The Gamelan of Many Colors

I feel very fortunate to have had the chance to work with Dr. Han, the man/myth/legend that started world music at NIU back in the 70’s, during my time at the University of Kentucky, where he taught the Balinese Gamelan Ensemble during my freshman year. I felt particularly lucky that this happened early on, as it led to many more opportunities to learn and play Javanese Gamelan and Chinese music that I highly doubt I would have otherwise had.

So why do I bring up Dr. Han? He was the first of what is now three different teachers I have had the chance to learn Gamelan from, and while many of the concepts of playing the instrument have remained the same, much like having the different teachers for Carnatic music, the teaching approach was different for all three.

Learning from Dr. Han was relatively simple – he has been teaching Gamelan for a very long time to Westerners and is very used to teaching them how things are supposed to go. However, being Chinese, he did not grow up with Gamelan, and therefore all of his knowledge, even that which he gained while studying Gamelan in Bali, comes to us secondhand. While those of us involved didn’t appreciate it any less as a result, it does affect the way he understands and ultimately teaches it.

This semester, however, I had the chance to work with Pak Ngurah, the director of the NIU Gamelan Ensemble. Pak Ngurah did grow up in Bali and therefore has a very different, much more complex understanding of Balinese Gamelan. Since I had worked with Dr. Han, Dr. Wang offered me the opportunity to learn kendang with Pak Ngurah, which are the two drum parts that lead the ensemble rather than the melodic part. There were two very interesting difficulties in doing this even beyond the general difficulty of understanding all that is Balinese Gamelan.

The first is that Pak Ngurah speaks very little English, which meant that most of the learning experience was made up of monkey see, monkey do style teaching with some very broken, intermittent English words where necessary. Most days, the amount of true English conversation I had with Pak Ngurah was limited to “Hello,” “No, like this,” “Yes!” (which was always encouragingly ecstatic when I would get something right for the first time), and “Ok, bye.” Otherwise, it was a lot of him singing and demonstrating the drum parts and me attempting to imitate them as best as I could. Occasionally, he would switch drums on me and expect me to have the other part down because they tend to think of the two drums’ composite rhythm rather than each individual part, which caught me off guard at first, but I like to think I eventually caught on.

The second difficulty I actually didn’t even realize until Pak Made and his son, our guest artists for the 2016 NIU World Music Concert, arrived to work with us. As I had been told, Pak Ngurah is a very talented man in many ways but primarily a dancer, so the drum parts he showed me, while not incorrect per se, were not exact. From what I’ve been able to put together in my own head since the concert, I’m pretty sure that this is because Pak Ngurah was teaching me the parts as he is used to hearing them rather than the parts as he is used to playing them. It seems like this wouldn’t make too much of a difference, but in reality it really does. When Pak Made came in and him and his son were showing me the drum parts, at first I felt like I was learning it all over from scratch (I should also note this is during the dress rehearsal the morning of the concert). However, as time went on, I realized where Pak Ngurah (are you keeping everyone straight?) was getting his rhythms from, and I was eventually able to make quite a few parallels to what I had already learned. Of course, this is all keeping in mind that Pak Made and his son speak very good English, both grew up and still live in Bali part of the year, and have been teaching Westerners for a very long time.

In the end, the short time I had to learn with Pak Made and his son was essentially like taking the strongest aspects of Dr. Han’s teaching with the strongest aspects of Pak Ngurah’s experience and combining them into one, which served as a great full-circle experience.

You can see the final result of all of this in the video from the World Music Concert here!