like all objects in the Bali-Hindu universe, imbued with spiritual power. Bali is about 90% Hindu, in their own special variant of Hinduism that blended preexisting animist religions with imported Indian beliefs. The Balinese place an unusually high importance on the spirits that reside in various objects. There are certain auspicious days on their calendar on which they give offerings to a whole class of objects, like animals, plants, metal objects, and so forth. It used to be all pointed metal objectsSSritual swords called kris, mainly. Nowadays the Balinese, in their ever-adaptable way, include cars, trucks, motorcycles, computers . . . ! There's also a special day for their art objects, such as their shadow puppets. In a gamelan orchestra, the keys and the gongs are thought to have spirits residing in them. That means, for example, that you'd never step over an instrument for fear of offending the spiritual power of that gamelan. And whenever you put on a performance, you do a little ceremony first and present offerings to the gamelan, the large suspended gong that is considered the spiritual heart of the ensemble.
WBR: Starting with the large gong, could you describe some of the instruments commonly found in gamelan orchestras?
VITALE: The large gong is, musically speaking, the period at the end of the sentenceSSin other words, it's struck on the main downbeat at the end of a phrase or cycle. Other medium or small gongs mark the interior nodes, like the quarter-way point or half-way point. Then there is the "kempli." One of the ways the kempli is played is to dampen it with one hand and strike the boss with a mallet, to keep the beat. That's important because the music is so complex and syncopated that you need an instrument which can glue it all together, keep it on track so that one part of the orchestra doesn't veer off and get desynchronized from the rest. In some pieces the kempli is also used as a punctuating gong for some of the inter-nodal points. The kendang is a two-headed conical wooden drum. Typically there's two of them in a gamelan, playing interlocking rhythms; together they lead the ensemble in dynamics, tempos, and underlining the dance movements. Balinese music is famous for interlocking rhythms. Paired instruments are often thought of as consisting of a female and male partners. That's the case in the gangsa section as well.
WBR: The gangsa?
VITALE: The gangsa are the main melodic instruments that usually play at the most rapid level of figuration in the whole texture. It, in turn, has two subgroups, consisting of four pemade and four kantilan. They're essentially the same 10-keyed instruments, but the kantilan are an octave higher. Then leading this whole section is the ugal, which sits higher than the others. It also has ten keys, but is an octave lower than the pemade. At certain moments, especially when you're starting a new section or in unmetered passages, it leads the whole orchestra, kind of a concert master.
WBR: What about the low instrumentsSSthe jegogan, jublag, and penyacah?
VITALE: In this section of the gamelan, they're all paired instruments, two of each. Jegogan is the largest, lowest metallophone instrument, with five keys, for one octave worth of notes. Jublag is essentially same thing but an octave higher. They're very important actually, even though they don't always stand out so much in the texture. But they play the pokok or core melody, a regular succession of tones around which everything else is based. Penyacah are yet an octave higher but often have seven keysSSin other words, stretching beyond a single octave. They also play the pokok tones, but at twice the rate as the jublag. As you move up the ladder, the instruments play successively faster. It's a very elegant system.
WBR: The ceng ceng? The reyong?
VITALE: Ceng-ceng are a set of cymbals that reinforce the drum rhythms. There are usually five interleaved small cymbals on a little wooden rack. Then you'll hold two more of the same size cymbals in your hands to play the others. The reyong is the row of tuned gong chimes that are tuned in the same pentatonic scale as the gangsa. It's played by four people, often in very intricate interlocking patterns. At other points they play in unison, producing a big "chord" in a rhythmic style.
WBR: The trompong?
VITALE: The trompong is like the reyong, a long row of tuned gong chimes. But it's an octave lower and it has only ten gong chimes instead of 12. It's played by a single person instead of four people. And it's one of the main melodic instruments and it has a degree of freedom to embellish the core melody tones.
WBR: And with these and other instruments, more than 25 styles of Balinese gamelan have emerged. What kinds of distinctions account for the differences?
