Sunday, January 18, 2015

The divine in me bows to the divine in you

It's rainy season in Ubud, so on this particularly barometrically high pressure afternoon I've hunkered down to write my second quarterly report for the Watson Foundation (got to let them know I'm still floating around the world somewhere) which is an adapted version of this blog post.

A few weeks ago, at the height of my sudden illness and homesickness, I received two particularly well-timed messages from my contacts in Bali, including Dewa Alit, a Balinese composer who I crossed paths with last year in Boston, where he guest directs MIT's gamelan ensemble. When I visited his home in Bali, I didn't expect he would take me to meet a rebab teacher and look at home stay options in Ubud. It was tremendous helpful to get his introductions, and have been taking near-daily lessons with the teacher, Sanglah, a rebab master and maker in his late forties who can only be described as a “militant optimist.” He is extremely spiritual and also a little bit of a nut. Some characteristic quotations from our lessons: 
"We are so lucky to have our eyes! And our ears! And our limbs! And this time together! And this music! And this juice! It is a gift from God!" 
"Everything is a teacher! The ant is our teacher! And the carrot! The carrot is our teacher too! Don't you think so!" 
"Teacher likes juice, and student likes juice! We are so blessed!" 

Sanglah's studio 
Rebabs on the wall (next to a poster of saltwater fishing reels) 

He also liberally gives high-fives—about twenty a lesson. He has apparently taught many students locally and internationally, but tells me that of all of them, I am his best student (likely because I came in with violin, erhu, and ghijak experience, and so basically have already mastered rebab technique). One habit of his that has been uncomfortable has been his tendency to take a lot of photos of me and of us together. There's something to be said for documenting the experience, but after I discovered that he was saving zoomed-in shots of my face on his phone, I got really creeped out and thought about stopping my lessons. After consulting some acquaintances here and having a discussion about "creepy versus cultural," we decided that this falls in the category of "culturally creepy" and that I would just have to set some stronger boundaries. I've been a bit less chummy and borderline cold in lessons, and while it pains me to not be as cheerful, it seems he has received the message. Definitely an uncomfortable position to be in, but I don't feel unsafe and am definitely getting a lot from my lessons.
I was invited to attend a ceremony at Sanglah's home
Small temples and offerings for the Hindu gods

By the way, rebab in Bali is a two-stringed instrument made from wood or a coconut shell with a cowhide stretched over the body. (Internet is pretty slow here, so I haven't been able to upload any videos or audio yet, but this YouTube video actually has a picture of my teacher at his house, so I think it's either him playing or his student.) It's tuned to the instruments it is playing with, which use a pentatonic or heptatonic scale; at least in the case of Sanglah, we tune the two strings in a two a sort of B/C# tritone/fifth-ish interval. As for the (three-hour) lessons themselves—he plays a melody, which I repeat and then we loop about a million times until I get it. (And then we have fresh fruit juice.) Nothing is written down, so I have to just figure it out and memorize it as quickly as possible. The first tunes were easy enough, but the melodies have gotten longer and at first the five- or seven-note scale actually seemed to make it harder to discern the melody, if that makes sense. (To use a metaphor that has not succeeded in practice, it seemed like trying to memorize a binary sequence instead of pi.) I was really frustrated at first because while there is definitely beauty in the scratchy, unstable sound of the rebab, without the accompanying gamelan ensemble the collective trance-like effect is somewhat lost as well. The instrument is not technically a challenge, and trying to memorize these monotonous, repetitive melodies can feel thankless at times. It's definitely a great experience in its own way, however, and I find myself appreciating the struggle more every day.

On my first night after moving to Ubud, in my search for somewhere to eat I stumbled upon an breezy hostel/restaurant/collective, and by chance met the owner. He’s a Malaysian former golf course architect who made a fortune, lost the fortune in the Asian financial crisis, and then discovered himself and a new spirituality in Bali. After hearing I am a musician, he invited me to come the following night to his open mic night. I wasn’t sure what I would play—would people want to hear anything I could play?—but I was in the market for social interaction and stopped by that evening. I was called up to play after a dreadlocked woman scream-sang a song about loving the earth. After briefly introducing myself I played a Tibetan folk song on erhu and some unaccompanied Bach on violin. When I finished the audience burst into roaring applause. “How long are you here? You have to come back next week!” I was repeatedly told. I was surprised to get that sort of reaction (I just didn’t think what I played was typical open mic fare) but everyone seemed to love it and that evening I made some really nice friends. Frankly, everyone here is so positive and spiritual or pseudo-spiritual that I think they would cheer for any performance, but nonetheless my playing was incredibly well-received—perhaps because classical violin and erhu are just so unusual in these parts. I played again this week and was called up for an encore, as well as asked to play for someone’s indie band recording project, so it has been really affirming to participate in that music circle.

I have had some nice outings with the people I have met at the open mic nights and at the guest house where I live; I went with a new friend to a Balinese healer who somewhat disappointingly told me that I am completely healthy and that I have the best blood circulation of any tourist he has worked on. My neighbor in the guest house, a yogi traveling India, Nepal, Burma, and Indonesia for the last eight months who has dated and had tough break-ups with multiple magicians, told me she was going to guide us to an amazing restaurant with a wonderful view of rice fields; she was sitting on the back of my motorbike giving me directions when she suddenly said to turn right—right being a 45-degree uphill treacherous rocky path. I revved my engine and closed my eyes (just kidding), made it up the path as she cheered.
"The worst is over!" she promised. But it wasn't--the path led to an expanse of rice fields connected by a tiny and windy dirt road barely big enough for a motorbike. One wrong move would land the driver and her passenger in a paddy, or worse, down a ravine. Feeling a week's worth of adrenaline course through my veins, I did my best to avoid the dogs, chickens, incoming motorbikes, and of course steep drops ahead, and somehow got us to the restaurant. And sure enough, it was spectacular—an open-air stilt house overlooking the fields where all of the food served was being grown.

