November 7th, 2009 | Interviews

steven gunther

I Nyoman Wenten can be anybody! Born in a small Balinese village, Wenten studied traditional Indonesian music, dance and acting with his master-puppeteer grandfather. He now holds an MFA from Cal Arts, a doctorate from UCLA and is chair of the World Music Program at Cal Arts. where he and his wife Nanik promote the gamelan every day to students who enter curious and exit entranced. He and his ensemble Gamelan Burat Wangi will perform the Indian epic Ramayana tonight and tomorrow at REDCAT. This interview by Drew Denny.

What’s the function of gamelan in Balinese society? What kinds of events and ceremonies require a gamelan?
I Nyoman Wenten (director): I like that question! Of course, so many ceremony in Bali! You know like baby born, three-months-old baby is very big ceremony—sometime parents hire gamelan player to celebrate the ceremony of three-months-old baby. Then of course tooth file ceremony! All the rites associated to humans as social beings—called Manusa Yadnya. Related to faith, Hindu religion. Temple ceremony, cremation… so gamelan play, dance and perform! And many different type of gamelan, not only the one you see it here. We have thirty different ensemble. Each ensemble has its own instrumentation, repertoire, function and so forth. Quite a variety of gamelan in Bali especially.
How old is gamelan?
I Nyoman Wenten: Of course they have a type of gamelan—you categorize it as ancient, middle age, or modern gamelan. Ancient—what we call gambuh or gambang marching gamelan. Gambuh is a big flute—huge three big flute, small drum for accompany dance. Said it was in existence in 14th century, maybe even before. Also suling, made out of iron is considered very ancient gamelan. Then we have modern Balinese gamelan called gong kebyar—we have it here. Gong kebyar, yeah!
How do you describe the sound of gamelan to someone who’s never heard it? I don’t know what words to use to talk about those rhythms!
I Nyoman Wenten: I will tell them gamelan is very nice melody, a variety of rhythm, tempo-wise some time very slow sometime quick fast, a lot of dynamic changes, have to have very good technique to play, and fun!
What’s the relationship between gamelan music and dance?
I Nyoman Wenten: Fantastic question! You haven’t studied dance here yet? You have to next time! Music and dance has very close interwoven relationship because without music just movement is not complete. Dance has to be within a space and accompanied by music. Each style of dance has its own musical accompaniment. Of all thirty types of gamelan, some accompany dance, some just instrumental pieces but a quite a few ensembles be able to accompany many different types of dance.
What are your favorite dances?
I Nyoman Wenten: Of course I start to learn Baris—they call warrior dance—then mask dance then the new modern Balinese dance. Mask dance is my favorite dance! I can perform by myself all different characters by change the mask—they call Topeng Pajegang.
What do the masks look like?
I Nyoman Wenten: Masks very close to human. Of course many different color. Strong male characters have a red mask, white big eyes, maybe open mouth. Refined character has small eyes, smile, close mouth. Many different type of villager, buffoonery… I can make a mask about you! I take a picture and tell the mask makers, ‘Would you make a mask like this lady here?’ And then I practice your walk, your laugh, and then I perform the next day—Drew, you come to my performance and say, ‘Hey Wenten! Sound like me! Laugh like me!’
So you can be anyone?
I Nyoman Wenten: Anyone!
That’s a good feeling, eh? What character will you be in Ramayana?
I Nyoman Wenten: I will be the evil king Ravana! Oh, he’s very strong character, very proud and nobody stronger than him or more powerful than him—he can fly actually!
You’re gonna fly?
I Nyoman Wenten: Yes! The feeling to fly. I kidnap the princess—I admire I really love the Sita. Ramayana is the old very ancient Indian epic supposed to be from 4,000 BC.
That’s an old story—Who’s the princess?
I Nyoman Wenten: The princess is my daughter! So I kidnap her! But of course it’s a play. We change personalities. We become the characters.
How did you meet your wife?
I Nyoman Wenten: When I graduated in Bali from music conservatory, I love to study in Java. One reason I be able to watch the Javanese music—before I decide to go to Java, I was a member of presidential group of artists chosen to go culture exchange to many different country. So Javanese group from Sumatra join with Bali group, about 85 of us. So many of us from many different parts of Indonesia touring to China to Japan to perform for Mao Tse-Tung and Kim Jong-Il… I was a member starting 1964-67 and when the president pass, they say no more. So I was lucky. I was still very young. 17 years old. Opened my mind. Beautiful dance, that Javanese dance. I thought, ‘I have to go to Java!’ So I go to Java, and that why I met my wife. She’s from Yokyakarta, central Java.
She’s an amazing dancer!
I Nyoman Wenten: She’s a court dancer. She studied in the palace! Her father is from royal family.
You’re royal?
I Nyoman Wenten: I’m trying to climb but I am falling down… aaaaahhh! OK! It’s OK I’m down here.
What were the mid-’60s like in Indonesia? That was such a tumultuous time here…
I Nyoman Wenten: Believe it or not, maybe global! Indonesia as well. I didn’t feel it until the so-called communist coup but who knows who’s behind it? Real communist coup or just a plot to destroy one another. It was a bad situation in 1965. They call it September 30th accident—no, massacre. One million people all over Indonesia killed.
What’s the political climate in Indonesia now?
I Nyoman Wenten: Now, oh the last ten years the government a little bit more open—so called democracy is considered very strong in Indonesia. People can vote openly for president or criticize the president. Through the parliament, you can voice your idea. So it’s a little bit more open, just in the last fifteen years or so.
Did you see or experience any oppression as an artist during the years following the coup?