VITALE: What I meant was 25 different kinds of gamelan ensembles, 25 different kinds of orchestras. The scale used is important. Some orchestras range over seven tones, the full complement of what's called the "pelog" scale. It has a certain sequence of small and large intervals between the notes. Even then, some of the intervals are not exactly a whole tone or even a semitone; they're kind of in between relative to a Western scale. Pelog is considered one of the two the parent scales of Balinese music. But most gamelans in pelog use only a five-tone subset of the seven tones. The other kind of parent scale is called "slendro," which employs a different sequence of intervals. The slendro scale is, in very approximate terms, like playing only the black keys on a piano. All of the 25 different kinds of gamelan orchestras use either the pelog or slendro scale. But what makes things complicated is that the intervals aren't standardized. So you couldn't take an instrument from one orchestra and put it into another, because there might be slight differences. That means that each gamelan orchestra is tuned as a coherent set, which is not adjusted to an absolute standard. Each forms its own unique sonic universe. So while the instruments of one orchestra might resemble the instruments of an orchestra in the next village, they probably won't sound the same.
WBR: And Sekar Jaya employs these Balinese instruments and scales in what kinds of ensembles?
VITALE: We emphasize five styles. First of all, the Gamelan Gong Kebyar. This is the orchestra we've been describing in this list of instruments. It's the most popular large bronze gamelan ensemble in Bali. It came into its present form in the early part of the century, somewhere around 1914, though it continued to evolve after that. The word "kebyar" refers to this very flamboyant, fiery, dynamic style of music that has rapid passages contrasted suddenly with slower passages. It's also very complex rhythmically. Sekar Jaya also has a Gamelan Angklung, which is similar overallSSthe same kinds of instruments and in roughly the same number. But it employs the four-tone scale, part of the slendro family of tunings. It's an older style than kebyar and was traditionally associated with the Pura Dalem, a particular Balinese temple that's oriented towards the ocean, towards the darker forces in the universe, associated with death rituals, cremations, and so forth. That was the Angklung's roots. Nowadays it's flowered into a concert orchestra in its own right and often plays a lot of same dance repertoire as the Gong Kebyar.
Sekar Jaya dancers Joyce King and Mimi Prather
One of our newest ensembles is the Gamelan Joged. Joged is a dance of flirtation and is accom-panied by a bamboo gamelan. It's one of the exceptions in the Balinese dance tradition, which tends to be classical in nature, with many set choreographies that can be played in a concert presentation. Whereas Joged is a flirtation dance where a succession of young women first perform a short solo, but then start the "main attraction" which is picking guys out of the audience to dance with in a flirtatious improvisation. There's a lot of hamming it up and laughing. Traditionally this was per-formed in the street, just blocking it off for a few hours so that anyone who came by would check it out. Our joged players also perform on a gamelan known as Jegog, another bamboo orchestra that uses bamboo of enormous proportions. The bass instruments are often more than 10 feet in length and a foot in diameterSSif you can imagine bamboo tubes that size. They produce incredible bass tones that can be heard for miles. They play extremely energetic, exuberant music. It originated in west Bali, the only place in Bali where you find this enormous bamboo. But what we have is kind of a chamber version of that, made from shorter, flat pieces of bambooSSmuch more portable! The other thing is that, if you take whole tubes of bamboo out of a humid, tropical climate, it tends to split apart and become unusable. Fortunately the Bay Area happens to be okay because the humidity seldom gets too low, usually around 40 or 50%.
Finally, we do Gender Wayang, the music that accompanies the Balinese shadow puppet play, the Wayang Kulit. Wayang comes from the word "bayang," which means shadow and "kulit" means "skin" or "leather." They carve these ornate puppets from thick pieces of cow hide. They represent various figures Balinese mythology, such as the Mahabharata or Ramayana, the epic plays that originated in Hindu India. A wayang play is performed on a big screen illuminated from behind by the light from a coconut oil lamp, which has this wonderful flickering quality. The puppeteer enacts a whole story with puppets manipulated from behind the screen. He'll speak all their voices, sing, move the puppets, cue the musicians, tell jokes, enact the play, everything. It's a wonderful, incredible, rich tradition.
