Saturday, February 21, 2015

Improvised homecoming

I made the most of my assumed final days in Bali, adventuring on back roads, some last downward-facing dogs in yoga class, getting together with the dear friends I had made, and having a really lovely and sentimental lesson with my rebab teacher. Our relationship had gotten much better since my last post, in which I complained about him taking way too many pictures of me—after I told him I didn’t want him to take pictures and was very cold and distant towards him in lessons, I think he got the message. The picture-taking was certainly not from a place of maliciousness or creepiness on his part (although the feeling was uncomfortable nonetheless).

In any case, we had reached a much better point, and on top of that I was finding that despite my initial antipathy for, or even resentment towards, the music I was learning, it was truly growing on me. In the first few weeks of studying rebab, I had found it difficult and tedious to loop the repetitive melodies for hours on end. I was also frustrated trying to wrap my mind around the tuning systems, which to my ear sounded chronically out of tune. Still, as I progressed in my lessons the intervals came more naturally and I started recognizing the signaling of melodic patterns, getting better at anticipating how a melody would develop based on its rhythms and internal phrases (here's a sampling of what we do in lessons, but for about three hours).

Still, when the beginning of February came, it seemed like it was time to leave Bali. While I was getting a real grasp on rebab and starting to hear Balinese music in new ways, my visa was set to expire at the end of the month and I was eager to get a change of perspective before then in Banyuwangi, at the eastern tip of the island of Java. While I had made some lovely friends in Bali, they were not Balinese, but rather travelers passing through or expats. Leaving for Banyuwangi thus felt like an exciting chance to get a different and potentially more 'connected' experience musically and culturally. 

[interlude for a lifetime's supply of rice field photos]

That's me on the bike, everyone!
Volcanoes in the distance

Balinese temple complex

Banyuwangi sits opposite Bali across a small strait—the ferry ride takes only an hour, but in the words of Evan Ziporyn, it’s amazing what a huge cultural difference a small body of water can make. Bali is predominantly Hindu, while like most of Indonesia, Banyuwangi is predominantly Muslim—both are obvious by the proliferation of temples and mosques, respectively. In Banyuwangi religion is particularly prominent in everyday life, from the veils worn by many of the women to calls to prayer blasting at full volume from what sounded like scratchy megaphones regularly throughout the day. The town is working on boosting its tourism inflows, but it feels hotter, dustier, and poorer than Bali.

[another brief photo interlude]
Bus ride with a view
These rapscallions were diving in the water by the ferries for money  
Even from afar Banyuwangi seems a mystical place
Bye-bye Bali

Java on the left, Bali on the right
The music in Banyuwangi, as expected, is totally fascinating—on my second evening there, I attended a kuntulan ensemble rehearsal consisting of many drummers, gamelan elements, triangles, synth keyboard (obviously not a traditional element), and female singer. The drumming patterns are incredibly complex, and the synth keyboard’s melody used the pentatonic pelog scale intervals I had been learning in Bali. Traditional music ensembles in Banyuwangi are unique for their use of violin, or biola. One such ensemble is the gandrung music ensemble—gandrung, one of the genres of traditional music in Banyuwangi, is derived from a tradition called seblang, in which (as I understand it) a female singer dances with many men while singing in a sort of trance for an entire night (about midnight to 6 am or so). 
Nighttime kuntulan rehearsal
I met a woman who makes Banyuwangi dance costumes for children's dolls out of trash

I took lessons on the biola, aka violin tuned nearly a fifth lower than normal, played at mid chest level, and pivoted using the left wrist (rather than changing the level of the bow). The music is notated using a numbered scale degree system (as in China); this is especially convenient because the notation doesn’t change regardless of what set of gamelan instruments the player is tuning to. I was amazed to hear my teacher play a piece using the scale degrees in a diatonic major scale, and then play the same piece using pelog tuning. I had also heard that Banyuwangi music draws on Balinese, Portuguese, and Malay influences. Indeed, it was fascinating to hear the cyclical repetitions based on a gong that permeated the songs, yet a strong emphasis on beats 1 and 3 within melodic phrases that doesn’t appear in Balinese music. Biola players also do a lot of improvisation, ‘fiddling’ in a much more active way than the rebab does in Balinese music. In general, the melodies sound more “melodic” and tuneful than they did in Bali; when I played them for some non-Banyuwangi musician friends in Indonesia, they commented they sounded like they were from China. Although the left hand pivoting technique was a bit tricky, the melodies were much easier to pick up and retain than those in Bali, and the improvisational patterns were pretty straightforward as well, oscillating in dips around a core note using the notes in the pentatonic scales.

