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Indonesian Music and Culture


Hello, I am Sita Raiter the assistant press attaché as the United States Embassy in Jakarta Indonesia. This year, the United States and Indonesia are celebrating 70 years of bilateral relations. As part of this celebration, we, along with our partners Meridian International Center and IDN Media are creating a series of podcasts about the US Indonesia partnership, from the environment to health, from the economy to the arts, you’ll hear from Americans and Indonesians their stories of working together, the challenges they have faced, their hopes for this fascinating relationship. We like to say that the relationship between Indonesia and the United States isn’t between just governments, it’s really about the people of our two diverse democracies. So, take a listen and let us know what you think! And please explore our digital platform where you can find the podcasts and much much more about the US Indonesia partnership. We will be adding new content every month, so spread the word and thanks for listening.

Erica: Hi, this is Erica with Meridian International Center and welcome to another episode of our 70 for 70 podcasts. This one is focused on Indonesian music and culture. We are here at the University of Richmond with Professor Andrew McGraw and we have on the line in Indonesia his colleague Mr. Gusti and we are going to be talking about the role of Gamelan and traditional Indonesian music in cross cultural exchange between Indonesia and the United States. So welcome to you both.

Dr. McGraw: Thank you

Erica: Ok, so the first question is simply: could you tell us a little bit about yourselves and your background, and how you became interested in the music in the first place?

Dr. McGraw: Sure, I am originally from Kansas City, and was studying jazz, it is a great place to study jazz. And at a certain point there was someone who wanted to do a house trade in Singapore, and I was playing in a band with a musician who had studied in Indonesia and he said “you should go,” I knew nothing about that part of the world. He wanted me to go because he had been to this place called Bali and left a drum there that he didn’t have room in his luggage for, and he wanted me to go and pick this up. So, I said sure! And I got someone to cover my gigs and cover my students and I said, “well where is your drum” and he said go to this village Peliatan and ask for Made. Ok, so I went and I didn’t know at the time that the Balinese name their children based on technicity, so it is just one, two, three, four, and five. So Made just means the second born, so I kind of showed up and said, “ I am looking for Jon with a drum.” And eventually I actually found the drum and started studying with the amazing teacher Pak Gandra, who had the drum. And he was one of the most important living musicians at the time. He played on the Ed Sullivan Show and was able to study with that musician and eventually fell in with Mr. Gusti who is one of the foremost living performers of Gender Wayang, the music that accompanies the shadow play and started studying with him and collaborating with him. And eventually did a Ph. D. in ethnomusicology at Wesleyan. Eventually ended up here as a professor of music, associate professor of music.

Dr. McGraw speaks to Pak Gusti in Bahasa

Pak Gusti and Dr. McGraw speak in Bahasa- Pak Gusti speaks in Bahasa

Dr. McGraw speaks directly to Mr. Gusti: Mr. Gusti, can you please tell a little about the background of your life, sir?

Mr. Gusti: I have loved Balinese art since I was young learning gamelan because in our tradition we used to see wayang, see other performing arts, drama, theater, various things, songs, songs, and so on. Finally, I enjoyed learning gamelan or learning puppets, finally entered art school, then worked as a lecturer and remained an artist performing in temples, and everywhere. And there is also collaboration, then yes often meet Mas Eddy and then given the way we often meet. That's all, bro.

Dr. McGraw: Yeah, very quick. Grew up in a musical family, performing since he was very young, performing at the temple. Went to National Conservatory at the beginning, was a professor there, collaborating with a lot of international artists.

Erica: Yeah, very cool! Loved hearing both of those stories. So, we are here, as I said at the University of Richmond and I’m sad that you all that are listening cannot see, we are surrounded by this absolutely magnificent gamelan. So, Dr. McGraw, I was wondering if you can tell us a little bit about this particular instrument and your experiences leading it and what it has done to enhance the music department here at the University of Richmond?