I Nyoman Wenten: In certain part of Indonesia, yes. In Bali because the art of music and dance is always close knit into our culture and the religion—they believe in Hindu religion—we don’t feel that much pressure but of course, the rest of Indonesia is always dealing with some government restriction. Now we have what they call ‘pornography rules’—people not allowed by the law, but who know when they really do this? But you cannot wear sleeveless shirt. Or short skirt and so forth, and for dance you should cover more… so they try to make it difficult for artists to express their inner selves, to create. Woman and man. Who knows if this will work?
Where do you go when you take the Cal Arts ensemble to Bali?
I Nyoman Wenten: We got a grant from the NEA to perform Ramayana so luckily enough we have those people who are very serious about studying Balinese music who wanna go to Bali. We went twenty total—about fifteen Cal Arts students. I put them in the village called Ubud, not too far from my house so we bus them every day to my house to practice. We have a gamelan in my house. Almost every day from 11 to 5 o’clock we practice but we break for lunch. Next year you come!
I’m there! What comes next after Ramayana?
I Nyoman Wenten: Spring concert here at Cal Arts. Maybe we do different program but part of the Ramayana so Cal Arts community can see us perform. Always Nanik and I think about new programs, not only same dance. Different Balinese dance or maybe we create a new dance, based on traditional dance from Bali of course. I perform Javanese dance also so always we create new dance drama for Java. I want you to dance—why not study some!
It was your idea to combine tap and gamelan, yes?
I Nyoman Wenten: Tap! The tap dancer with the gamelan—the name of the group is Rhapsody in Tap, very famous group in LA so they get a grant for me and gamelan for two years for touring. We went to Bali, New York, Canada, many different L.A. venues like Japan American National Museum.
How does the Balinese community react when you bring your ensemble from LA?
I Nyoman Wenten: They always very supportive. To see Americans play or westerners play gamelan, they say ‘Wow! They on TV! We have to study hard because they play well. We don’t wanna study gamelan in America!’ They worry—quite a few people say ‘Pak’—they call me ‘Pak’ like a ‘guru,’ they say, ‘Pak Wenten, in the next ten years the children here don’t wanna play gamelan so… I’m afraid to come to America to study gamelan!’ I say, ‘It’s OK, don’t worry! As long as we have the same faith—the Hindu faith—we have an art and we have music and dance so don’t worry.’
You have a doctorate in ethnomusicology—what other forms did you study?
I Nyoman Wenten: When I was a student here—I got my masters here in ’75—I studied modern ballet, composition, and world music like African music and dance and Indian music. Then they hired me to open the Indonesian program here. I still dance modern, off and on I perform modern dance up until now. Yes, still! I’m older person now! Still dance! Then I get opportunity to study at UCLA. I get my degree 1996. Ethnomusicology degree. So there also I study Persian music, Brazilian yeah. I enjoy that so much because there’s so much to learn! Then I have opportunity to learn something beyond gamelan so I took this opportunity. I came to Cal Arts back in the ‘70s. I was invited to teach a summer workshop here—1972 just after Sylmar earthquake—big earthquake. 7.2. I came for eight weeks and taught the all-star gamelan with performers from many different universities. Then I went back, brought the students to Indonesia for three months—we have a big huge grant to bring the people to have a tour to Bali!
When you first came here, did many Americans know about gamelan?
I Nyoman Wenten: Not that much. There were existing gamelan programs at UCLA—started ’61, department called Institute of Ethnomusicology. They offer gamelan—both Balinese and Javanese. There was Wesleyan, Michigan, then us here in ‘72.
You’ve been here since the beginning!
I Nyoman Wenten: Since the beginning—I went back to Bali. Then they offered me a job. They said ‘Wenten, you wanna come back to Cal Arts? Maybe also you can study, get a degree?’ and I very excited about that. I came back to get my MFA, my second degree. I finished spring of ‘75.
When did you start playing gamelan?
I Nyoman Wenten: I start dance first when I was maybe six years old—so cute! The Baris Warrior Dance—you play it in class! Because I have a gamelan in my house—my grandfather and father own gamelan—so naturally, I try gamelan when I was young. I was probably seven years old. At first I play just round the house. My grandfather and my father taught me. Of course, I go to grade school and then I go to conservatory. I study at school from many different teacher who came from many parts of Bali to teach. I was lucky to meet many different great teachers! This was 1962-65.
Where are you from on Bali?
I Nyoman Wenten: I am from small village called Sading. Very close to capital of Bali, about five miles north of Denpasar. Probably about 2,000 people.
Do those other forms of music influence the way you work?
I Nyoman Wenten: Oh definitely! To see so many different art form here—only in America you be able to see the best Korean court dance and Argentine tango… Who ever imagine you see Ravi Shankar, sitar performer, the best Indian musician, the best African group—global! You never be able to see this back home in Indonesia because here they can afford it to bring them. Of course, visually I see and I listening. So many different music influence my feeling inside me, it come out! Maybe I’m a little bit unique than my friend in Bali when I dance. Like our visiting artists who come here from Bali, they say, ‘Wow, it’s so different!’ I also dance with the best dancer in Java and show them a video. They say ‘Pak Wenten, I never imagine you can dance like that!’ So I can contribute something for Bali because I experience thirty years—not away from Bali but you know… I observe so many different cultures, then I go back to Bali every summer for three or four months. I do collaborations there. People see me and say ‘Where you get this?’
So gamelan evolves?
I Nyoman Wenten: Like a snowball! You cannot just stay still. Roll the snowball! Get bigger!