My hosts in Banyuwangi, the niece from a local family of dancers and her husband, were overwhelmingly hospitable. They made hosting me their top priority, and shuttled me around to meet cultural bureaucrats and potential music teachers and to attend music ensemble rehearsals. The level of concern they showed as hosts was truly unprecedented, and actually took me by surprise; after registering me with the police, who told him “don’t let this beautiful girl go places by herself,” the husband of the family took that advice to heart and accompanied me everywhere short of the bathroom. His wife, concerned I couldn’t stomach outside food, insisted I could only eat food her mother prepared for me. Going outside for a walk or to get basic items was not a possibility, and every outing was arranged for me and chaperoned. Although I asked about finding different outlets for getting out of the house and making some friends on my own (for instance, leading a language exchange at a local college) it was a dead end; my days were a music lesson in the morning, and then, at the insistence of the family, “taking a rest” that lasted the rest of the day. I tried to make an effort to talk with the family and help with making meals, but they wouldn’t let me engage. I understood this was their way of regarding an esteemed guest and in their minds was for my benefit. I also acknowledged that in Banyuwangi, where English levels are significantly lower than they are in Bali, and the culture is in some ways more mysterious and closed (especially to female foreigners), I needed the foundation of a host family; however, I felt like remaining in that environment of mandatory dependency would make it impossible for me to develop my own relationships, make my own mistakes, and find the spontaneous opportunities that have been the highlights of my Watson year.

Sitting in my room in Banyuwangi for about ten hours a day, I got a little stir-crazy and pined for the independence I had in Bali. I spent two days crying about missing my hyper-positive rebab teacher, actually—while it was possibly a bit of Stockholm syndrome since it was physically hard, a lot of mental work, and a bit bizarre to deal with his quirks, I realized that I really loved learning from him and was really getting to enjoy the music (and life lessons—did you know that the grass and the carrot are our teachers?) he taught me. I chronically read the old texts he had sent me—here's an excerpt:
Audrey good morning. How are you? I am super good. Thank you for your letter to me. I am very glad share with you music and life. I would like to tell you more, but I have problem in my English. I hope you understand. Remember. Long life learning. Learning is never ending. Every thing is teacher. Lets learn from every thing. I really hope see you again. I hope you healthy and happy always. If you happy and smileing, the world be happy. Ha Ha Ha (hope always, health always, happy always). Have a nice day. Thank you/suksma.
My rebab teacher and me
While the music and culture in Banyuwangi seemed absolutely fascinating, I felt paralyzed by the hospitality of my incredibly kind and generous host family, who was, after all, just looking out for my best interests. After much pondering (as it was all there was to do in my daily, all-day “resting time”) I made the decision to return to Bali for my last few weeks before my visa ran out. I worried that I was just clinging onto what felt comfortable and quitting when things got hard—but in fact there just seemed to be no chance to forge my own relationships and connect with the culture given my short time, lack of Indonesian language skills, and general outsider/VIP guest status. I decided it was best to come back to Bali for the last few weeks, reunite with my rebab teacher, go to as many Hindu ceremonies (to hear Balinese gamelan) as possible, continue learning Indian devotional mantras from my friend, explore and ideally meet some interesting people before moving on.

After I told my host family I was returning to Bali as tactfully as I could and survived the non-air conditioned, hurtling, smoke-filled bus back to Bali, meeting interesting people happened much sooner than I expected. (My rebab teacher also called me: "Welcome home! I missed seeing you for lunch or dinner. Come back, we will share your experience, my experience.") My friend and fellow Wellesley alum Carly invited me to join her to watch an open mic night the day after I returned. By chance I met, and ended up jamming with, a group of really awesome young Indonesian musicians—some of whom I had heard about but not had a chance to meet before. Without thinking, I found myself improvising using the scale systems I had been learning for six months—and surprisingly, not stressed out but actually enjoying the music (even though I had no idea what was coming). One of the musicians, a percussionist and aspiring ethnomusicologist from Java, marveled that I, a Western musician, was improvising using the scales from gamelan tunings with ease. “Let’s play together again soon!” he said. “How about tomorrow?”

