Wednesday, May 10, 2006
Gamelan Sekar Jaya
The Yerba Buena Gardens Festival opened on Sunday the 7th with a concert by Gamelan Sekar Jaya (click here for their website), and instead of a touring troupe of Balinese musicians as I was expecting, the group consisted of mostly "white" folk from the San Francisco Bay Area along with a few guests artists from the island of Bali.
Gamelan music and its meditative exoticism is an acquired taste, but thanks to the recently deceased Lou Harrison and his experiments with the form, I have come to quite enjoy the sound. Check out Harrison's "La Koro Sutro" for 100-voice chorus and "American Gamelan," recorded by New Albion Records in 1988, for a lovely intro.
In any case, the Gamelan Sekar Jaya, with its headquarters in El Cerrito of all places, turned out to be an absolutely crack ensemble, playing brilliantly without a conductor or notated scores.
The spokesman for the group was beaming with pleasure as he mentioned that the music they had started with was meant to be played outdoors in the courtyard of Hindu temples, and that the ensemble usually performed in concert halls rather than outside on a warm day, so that this was a special occasion for them.
The group has been around for 25 years, consisting of about fifty members, with rotating teachers-in-residence direct from Bali every year.
You can even take classes with them in Balinese dance at Ashkenaz in Berkeley.
One of the more charming aspects to the Bay Area is that you can become pretty much whoever you want to be in an ethnic cultural way if you are so inclined.
There are hundreds of very white women every year who spend months at samba classes in preparation for the annual Carnaval parade in the Mission, not to mention the gringo kung-fu, tae kwan do, and karate adherents.
The mingling of cultures, in both directions, seems to be integral to Gamelan Sekar Jaya's mission.
They have toured Bali five different times over the years and are outrageous celebrities there.
A few of them have also taken up composing for the gamelan, taking it into new directions.
This in turn has spurred on Balinese musicians to incorporate their own variations and the cross-cultural germination continues.
The face above is the real, maskless one of a Balinese dancer who is part of an ambitious, full-length evening of song, dance, poetry, and stagecraft called "Kali Yuga," which is premiering this October in Zellerbach Hall (under the auspices of Cal Performances, unfortunately).
The piece takes characters from the Baghavad-Gita, and plays with them.
The dancer above was expressing some serious anguish after having been bet away by her husband in a horrible game where he loses everything, including himself.
The second half of the concert involved bamboo rather than bronze instruments, and it was wildly fun and percussive.
They should teach it to the drum dudes out at Hippie Hill in Golden Gate Park. The music is great stuff.