I decided I needed a break from my studies around the halfway point of the year. I needed a little taste of home and Western culture since I spent the winter holidays on a predominately Hindu island. My parents decided they needed a vacation too and decided to meet me in Melbourne, Australia for a week, then another week in Auckland, New Zealand. I loved Bali, but nothing beats a hot shower and a western toilet. I even had A MICROWAVE, GUYS. The cost of living was a huge shock (16 Aussie dollars for some avo toast, really?), but it was so great to have my mom’s cooking for a little bit.
In Melbourne, the Terrell clan stayed in St. Kilda, which is the more hipster area of Melbourne near the beach. We ended up taking a private tour of one of the national parks to spot kangaroos and koalas. I spotted a koala that hasn’t been tragedia yet in the reserve, so I got to name it 🙂 Quick fun facts about kangaroos and koalas: You can identify koalas by their noses. It’s like their fingerprints. No one has the same no design of black and pink. Kangaroos can pause their pregnancy for up to two years. WHAT.
Then onto New Zealand. We stayed on an alpaca farm a little north of the city and woke up to alpacas, pigs, and even and PUG every morning. Then we travelled down to where the Lord of the Rings were filmed to Hobbiton. I have never seen so many different shades of green in my life because the area is so lush with vegetation. We were also lucky enough to meet up with the principal timpanist of the Auckland Philharmonic Orchestra, who is also one of my closest friends, Steve Logan! We all saw him play and kill it in the Rosencavalier and see him in action as a real deal musical adult. Steve introduced me to his best friend in New Zealand, Bleau, and the funny thing was that I think we became better friends than her and Steve? Cough, suck it Steve, cough.
Bleau was nice enough to show me all around Auckland in the Bleau-ber (Bleau’s car). One day she took me to see where she works. Bleau is part of an organization that works specifically with orchestral music outreach in the lower income areas of Auckland, called El Sistema. The orchestral Sistema organization was actually founded in Venezuela, and I even worked for one in El Salvador one summer, but ti was great to see that it has travelled all the way over to New Zealand. She was nice enough to let watch rehearsal one day. These middle school and high school kids were hilarious and so excited to be in the orchestra. The orchestra is a sort of community where they have to learn teamwork, work ethic, and self motivation, but also have something fun to do after school. Bleau had them all sit down and let them ask any questions to me because for many, I was the first American they have ever met. I love this game. I love seeing what kids think of the United States. Someone asked if our ice cream better. Another asked if voted for Trump. I said no, and they all started to cheer. It was great getting to know the kids. If you are more interested in the El Sistema organization, you can check out the U.S. website HERE If you are an American musician and want to be involved in an El Sistema program, there are many chapters all throughout the U.S.
These two weeks were all about sightseeing and having fun, so go ahead and take a look at my pictures from Australia and New Zealand in the “Pictures” tab and take a look at all my adventures!
Thanks again, Steve and Bleau for hosting the Terrell clan 🙂
One day, Balot invited me to the gamelan factory that made his own personal set of gamelan. I had to meet him in a small village in Gianyar, where all of the gongsmiths lived. As I told you in a later post, each village in Bali has their own craft. I lived in the village of wood carvers. Everyday, I would watch them carve sculptures of Hindu gods by hand on their main pavilion day in and day out. One village over is where gongsmiths live. Unlike the wood carvers where each household had their own “factory”, the gold smiths all worked at a few main gamelan factories.
Balot took me into the main pavilion of the property where all the frames for the instruments sat in various stages of completion. Balot then took me to the very first step of making the gongs: measuring the ratio of metal. Most gamelan are made with bronze, which is a mixture of tin and copper. Other lesser quality gamelan are made of iron. Even though iron is a sturdier and stronger metal that may last longer without chipping or breaking, bronze gives more of a shimmery and pointed sound that can be heard over iron bars.
After measuring the metal, it is then melted in a giant open-air furnace. This is an incredibly hot and dangerous job. It’s essentially a pit of fire. These men are melting and forging this metal in flip flops and bare hands. All while calmly smoking a cigarette on the side of their mouth. I thought it was so insane they have been doing this for so long, they are practically on autopilot while sticking their hands in a pit of fire. They mold it, then fire it, mold it, then fire it again. Mold, fire, repeat, until the metal is in the desired bar shape. This step can take days, which is quite difficult because they have to make the bars all at relatively the same time because the bars need to be as consistent as possible throughout all the instruments. Because of this, its essentially impossible to mix and match different gamelan sets because they are all tuned to their specific set. Each instrument is unique and one of a kind.
After the bars and gongs have been forged, they are then tuned by scrapping off parts of the gong or adding extra bronze to the underside of the bars. There is no standard tuning for Balinese gamelan. Within a particular gamelan set, there is also a purposeful detuning of notes produced by pairs of instruments. This results in a characteristic ‘vibration’ in the sound waves, a natural phenomenon related to electronic ‘phase shifting.’ To our Westernized ears, this would sound out of tune, but that shimmer is something almost religious to the Balinese. It’s the marriage of two different sounds that are opposite, but work perfectly together in harmony. The gongsmiths tune it to the way the buyer wants its to sound. Some want it more flat (low), others want it more sharp (high). Others want it way more dissonant, or out of tune, than usual. There is no wrong answer.