So the next day, we went to Agustian’s studio. I already was acquainted with Agustian, amazing artist/sculptor/sewer/dancer/musician, because he plays with the Indian musician whose meditation classes I had been performing in. Agustian had been inviting me to his studio for weeks, but I had not visited before I left for Banyuwangi. I finally understood what the big deal waswhen I entered the space—it’s a beautiful, airy place that serves as gallery, collaborative workshop, and hangout spot for him and his friends. The first week I was back I spent hours every day there meeting new musicians and jamming out with them. A totally foreign concept for this classically trained violinist—following your instinct/curiosity in the moment? And yet, with this group (and in Bali generally), it feels like instead of competition there is encouragement among the artistic community. It’s an extremely supportive and collaborative environment, aided by the fact that members of the community here are only ever a few degrees of separation apart.

Anyways, on one such afternoon of stringing together improvisations based on pentatonic scales accompanied by eager banging of djembes and tooting of Sumatran flutes, I met Rizal, a Javanese singer/songwriter who just came to Bali after months of touring in Australia. He writes really beautiful music, and is a particularly memorable performer because he plays instruments he made himself, most notably a bamboo didgeridoo/guitar combination. That day, I was toting my erhu, and so he, Agustian (on handmade flute), and I had a blast playing together. Even though I am a bit out of practice on my Chinese fiddling, Rizal still seemed impressed: “We should make more music together!”

We got together a few days later to continue our music-making—hours later, we were still talking away about music and sharing some of our favorite artists. Between hearing about his social activist days cutting class to lead protests around Indonesia and his approach to making music now that he is first and foremost a traveling musician, it has been absolutely inspiring to be around Rizal. He is someone with the ability to both envision and execute—he dreams big and assumes there are ways to achieve those dreams, from inventing his own instruments to arriving penniless in Australia with only his instruments and the belief that he could survive on his music-making abilities.

Rizal was telling me about his booked schedule of upcoming concerts in Bali when he asked, “Why don’t you make a visa run to Singapore and come play them with me? And then we can record an album together!” The effortlessness with which he tossed out the question belied the outlandishness of its requisite spontaneity—that morning I had had a promising discussion with a master musician in Istanbul about working with him, and was set to purchase tickets to Turkey departing when my visa expired in ten days. Rizal’s invitation was alarmingly casual in its extension, but it became increasingly clear that this wasn’t a flippant offer—he was entirely serious, extending his invitation thusly because it seemed like a real, exciting prospect.

The idea rolled around in my mind for the nights to come. I had loved playing music in this new and unplanned way, while calling on everything I had picked up from the hundreds of musicians I have heard and met in the last sixth months. At the same time, it is scary to feel out of my element—the music I have grown up playing is written down, practiced for hours and years, and delivered to the audience in a deliberate and premeditated way. And playing live shows and recording an album? Featuring ‘pop’ music (by my musical standards)? Terrifying. I also felt the pressure to not succumb to traveler’s inertia—I theoretically have four more countries to go to in the next five months, and that’s barely enough time to scratch the surface of any music culture.

Still, even though Rizal’s suggestion had seemed an impossibility at its utterance, it continued to incubate in my mind. Wasn’t this—learning from and collaborating with musicians who are drawing upon their own musical cultures as well as ‘outside’ influences, plus getting out of my comfort zone while utilizing my experiences and channeling my passion–exactly the goal of my Watson project? And logistically speaking, my plans are still entirely flexible, Istanbul is not going anywhere, and popping over to Singapore and back for a new visa is extremely feasible.

So as of now, I have a roundtrip ticket to Singapore, a tour of Bali's live music venues lined up, and some extremely exciting musical prospects on the horizon which I will write about soon. In the meantime, my first concert with Rizal and the newly incarnated "Ubud String Collective" is tomorrow night—video and a full report to come!

[And now, some final photos from my recent Bali nights—]

I was driving on the Ubud main road at midnight when I heard gamelan--
lo and behold there was a huge dance performance (not geared towards tourists) going on!

Ceremony at Balinese temple
Middle schoolers gamelan and dance performance

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