American Stars With An Indonesian Sound

A musical group from New York is making waves in Bali — playing the traditional Indonesian style called gamelan. The band, Dharma Swara, is the first American outfit invited to play in Bali's international competition.

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GUY RAZ, host:

A group of American musicians who play gamelan, a traditional form of Balinese music, are so good that they were invited to appear at this year's Bali Arts Festival. They were the only non-Indonesian group ever to participate in the festival's music competition.

Gail Wein travelled to Bali and has the story.

GAIL WEIN: Everyone in Bali grows up hearing and playing gamelan.

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WEIN: But most of the members of Dharma Swara did not. They're primarily American musicians. Some of them, like Nicci Reisnour, heard the music and loved it from the very first note. Reisnour is a doctoral student in musicology at Cornell University.

Ms. NICCI REISNOUR (Doctoral Student, Cornell University): It blew my mind. I just thought it was the most amazing sounding thing. It sounded like nothing I'd ever heard before, I guess.

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WEIN: Others took some time to warm to the very foreign sound of this music. Andy McGraw first heard Balinese gamelan in a world music class, and he absolutely hated it.

Mr. ANDY McGRAW (Musician): It sounded radically out of tune and disorganized, and I couldn't make any sense of it.

WEIN: Today, McGraw is Dharma Swara's executive director.

Mr. McGRAW: Then when I first heard it live, it was in Bali, and it was in a contest between two of the - really the best groups on the island in a temple contest. And I couldn't believe it was same music I had heard on this cassette that I had detested so much.

WEIN: Some of the Dharma Swara musicians travelled from as far away as Richmond, Virginia and Ithaca, New York for weekly rehearsals in Manhattan. Once they arrived in Bali, the group rehearsed up to seven hours a day.

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WEIN: They also performed concerts in villages in the two weeks leading up to their appearance at the festival.

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WEIN: Many gamelan performances in Bali take the form of a competition. But unlike western classical music competitions, where a panel of experts rates each performance, McGraw explains gamelan competitions in Bali rely mostly on audience reaction.

Mr. McGRAW: You play for 10 minutes, and the other group's looking at you from across the stage, and they're trying to psych you out. And they're kind of giving you dirty looks sometimes. And the audience lets you know in real time exactly how they feel about your performance. And any slight mistake, this audience goes crazy and will hoot and holler. I mean, it's really - it's more like a soccer crowd.

WEIN: At the performances leading up to their big Bali Arts Festival debut, the Americans were enthusiastically received.

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WEIN: On the Festival fairgrounds before the competition, I stopped a man who gave his name as Udah(ph) and asked what he thought about Americans playing gamelan.

Mr. UDAH: It's amazing. I'm a Balinese, I can't play gamelan. And it's amazing if American can play this music.

Unidentified Man: Gamelan Dharma Swara. (Foreign language spoken).

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WEIN: Dharma Swara's performance at the competition impressed I Made Bandem. He is professor of music and dance at The College of The Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, and divides his time between his native Bali and the United States.

Mr. I MADE BANDEM (Professor of Music and Dance, College of the Holy Cross): I think the Balinese people should learn something in creating something new like that. We have to have two ways of communication, you know, Western ideas and Balinese ideas combined at once, so make it really balanced. I like it very much.

WEIN: Dharma Swara musician Vivian Fung says she learned something about communication by playing gamelan.

Ms. VIVIAN FUNG (Musician): I think for me, one of the biggest differences is the collective mentality of the gamelan. Everything is based on the group, even the mentality of how you play. You're playing paired with someone else. So you really have to be together with your partner.

WEIN: She also learned something about the collective nature of Balinese culture.

Ms. FUNG: And that's something I've had to wrap my head around because in a Western society, it's all about the self. So that switch of thinking for me was challenging because I'm coming from a Western world, but it also opens me up to this whole new idea of thinking of music and of thinking of culture and thinking of how to live, basically. And it's wonderful because the gamelan is like a microcosm of how the Balinese live.

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WEIN: So who won the contest? The musicians of Dharma Swara were respectfully modest, saying, ask the audience.

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WEIN: For NPR News, I'm Gail Wein.

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RAZ: And for Sunday, that's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. Remember, you can hear the best of this program on our new podcast, Weekends on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Subscribe or listen at npr.org/weekendatc. We'll be back next weekend on the radio. Until then, thanks for listening, and have a great week.

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