Dr. McGraw: Sure! We are very lucky to have two very large gamelan here. One is a gamelan, Simran Dama, which is a Balinese set. It is a large seven tone Balinese set that was kind of a hybrid invention of older sets made in 1986 by the maker… the kind of orchestra was made in 1986 by the composer Pak Wayan Brata, and on the other side is a full Javanese, solonese set. It is Pelog and Slendro, so two tuning systems put together. So, we kind of have an overabundance of gamelan here. We are able to play all kinds of music. We also have actually a kroncong ensemble, which is the Indonesian string band ensemble, which is kind of appropriate in Virginia where we have so much old-time music. Got a British Isles/Appalachian influenced music. We have a community group called, Gamelan Raga Kusuma that Mr. Gusti and I founded that that Mr. Gusti named. Raga Kusuma means intense togetherness, and that group has been very active, and student feed into that group. So, I use the sets of instruments in various classes, Music and Theater in Indonesia class, which I usually try to bring Mr. Gusti or another Indonesia collaborator. I use it in a regular kind of global music class, where students play both kinds of music, West African, Japanese music, so and we feed students through this. So we have students that get Dama Susti awards, these are the yearlong scholarships to study in one of the national conservatories, the EC system, so Mr. Gusti teaches at EC Denpasar in Bali. We have two students just going this year. We have had a lot members of the community group, some of whom are University of Richmond students, some of whom are VCU students, so as a community group we could combine people from all over town. And it is good to have those different students, those different people of different backgrounds, different ages interacting together. Gamelan is a way to do that, not a lot of other music are as welcoming or are oriented around a community the way gamelan music is. And we have done collaborations, so we have done new music, we have collaborated with Eight Blackbird, Mr. Gusti has collaborated with Eighth Blackbird, this is our ensemble on residence that I think has four or five Grammys at this point, I have lost track. And we have performed new music with the Richmond Symphony, and we have done reconstructions of old music, say the music that WC heard in the 1889 Paris Exposition. Pak Sumarsa came down, a leading Javanese scholar and my dissertation advisor, and came down and reconstructed the music that WC had heard and had found on wax cylinder and we actually recorded that on a wax cylinder, and you can buy new wax cylinders. So, we have had a lot of different kinds of opportunities to play many different kinds of Indonesian music and collaborate with a lot of Indonesian artists and go to Indonesia.

Erica: I am wondering if Mr. Gusti, if you could speak a little bit to the experience of collaborating with the ensemble and what that is like?

Dr. McGraw translates in Bahasa: Please talk a little about the experience of collaboration with friends in Richmond.

Mr. Gusti: Yeah, this is very interesting to me because I can see things in different situations. With people and different backgrounds and thoughts it becomes a learning experience for me, yes sometimes in a collaboration we have to be able to see competencies, abilities, then how to turn each competency into something good in creating art.

Dr. McGraw: He says it has been a really good experience and you have to kind of see as a collaborator who you are working with and what they can do and to kind of adjust to do something that is appropriate for that group so that they can sound good no matter what kind of level of ability they have. Which is a little I think of a thinly veiled reference to the fact that we are a community group, we are not as established as these really proficient groups in America say Sekar Jaya in the Bay Area or the really wonderful group in Colorado. We could play at a certain level, but we can play many different kinds of things. And so, I think that is what Mr. Gusti is talking about. Yeah, we can’t play really fast, but we can play different kinds of things.

Erica: Institutions of higher learning throughout the United States have their own Gamelan ensembles. I am wondering if both of you could sort of speak to that development and that history of the place of gamelan in world music programs at universities and how both of you feel about that?

Dr. McGraw: That is a long story, and it is a complicated story and I think it emergences partly out of complex geo-political relationships between America and Southeast Asia. So these ensembles first start showing up really during the Cold War, basically the DOD, the Department of Defense started giving out a lot of money for establishing centers for Southwest Asian studies prior to the war in Vietnam. A lot of artists realized that there was a lot of money floating around and did really creative grant writing, I think somewhat subversive grant writing to get some of this money and to create what would have been really important long standing, what I think mutually beneficial cultural exchanges. So, if we think about Yale, if we think about Michigan, Cornell, these different groups that were at different Universities that were spending a lot of their resources to study Southeast Asia. That then becomes this kind of chronical ensemble that the first generation of ethnomusicologists studied and then kind of disseminated throughout programs. It also has to do with the basic economics, you know, my department recently just bought a new Homberg Steinway that cost about a quarter of a million dollars. One musician plays it, the dean can see that we can put, you know, 20 people on a Gamelan and the gamelan costs a fraction of what the piano costs. So, it just kind of fits the structure of American liberal arts education, curriculum, and funding in a particular way, and it pushes certain kind of multicultural buttons, but that become problematic. It means that a lot more people have exposure to this music then might say have exposure to music like Indian classical music where it is typically a guitar and a tapo player, and you are going to study for ten years before you ever make a public appearance, and that is the culture. Whereas gamelan, there is every gamelan and a Balinese banjo. If you can hit a gong and count to eight there is a place for you, and it’s not like it has been dumbed down, that is how the music works. And you can keep finding harder and harder parts, if you want, or not. You know, it accommodates the normal distribution you find in terms of talent and interest and mobility in a community in the way that other virtuosic traditions don’t.