WBR: Is shadow puppetry still as vibrant an art form in Bali as gamelan is?
VITALE: It's extremely vigorous in Java and in Bali. It's like what TV might dream to be in some other, higher existence. It's on a screen, and the audience gathers around it and watches this program, so to speak. But since it's live and has mythology and philosophy and humor and singing and live music, it's everything rolled together in one multidimensional art form. The music that accompanies it is very complex. It's also quite difficult technically, because you play different parts with each hand. The pokokSSthe main melody tonesSSare played with the left hand. The figuration and more rapid melodies are played with the right hand. And those are also done in interlocking pairs between the instruments. So the music is very intricate, very beautiful.
WBR: Are there large-scale gamelan performance events in Bali?
VITALE: Gamelan festivals, where several gamelans perform either separately or together, have become enormously popular. Every year during the Art Festival, they have these competitions in which groups from each of the nine districts of Bali comes as a representative of that district. Each representative is chosen either through "round robin" type competitions, or some other selection process. Nowadays, the final play-offs take place at the Art Center in Denpasar, the capital, in June and July, the cooler months in that part of the world. They play in "battle of the bands" type competition, in which they set up on either side of the stage and play alternately. There's a panel of judges. And enormous crowds; sometimes up to several thousand people will come. It's like a sports event; with supporters from each of the districts lined up behind their groups. They scream and hoot, sometimes just to be rowdy but also to show their approval for a particularly great turn of phrase or catchy tune or flashy gesture from the musicians. It's very exciting. There will typically be required categories of traditional pieces, as well as "free" categories of new instrumental and dance works. The judges will rate them on all sorts of factors: how they sound, of course, their energy and spirit; how they dress; how they look; how well the dancers perform.
It's interesting that this all came out of the temple tradition. In a temple festival the participants, the congregation, wants to create a maximum saturation of good thingsSSornateness and beauty in the decorations and offerings and dress and traditional costume. There are often recitations from sacred texts and gamelan being played in the middle courtyard. In fact sometimes there will be two or more groups set up in different courtyards in the temple, all playing at the same time. What happened was that, as this evolved, the sense of pride that groups take in what they do created a feeling of competition between themSSnot in a bad sense, but in the sense of who could make the best showing, and offer a more sensational and beautiful performance for this temple ceremony. That's especially the case when one of the groups is from outside the village. They were seen as representing their village and its traditions. And slowly that grew into more formalized competition between groups, which then came out of the temple and became what is now the gamelan festival. The word in Balinese is "mabarung," which means exactly this kind of head-to-head competition.
WBR: Sekar Jaya's toured Bali how many times now?
VITALE: Three times. By 1985, word had gotten back to Bali of what we were doing. The governor of Bali extended an invitation to us to come perform in the Bali Arts Festival, not as a competing group but as an actSSor should I say sensation?SSin our own right. This was an unprecedented event. Well, we were scared to death of this invitation! Here we were going to Bali to play Balinese music: we thought we might be laughed off the stage. We didn't have a clue how Balinese audiences would respond. So we practiced like insane people for the entire year leading up to this event. We worked up this new repertoire, which included pieces not only of traditional Balinese music and dance but also new works that we had composed.
WBR: So even though you were scared, you were also nervy?
VITALE: That's right. It was a combination of all sort of feelings and hopes. We thought that what would be of interest would not only to show them that we were studying traditional Balinese arts, but to contribute something of our own as well, something that they'd never seen.
WBR: But this is against a background of concern that you're going to get laughed off the stage.
