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American Gamelan’s Pioneering Flower Still in Full Bloom

August 15, 2011

Visitors to this summer’s “Bali: Art, Ritual, Performance” exhibition at the Asian Art Museum may be encountering Balinese music and art for the first time, yet the Bay Area is no stranger to the shimmering sounds of Balinese gamelan orchestra. For more than three decades, Gamelan Sekar Jaya (which means, roughly, “Victorious Flower”) has brought Balinese music and dance — and musicians, dancers, and teachers — to the region, and even taken it back on occasion to its land of origin.

Thanks in large part to Sekar Jaya, Californians have been privileged to experience one of the world’s greatest musical traditions, says Claremont Colleges professor of music Bill Alves, author of the textbook Music of the Peoples of the World. Balinese gamelan music “is one of the most elaborate and sophisticated art music traditions in the world,” says Alves, who leads the Southern California school’s gamelan and has attended numerous Sekar Jaya performances. The group deserves acclaim “for bringing such a high level of performance of such a significant non-Western classical music tradition to this country.”

(The word gamelan refers to percussion instruments — mainly the gongs and metallophones that are the backbone of the orchestra’s sound. These instruments are constructed and tuned in a group, so they’re not interchangeable with another orchestra’s instruments. To the main group of instruments may be added bamboo flutes, stringed instruments, and voices, to reinforce melodies and lyrics.)

“We had no idea what to expect. We feared it could have gone the opposite way — ‘Who are these folks, to try to play our music?’ It was incredibly encouraging and flattering.”

This summer, the organization moved into brand-new headquarters in Berkeley, allowing it to consolidate all four of its ensembles with its rehearsal studios and quarters for guest teachers. The first Balinese gamelan outside of Indonesia and already the most accomplished of the more than 200 American gamelan ensembles, Sekar Jaya is cultivating stronger new connections between Bali and California.

Early Inspiration

Sekar Jaya has been one of the most successful groups in a world-music movement that drew much of its impetus from the Bay Area. The ensemble’s origins extend back to California’s Center for World Music, which had moved from Berkeley to San Diego and thence to San Francisco State University. That’s where Wayne Vitale met UC Berkeley classmate Michael Tenzer, a fellow composition and Balinese music enthusiast who had acquired a full set of Balinese gamelan instruments. In the late 1970s, they and Rachel Cooper, a dancer who’d recently moved to the Bay Area with Balinese musician I Wayan Suweca, decided to hold a six-week workshop in Balinese music and dance.

Read more: Gamelan and Western Classical Music

Soon, they had two dozen musicians trained in at least the rudiments of Balinese gamelan music, enough to stage a concert. They invited dancers from Los Angeles, including the celebrated I Nyoman Wenten, still one of the leading figures in Balinese music and now teaching at California Institute of the Arts, and his father-in-law, the renowned Javanese music teacher and composer  K.R.T. Wasitodiningrat, familiarly known as Pak Cokro. At the debut concert in early 1980, the founding trio were surprised to find Building D, a large low-ceilinged room at San Francisco’s Fort Mason Center, packed with more than two hundred fans — so many that dozens had to be turned away.

“In a way, that workshop never ended,” Vitale says. “When we did that first concert, it was such an explosion of excitement for the group. We just kept going.”

The group incorporated as a nonprofit in 1982, allowing it to tap into grants from the California Arts Council (CAC) and other donors. But at around the same time, Sekar Jaya faced a challenge when its mentor, Suweca, returned to Bali. “From the start, our commitment was always to having master artists work with us and lead the group artistically,” Vitale explains. They responded by finding other Balinese artists teaching or studying in California. Over the years, Sekar Jaya’s guest artist residence program has assured the group of guidance from more than five dozen Balinese musicians and dancers throughout its performance seasons.

Back to the Homeland

The emphasis on learning the tradition from the source paid off when the ensemble somewhat anxiously made its first trip to Bali in 1985, a journey chronicled in a documentary that shows the island’s surprisingly positive reception, including glowing reviews in the newspapers and on TV and radio.

“We had no idea what to expect,” Vitale recalls. “We feared it could have gone the opposite way — ‘Who are these folks to try to play our music?’ It was incredibly encouraging and flattering.” The group has since toured Bali several more times.

The Bali experience provided a sense of artistic validation and inspiration. Over the next few years, riding the wave of growing appreciation for world music and multiculturalism (and associated funding), Sekar Jaya boosted its ambitions and performance schedule, growing to 65 members. Musicians such as Tenzer, Vitale, and Evan Ziporyn (who later gained fame as a member of New York’s Bang on a Can All Stars and is now a professor at MIT) composed new works for the ensemble, which maintains a balance between new works (more than 80 so far) and traditional Balinese works.

“We had a feeling of ownership because we paid for it and made it happen. Working together in that way, by the seat of our pants, helped build an atmosphere of belief and trust and ownership that continues.”

The group was entirely volunteer-run until Vitale was hired as director in the early 1990s. He stepped down a couple of years ago but remains active in the group while also teaching at an international high school in San Francisco. Vitale recently completed a large multimedia project called Makrokosma Bali involving a 25-member Balinese ensemble. It premiered at the Asian Art Museum this past May, and will become a touring piece and video.