Ducks in the paddy
Ceremony at a Balinese temple

Temple offerings

The place where I am staying is also very close to a veritable institution of yoga and meditation, so I have been going to daily yoga classes as a way to combat the back issues that arise when one combines mild scoliosis with playing instruments for long periods of time. Two weeks ago, I met an Indian musician there, who upon discovering I am a violinist, instructed me to immediately fetch my instruments and perform with him in a “melodic journey” meditation class happening half an hour later. The idea was incredibly outside my musical comfort zone, but how could I not? Returning with violin and erhu in hand, I walked into an open-air studio to meet forty people prostrate with their eyes closed, and a consort of musicians outfitted with gongs, harmoniums, tablas, guitars, flutes, and an artillery of hand-held percussion instruments. One of the musicians, donning feathers in her hair and a fishing net around her waist, was walking around waving incense around the room. “Welcome, sister,” she whispered. I did my best to suspend—judgment? inhibition?—and engage musically with the other players. There was no talking whatsoever, but rather we all freely improvised on Hindu mantras the main Indian musician put forward, and then played musical solo interludes. They gestured for me to play something, so desperately urging myself not to blow it and obliterate someone’s meditative experience I played a Chinese folk song on erhu. Halfway through I couldn’t remember how it went, so I just made it up using parts of the song and others I had learned—a surprisingly intuitive exercise. Although I had been so nervous going into the class because I had no idea what it would be like, I had a ton of fun (it also helped that the audience was basically in their underwear, and passed out on the floor, too). The main musician has invited me to play with him twice weekly (also in his Kirtan—Indian devotional singing—session) and been also working with me on the side, teaching me to play the mantras he’s been learning for years. So, I didn't expect to be learning Hindustani music from India here, but it has been a nice addition to my informal musical education in Indonesia.

It has been good to have these activities and projects on the side, as my actual study of Balinese music has been more observational and less participatory than I would like. I have come to discover that while attending rehearsals is relatively simple, it is quite difficult to show up and join a gamelan ensemble, as they are used primarily for religious ceremonies or to cater to tourists, and are pretty gender segregated. So, as a female non-Hindu foreigner, in this short period of time learning gamelan alongside the players in their rehearsals has not been feasible. It is possible to take private lessons on individual instruments, but to me that seems to defeat the purpose of experiencing the collective, interdependent energy of the gamelan ensemble. The rebab lessons have given me the most insight on Balinese music as a participant, but even then rebab is an import from Javanese music (or Indian music, as the Indian musician corrected me) and thus not an integral part of the gamelan ensemble as it is elsewhere in Indonesia. Chances to for me to play rebab with, or even observe someone else playing rebab with, the gamelan are really limited, so in my one-on-one lessons I am piecing together musical generalizations—kind of like trying to figure out how the cake tastes from the icing.

Thus, although by many measures my quality of life in Bali is terrific—amazing food, daily yoga, various musical opportunities—I feel compelled to move to Java within the next two weeks. As much as I enjoy Balinese music, I have to say that in my limited exposure I like Javanese music more, and as a string player, the chance to learn how the rebab (or violin, in some cases) is a more intrinsic part of musical ensembles in Java is extremely appealing. Unless I do some semi-costly visa finagling I have sixty days in total to spend in Indonesia, and half of that is nearly over. That said, I still have yet to determine where precisely to spend the remainder of this time because the music culture is so different even from city to city. Yogyakarta and Surabaya are obvious choices because like Ubud, they are considered centers of musical culture in Indonesia; however, another composer suggested months ago that I spend time in Banyuwangi, which he deemed the “Appalachia of Indonesia” and uses violin as key part of the gandrung ensemble. He told me that he knows of no Western musician who has paid attention to that kind of music, which immediately makes me all the more compelled to go. Banyuwangi is also apparently a “rough town” as a hotbed of conservative Islam, black magic, and cross-dressing. To me, this makes it all the more fascinating, but also necessitates having good contacts if I were to go. In short, there’s so much potential for this next month in Indonesia, and certainly not enough time to wrap my mind around this abundance of cultural stimulus. (But I’m still going to try…)

One last thing I will mention as I write about the future—the end feels both near and not!  Now that 2015 is truly here, it has been difficult to not be too forward-thinking, whether about the rest of this Watson year, or even what comes after. From time to time (aka daily) I inevitably find myself projecting next steps in my project (getting neurotic about piecing together flights), worrying about housing for my grad school program after the Watson year, and thinking about preparing to apply for music conservatory after that (an idea that has come to feel more important as this year has progressed). Of course it is necessary to think about practicalities (like timing my Indonesia trip so that I don’t overstay my visa), but I wish that I could set aside the constant anxiety about planning and preparing that ticks in the back of my mind (or at times, very definitely at the front). So many episodes in these last months affirm that the universe easily waylays the best-laid plans—yet I can react and recover, and find that the new path laid for me is far better than whatever I was plotting.

That’s all for now—it’s almost time to find another locally-sourced fruit juice, and then go play some Hindu mantras at Kirtan tonight! Hati-hati, y'all—
Amazing to leave a restaurant in Ubud and run into Carly and Adona, fellow Wellesley alums! Carly lives outside of Ubud and Adona was passing through for the evening on her way back to Australia—crazy coincidence!