VITALE: Right . . . we didn't know whether we'd be accepted or not. But the fact wasSSto make another long story shortSSthe Balinese loved it. They thought it was wonderful, startling. We played in every region of Bali. Our first concert was in this large, open-air pavilion. There were thousands of people there, crammed into every corner, to see this group of "tourists" play gamelan. You have to understand: Bali is a tourist destination. So almost all of the contact the average Balinese has with Westerners is seeing them as bodies lying around on beaches, spreading their money around, buying handicrafts, and generally being "ugly tourists." Yet suddenly here was this group dressed up in Balinese formal attire seated behind a gamelan playing their music and performing their dance. This was a spectacle not to be missed. From the very first concert, people were screaming. We were stunned. The TV crews came in; reporters from the National Radio and from all the local newspapers descended on us. One editorial said that "a cultural bomb had been dropped." Fortunately, we had the foresight to bring a video crew that did a documentary on the whole event. Needless to say, they got their money's worth. That video later won an award and played on PBS several times.
Anyhow, the main event of our tour was, as I said, at the Art Festival in Denpasar, the capital city. Ida Bagus Mandera, the governor at the time, attended. All the Balinese dignitaries were there. And national TV and radio were filming and recording. The original composition we brought was composed mostly by Michael Tenzer and myself. It featured a Bay Area musician and dancer, Keith Terry, who's known nationally for his "body music" performances, and also for his work with a band called Crosspulse. Keith's "body music" is amazing; it's something that he developed over many years as a percussionist and dancer, and integrates many kinds of traditions like Balinese, African, and so forth. So we created this new work for gamelan featuring Keith doing body music. We worked out this dramatic entrance where Keith played the role of the "ugly tourist." He just walked up right out of the audience with a camera, climbed up on stage, and started taking pictures of us. When he first got on stage, we actually had to restrain the security police. You have to remember, the governor and major big-wigs were sitting in the first row and the police didn't know that Keith was part of the act. They nearly arrested him. But then he starts his song and dance routine. And the audience just loved it. The next day kids were following him in the street imitating him.
That was the first tour, back in 1985. Since then we've toured two more times. All three tours have been very, very successful, though very different. And each of our tours has had a real effect on the Balinese musical scene because we brought more and more compositions of our own. I've contributed pieces, as well as other members of the group. And these pieces get noticed in musical circles in Bali, where they actually have an effect on the evolution of modern Balinese music and danceSSsomething that we take very seriously.
WBR: Has Sekar Jaya toured very much within the United States?
VITALE: We've been up and down the coastSSSouthern California several times, both San Diego and LA; Portland, Eugene, and Vancouver. A few years ago we did an East Coast tour of five cities, between New York and Boston. Audience reaction has been fantastic; we've had wonderful responses to all our tours. Even before we had any reputation, the fact that we were doing this music was enough to attract large audiences. I guess "gamelan" is still a buzz word! In the Bay Area, too, despite all these years it's been here. I think it's still an area that people come to because they want to be exposed to a wide variety of music and dance. The "gateway to Asia" thing is really true. The other part is, we always try to include the very best Balinese musicians and dancers in our shows. That's always been part of the draw, and the reason we can continue to have sell-out crowds after 20 years.
WBR: Is there anything like a centralized gamelan university in Bali?
VITALE: Yes, it's called STSI, the National Institute of the Arts, which was created about 30 years ago. A lot of the artists who are in residence with us come from that institution.
WBR: Has the residency program been a part of Sekar Jaya right from the start?
VITALE: Well at the beginning it wasn't at all formalized or even regular. In 1979 Suweca just happened to be in the Bay AreaSSit was pure luck for us. He had just finished a tenures at Brown and UCLA and didn't have other work at that time. So this "workshop" evolved into his job, in effect. Every month all of us would sit around and take out our wallets and put our money down on the tableSSand that would be Suweca's pay for the month. We gave him whatever we could to help him survive. After he left, we weren't sure at first how to keep things going. It was just a catch-as-catch-can situation for a couple of years. If a Balinese artist was involved in a program at, say, San Diego State, we would invite him up for the summer. In 1983, we became a nonprofit so we could get grants to support these artists, to bring them for longer and longer periods. Now, at this point, it's formalized into yearly residencies, with both a musician and dancer in residence for 9 or 10 months, from September to June. The artists that we invite often compose music and make new choreographies for us, too, something they really enjoy. So we're constantly premiering new works by our guest directors. In a way we've become kind of a laboratory for them, a place to experiment and expand. Often they try things with us that they might not have the opportunity or inclination to do at home. They can challenge the boundaries of the art, which helps them develop in new ways and is something they can take home with them and continue to develop. Our audiences also really respond to the new work. We do a concert with, say, a world premiere by Nyoman Windha, one of Bali's finest composers, and anyone who knows anything about Balinese music will want to see it.