Crossing Cultures, Connecting Communities

There’s more to Sekar Jaya than merely performing. Many of its activities and much of its funding have been connected to multicultural education. The ensemble has participated in a wide variety of school programs and residencies, such as CAC’s artists-in-schools program, in which artists hold assemblies, performances, instrument demonstrations, and workshops (some as long as 10 weeks) with students. That extended contact — and context — makes their subsequent encounters with the music in concert much more meaningful. Students learn music, dance, puppetry, and more.

Sekar Jaya has also partnered with organizations such as Cal Performances, Oakland Youth Chorus, Oakland Asian Cultural Center, Mountain View’s Community School of Music and Arts, and others. For years it has maintained a close relationship with UC Berkeley, whose Center for Southeast Asian Studies has helped bring visiting artists to campus, who often give guest lectures and teach. During the group’s 25th anniversary in 2004, I participated in one of its largest single education efforts to date: an eight-day intensive workshop in Balinese arts taught by some of the island’s preeminent musicians and other artists.

San Francisco’s Indonesian Consulate has also been a steady supporter over the years, Vitale says, as has the local Balinese community. The ensembles contain several mixed Indonesian-American couples. Balinese-Americans often attend the ceremonies for guest artists. “It’s a family feeling,” Vitale explains. “It feels more like a community than a class or an inward-gazing club.”

Sustainable Growth

This summer, the 60-member ensemble celebrated a milestone when it moved into its new Berkeley headquarters. For the first time, the group has office space, guest artist accommodations, and rehearsal space for all the ensembles it has accumulated: a dance group; a four-member gender wayang (the traditional ensemble that accompanies the famed wayang kulit shadow-puppet plays); a 25-member bronze gong kebyar ensemble (playing bronze xylophones, gongs, and drums), which creates the dramatic, flashy sounds that most Westerners associate with Balinese gamelan; a 20-member angklung (a smaller-size set of bronze xylophones) ensemble; and a jegog ensemble of tubular bamboo marimbas (donated by Grateful Dead percussionist Mickey Hart) whose size ranges up to 10 feet long — so big that the player has to mount the instrument and play it with giant rubber mallets.

The new home is a deserved development, because since at least 2000 Gamelan Sekar Jaya has been generally regarded as the model operation among the 200 or so American gamelans (most of which play Javanese, not specifically Balinese, music and instruments). At a gamelan festival that year featuring groups from around the country, Sekar Jaya stood out for its sharp presentation, matching costumes, and peerless performance technique. Vitale attributes the group’s accomplishments to “a feeling of intense commitment and ownership from the start, when it was just a bunch of us sitting around and taking out our wallets to pay for a teacher ourselves,” he says. “There was no institution above us. If we wanted it to survive, everyone had to pitch in. We had a feeling of ownership, because we paid for it and made it happen. Working together in that way, by the seat of our pants, helped build an atmosphere of belief and trust and ownership that continues.”

Read more: An Island Awash in the Arts

Like any organization, the group has experienced intense debates and occasional conflicts during its 32-year history, Vitale says, though the members have ultimately always managed to sit down together and hash out any problems by valuing the Sekar Jaya’s artistic mission over individual desires.

“In our meetings, people are passionate about the decisions — what teacher will come over this year, what repertoire we will play, what concerts we do,” Vitale says. “It’s an artistic mission run in egalitarian fashion. Our group has been based on the idea of consensus — that’s been one of the primary aspects of decision making from the start. That’s a basic aspect of how groups are configured in Bali. What’s most important is the feeling and atmosphere of how you work together.”

Going Forward

Sekar Jaya’s new director, Emiko Susilo, traces that attitude back to the source. “In Bali, as part of a family, a leader in [the Bali-based gamelan] Cudamani, and a member of the artistic community, I have come to deeply understand how powerful the ties created by and nurtured by the arts are,” she wrote in an e-mail. “The arts are not ‘entertainment,’ not just ‘part of daily life,’ they are a powerful, almost palpable part of relationships between individuals, groups, villages, regencies [governmental units]. When a gamelan group performs in a temple ceremony, they are not just ‘performing,’ they are bringing that community together, binding themselves to that community by expressing their commitment to it as they play music, dance, sing — sometimes in the blazing sun, sometimes in the pouring rain, sometimes shivering in the cold at midnight on the crest of a volcanic crater.”

Maintaining that community connection is a priority for Susilo, who became director this past January after years of working with the group as first a dancer, then a teacher. The opportunity to study with Sekar Jaya as a student at UC Berkeley from 1990 to 1993 drew her to California in the first place. Susilo, whose father is one of the most important gamelan teachers in America and whose mother directs the UCLA Center for Intercultural Performance, spends a good portion of the year working with artists in Bali. She intends to expand the group’s California–Bali connection by sponsoring discussions for the members about the cultural context and spirit behind Balinese music and dance, while continuing the guest artist residencies, outreach programs, and, if possible, more performance tours to Bali.

With the help of General Manager Sara Gambina-Belknap, Susilo also wants to establish closer connections with other Indonesian artists and groups in the Bay Area, and to make Balinese arts more accessible to community members by offering classes by local artists, not just Balinese guest artists.

“I think the world would be a better place if everyone played music, danced, or sang as part of what they did every day,” as in Bali, she says. “So, I want Sekar Jaya to help facilitate that!”

Brett Campbell writes about music for The Wall Street Journal, Willamette Week, Oregon Arts Watch, SFCV and many other publications.