Dr. McGraw speaks to Mr. Gusti in Bahasa: What is your opinion on the popularity of gamelan in America? For Indonesians is that strange or proud? Or strange and proud?

Mr. Gusti:

Wow, this is good for me, Mas. Because gamelan can be learned by people outside Bali-Java. In America and Europe it is very interesting, because people come to understand how the gamelan is, how the sound of the gamelan, the composition of the gamelan, and how its philosophy. I think it's now touching, more universal things that have spread everywhere. As in Bali also learns gamelan, people outside Bali also learn gamelan. That is very interesting for me and proud at the same time because people want to learn gamelan, it was thought of for me.

Dr. McGraw: Yeah, it is a sense of pride. It is a sense that, I think he is getting into a sentiment that Pak Sumarsa had once expressed to me, you know, why is it that Western art music that appeals to universal sensibility. Why can’t gamelan be part of a global tradition as well? And that, that is part of his response, say to accusations of gamelan just being a form of exoticism or of just being a fasil form of multiculturalism on campus, you know? It rises to the level of potential universal art form that anyone should have access to much in the way say western classical or modernist music does.

Erica: Wow, that is really interesting, thank you both. I want to go back to something that you said earlier about the gamelan assemble actually, that the gamelan ensemble going to Indonesia to perform and so I was wondering if both of you could sort of speak to that experience, to how that came about and what the experience was like.

Dr. McGraw: Well that was quite a while ago. We haven’t organized a trip recently, that was 2010, and at that time I was co-leading the group in midtown Manhattan and both groups were going so it was a lot of people in that group, Dharma Swara, is playing in the Bali artist festival as part of the competition. So, it was a big deal, the center of gravity of that tour was around the New York group, and we had come along as well. We had played in several different villages and had performed with Mr. Gusti, the other kind of sister ensembles of it have gone more often, so the kroncong group, this is the string band group, and this has gone several times. One of our members is there now, that is an easier thing to do than tour around because you can check your instruments on a plane, the instruments are kind of like the instruments here and it is a smaller ensemble. And gamelan is regional, so you know there is a Balinese gamelan here, behind me is a Javanese gamelan, and when I say Javanese I really mean Central Javanese really mean Solo because of course Solonese form is different from Javanese, I mean it is Indonesia right? There are 350, I don’t, I’ve lost track now… 350 regularly spoken languages and you can imagine many many more kinds of music. There are a few musics that are national, or more national than others and kroncong is one of those, so when that group goes, we can play gamelan, but we can also go to Bali and Java, and different parts of Java, and Sumatra, and Borneo. So, yep.

Erica: Mr. Gusti, what has it been like to work with International groups performing gamelan music and kroncong music in Indonesia?

Dr. McGraw and Mr. Gusti discuss question in Bahasa: How was the response of the Balinese audience?

Mr. Gusti: Yeah, if in Bali, the Balinese are very enthusiastic because from the very first when there was Sekar Jaya who wanted to be together with Sekar Jepun they were very enthusiastic and here really appreciates the effort of friends outside Indonesia to learn gamelan. Moreover, when Dharma Swara was a prestigious event, the Bali Arts Festival and Barong Gong Kebyar were very enthusiastic about seeing how people outside of Bali could beat gamelan with such good skills and they were very interested in seeing it because they knew Beyond that is the tendency of music, the habits are different but playing gamelan is very good. That's very interesting, Mas.

Dr. McGraw: Yeah, its, the Balinese audience is, they get really really enthusiastic about this and very proud. And they are kinds like “how are they able to do this, how are they doing this,” it is a sign that their culture is recognized and appreciated abroad and by what many Balinese consider to be the dominate world culture.