WBR: And the guest directors include?
VITALE: The whole list includes more than 20 artists at this point. Just to mention a few: I Wayan Suweca, our founding music director, is here with us again now for our 20th Anniversary Festival. Another person who goes way back with us and had a lot to do with putting our group on the map is I Wayan Dibia, who's also going to join us for this anniversary. He's now the director of STSI, so it's quite a coup to get him here. He's a brilliant, brilliant choreographer, a scholar, and quite a visionary artist who's fortunately in the position of being the head of the largest performing arts institution in Bali. I Wayan Rai, who's a great musician and scholar, is also a senior member of the music faculty at STSI. He's here again now along with his wife, the dancer I Gusti Ayu Srinatih. I Dewa Putu Berata was one of our guest music directors in the past and will arrive here again soon; he's one of Bali's most charismatic musicians and director of a new music and dance center in Bali. Every time I think about the artists we=re bringing for this festival, I'm amazed myself!
WBR: Collaborations form a significant part of Sekar Jaya's repertoire. One of these has been a staging of The Ramayana, one of the classic epic works of Hindu literature, with San Jose's Abhinaya Dance Company.
VITALE: That was a great project. The Abhinaya Dance Company specializes in South Indian dance and music. It's led by Mythili Kumar, their artistic director and choreographer. Originally, we saw each other perform at San Francisco's annual Ethnic Dance Festival and enjoyed that contact a great deal. It's nice to share a program with other groups, because you can really check out what they do up close. Then the idea came, originally from them, to do a collaboration. The first phase of the project was to create a relatively short piece together, based on The Ramayana. The concept was simply to arrange Indian melodies for Balinese gamelan, to be danced to by Indian dancers. After that we embarked on a much longer and more involved collaboration, more or less a full version of the Ramayana epic. We thought it would be wonderful to bring the two traditions together, since they share a common background but have basically been apart for many centuries. The similarities can be very striking. In the Bharatanatyam style of south Indian classical dance, the feet mirror the rhythms of the drum very precisely. In Bali, the dance is also closely synchronized with the drum rhythms, though this dynamic is played out a bit differently. On the other hand, in Indian dance the arm and hand gestures and facial expression have very specific meanings. Whereas in Bali, a lot of the movements have become abstracted, even though they might have come from the same source as the Indian ones. But there were still so many similarities that we were inspired us to find more points in common between Indian music and Indian dance and Balinese music and Balinese dance, and then develop them.
The dramatic side was the other side of this whole project, very demanding and difficult because it touched upon many aspects of interpretation of this epic, which is more than a thousand years old. To make a long story short, the way we divided it out between our two companiesSSyou know it's a battle of good and evil as many of these epics are ultimatelySSwas very simple: they took good and we took evil. It was a stroke of genius by I Ketut Kodi, who was one our guest dancers at that point. It allowed the contrasts between the two traditions to actually have meaning and significance in the drama, rather than trying to make them go away or reduce everything to the lowest common denominatorSSa common mistake in cross-cultural collaborations. So it was ultimately very rewarding because we came up with a wonderful production that was received very well.
WBR: More recently, Sekar Jaya joined with the Bay Area's Club Foot Orchestra in presenting a live accompaniment to a 1935 silent film by Henri de la Ralaise entitled Legong: Dance of the Virgins, which depicts a love story set in Bali. How did that come about?
VITALE: The idea to do something with film arose from one of our members, Tom Ballinger. We're always looking for new things to try and everyone thought it sounded great, at least in the abstract. But it remained just an ember of an idea for a few years, until, through more or less chance connections in the group, we hooked up with Richard Marriott and the Club Foot Orchestra. Their claim to fame has been the live accompaniment of silent films. We found two silent films that were both made in Bali in the 30s; they became the candidates for our project. Even though the other one had promise, and was in many ways a more interesting and "grittier" film, we decided on Legong. It was the last two-color Technicolor film ever made, apparently, and had been recently restored by UCLA. It was filmed by a Hollywood crew, but with an all-Balinese cast, and shot on location in Bali. It's a very simple love story. Richard Marriott and I Made Subandi, who was our guest music director last year, became the artistic collaborators. They composed a new score that was wonderfulSSit really complemented the film so that the whole was greater than the sum of the parts. We performed it at four shows at the Castro Theater, last May. It was very satisfying. We're trying now to get the piece up again and bring it on tour to Los Angeles or New York.
WBR: Over the years has Sekar Jaya done much recording?
VITALE: Quite a bit. A couple of pieces first appeared on a CD by New World Records, which wasn't focused on Gamelan Sekar Jaya per se but on composers within the troupe: myself, Michael Tenzer, Evan Ziporyn. That's their focusSSAmeri-can composers. The title of that CD is American Works for Balinese Gamelan Orchestra. A couple of years after that, we made our own CD; we called it simply Balinese Music in America. Plus every time we go to Bali, we make arrangements with cassette companies there to release our pieces, which has a lot to do with the effect of this group in Bali. I also have my own recording company, Vital Records, which specializes in Balinese music. We have a new release, entitled Music of the Gambuh Theater; the first-ever recording of a particular kind of Balinese music.
WBR: Are there any other Bay Area performance groups featuring Balinese arts?
VITALE: Well, if you mean Balinese as opposed to Indonesian, there's only one other professional company: Shadow Light Productions, based in San Francisco. They're great. That's Larry Reed's company, and he specializes in Wayang, the shadow puppet play. He's taken it to new and very exciting levels by using a sophisticated array of lights that allows all sorts of cinemagraphic effects. We've collaborated with him several times in the past. In fact, several of our musicians play with his group. But open the focus a little wider, there are all sorts of interesting activities. For example, the Sierra School in Albany employs one of our members, Maddie Hogan. She convinced the school to buy a gamelan angklung. She teaches the kids on this and they're incredible. In fact, one of our newest members, who=s only 15 years old, is one of Maddie's former students. So it's already a generational thing.
WBR: What is Sekar Jaya planning for its 20th anniversary?
VITALE: Everything possible! We're going to have eight Balinese artists with us. This is unprecedented. We usually have one or two in residence; now we're going to have eight. And they're the best. That's why we invited back Suweca, Dibia, Rai, Srinatih, and Dewa Putu Berata, all of whom I mentioned earlier, we're having Ni Made Wiratini, a choreographer and another great dancer who specializes in certain solo female roles; I Nyoman Windha who is one of Bali's most acclaimed composers, and I Nyoman Wenten, a dancer, musician, and composer who teaches at Cal Arts Valencia. We're planning a succession of workshops, lecture/demonstrations and concert performances with all sorts of new pieces being composed.
There are also some wonderful guests artists representing other parts of Indonesia. There's Pusaka Sunda, a Sundanese gamelan orchestra that's located in San Jose; Hasanari, a West Javanese dance troupe, and Lavitania Bismark, who also dances West Javanese styles. In addition to all that, Michael Tenzer is composing a piece that combines gamelan and North Indian music. So we've invited Tabla Rasa, a very innovative tabla ensemble, to perform in that piece. And they're going to be joined by Swapan Chaudhuri, who is with San Rafael's Ali Akbar Kahn College of Music, one of the great maestros of North Indian tabla. We've also scheduled an appearance of the Residents, an alternative, some would say "underground," rock band that we collaborated with last October. The highlight of it all will be four performances at the Cowell Theater on September 24, 25 and 26. Then in October we go to LA on tour, including an appearance in the World Sacred Music Festival. It's far and away the biggest season we've ever attempted.