Erica: I’m wondering if you could speak a little bit about why the wayang traditional, shadow puppet plays that are put on in Indonesia?

Dr. McGraw: Well, I could give a basic description, but really Mr. Gusti is the guy to talk about it being a Dalang, being a shadow master, so it basically refers to the tradition of cut leather puppets accompanied by in Bali a small gamelan and in Java, Central Java a very large Gamelan.

Dr. McGraw asked Mr. Gusti: Mr. Gusti can explain about the culture of wayang kulit, what stories are used, in what context and how is the life of the dalang present today?

Mr. Gusti:

Yeah shadow puppets are a form of shadow theater that is very broad, whose history can be traced back thousands of years. Then the development of wayang kulit's story can get from India, Mahabharata and Ramayana, but enriched with local stories like Panji like other folklore. So the context of the shadow puppet is related to rituals, traditional ceremonies, ceremonies in the temple and then various types of ceremonies and until now the shadow puppets continue to be developed by the current generation with various innovation models. From innovation in tradition, innovation in the form of contemporary puppets, yes these kinds have developed, and life is still going on until now, puppeteers are still often performing, puppeteers there who can live from the puppeteer and the world of the puppet itself.

Dr. McGraw: Yeah, it is still active, the puppeteers can live through, can make ends meet, many of them, by performing for ritual context in Bali. Many rituals in Bali have to have some form of Wayang.

Erica: What kind of rituals?

Dr. McGraw asked Mr. Gusti in Bahasa: Can you explain what ceremonies need to be accompanied by shadow puppets?

Mr. Gusti:

Oh all of the Yadnya there are shadow puppets like Dewa Yadnya, who have long been in the temple also shadow puppets, then humans Yadnya especially there is Wayang Sapuh Leger which is used for maintenance and then there is a suda mala puppet in the context of the human Yadnya, continue to Butha Yadnya. all use puppets

Dr. McGraw: So that is a list of particular rituals, some of which need particular stories.

Erica: Very interesting, so I was wondering if you could talk about your collaborations with both the Smithsonian and with the Embassy?

Dr. McGraw: Yeah, we are very lucky to be as close as we are to Washington, D.C. So, we can go up there and collaborate with both the Smithsonian Freer Sackler Museum and the Indonesian Embassy. There is a couple gamelan programs at that Indonesian Embassy, and we bring the teach Pak Mortianto down to work with us everyone once in a while, but we have collaborated several times to do mini festivals. In 2013, this is quite a large festival, we brought many gamelan ensembles from around American and artists from Indonesia to do a whole weekend of performances and papers and there have been subsequent smaller festivals, one on Sunda, we are doing one coming up in October, actually throughout the year on Indonesian popular music and in October we are bringing two fabulous keroncong musicians to perform without kroncong ensemble. Mr. Gusti has come for many of these and it is just a great opportunity to showcase the amazing artists that come through the Embassy, and it is a great opportunity for the local ensembles to get kind of pro coaching when those people come by. And the audiences in DC are great, the audiences that the Smithsonian and Freer have on their list are really enthusiastic and always hang around after the performances to ask questions. So, I think the last one that we did with Mr. Gusti was outdoors in front of the Castle doing a Wayang Kulit for a lot of people, and that was a lot of fun. [Speaks to Pak Gusti in Bahasa]

Dr. McGraw asked Mr. Gusti: What is your opinion about the stage in Washington at the Smithsonian and the collaboration between the Indonesian and Smithsonian embassies?

Mr. Gusti:

yes, it's very interesting, it's a good collaboration for organizing such a big art. I was a participant who was invited at that time and was very happy because the puppets at the time were performing, there were a lot of audiences, I was a little worried because the audience was moving around because at that time the stage was outside especially, at that time it was very good, so people could focus on seeing the puppet, that was very good.

Dr. McGraw: He says that he likes it a lot because the audiences there sometimes act like sometimes audiences in Bali, like they get right up next to the performers and are kind of jostling around and I think some performers can be kind of thrown off by that, but I think for a Dalang, Balinese Dalang it is like yeah, this is what it is supposed to be. Now let’s see if they can focus during the philosophical parts.

Erica: Alright, well thank you both so much. That was a wonderful conversation and we look forward to attending your performance in October.

Dr. McGraw: Thank you!