After the tuning process, the frames of the instruments are then built. You can have frames made as modern or as traditional as you want. The most common is a red base coat with gold accents of Hindu gods depicting ancient Balinese stories. After the frames are made and painted, the resonators are placed inside. Resonators are the tubes that make the bars “sing”. Imagine a Texas football game and you are sitting at the very top of the bleachers. You wouldn’t be able to hear what the cheerleaders are saying if they were just yelling. They use a megaphone to project their voice all the way to the back. That is what a resonator is for the metal bars. That’s how you can hear gamelan from even as far as a kilometer away! Resonators are traditionally made with bamboo, but because of the humidity and heat, bamboo has the tendency to expand and break quite quickly. The more modern gamelan are now made with PVC pipes because they are less fragile and won’t expand in humidity.
The last step is to string the bars and gongs onto their frames and BAM. You have yourself a brand spanking new gamelan set. As you can see, these are incredibly ornate instruments that take 6 to 12 months to make a single set. It was an absolutely amazing experience to see gamelan in the making! If you want to see actual video of this incredible process, there are videos at the end of this blog!
Bali was such an enriching experience. I have never been somewhere that has so much culture. To anyone interested in visiting Bali, please look farther than the 4 star resorts and beach parties. Actually go out and listen to gamelan. Go see a traditional Balinese dance recital. Visit a temple. The culture here is just so prevalent and colorful. You cannot miss it. Thank you to everyone I met in Bali, this was such an unforgettable two months!
Next Stop: Holiday with Mom and Dad in Australia and New Zealand!
-One time with Balot and some of his friends, it was dinner time and one of the guys went out to get dinner for all of us. The traditional way to have “take-away” meals in Bali is to wrap the fried rice in a banana leaf that is folded up around your chicken satay sticks. So when you open it, it looks something like this:
-Women aren’t allowed to enter Hindu temples when they are menstrating.
-I didn’t just go to traditional gamelan concerts. Bali is all about the punk rock scene and I was lucky enough to see a couple of shows from the more famous punk rock bands. When you think of punk, you think of anger, go against society, stick it to the man or the government. In Bali, they use punk music to talk about social and environmental issues that are occurring in present day. Many of the musicians are political and environmental activists who use their music and local fame to create awareness of what is happening in Bali that should be changed and what to do to change it. You can see a really interesting article about the environmentally-charged punk rock scene HERE
One day, Balot invited me to go to a children’s gamelan rehearsal lead by his mentor, I Made Subandi. The rehearsal took place at Made’s house, where he had his own personal collection of gamelan instruments. I arrived around the same time as the children did for their rehearsal and watched while everyone shuffled in. Just like the typical American soccer mom, the Balinese parents would drop off their children, but instead of a minivan it would be a motorbike. Instead of a soccer jersey, they would be dressed up in their traditional Balinese wear, which is much more complicated than some exercise clothes. Every little boy is required to wear this outfit (pictured below) even when just practicing gamelan. It’s a sacred act, so you must be dressed correctly to show respect.
It was time for rehearsal to begin. I sat in the front with Balot and observed how Made managed and taught the group of children. Balot would go to some of the students and play with them if they forgot a passage (remember, all gamelan in learned by ear), and Made would help keep beat or tell the group when they were moving onto the next session with number signs. When Made wasn’t instructing the kids (a couple of mere seconds here and there), he would ask me about my studies and what I want to get out of gamelan while simultaneously stuffing more and more Balinese snacks into my hands. “Try this! Now try this!” Made would say. He would eagerly wait to see my reaction after every snack. I tried a brand new fruit here called “salak”, or snake fruit, because the exterior looks like scales.
Looks pretty cool, eh? Anyway, back to music.
All of the children ensembles I saw today were only boys. Traditionally, Balinese children start studying traditional Balinese art as early as age two. The boys play gamelan, and the girls dance to the gamelan. Girls are of course welcome to join the ensembles, but it is a rare sight to see a girl among the boys. I met one of the few female gamelan players who actually help teach the children’s gamelan class that I saw. Her name is Ayu, and she is 16. After rehearsal, Ayu, Balot, and I went upstairs to talk away from the noise of all the children. Balot told me that female gamelan players are still seen as taboo to the older generation. They are seen at the came caliber of the children ensembles and are not taken as seriously as the male adult ensembles. I wanted to interview both Ayu and Balot, but Ayu did not speak english, so Balot translated for me. Here is a picture below of Ayu:
Ayu comes from a long line of musicians. Even though music has always been a huge focus in her house and her family, her father initially didn’t want her to do music. Ayu’s older brother also plays gamelan, and has been very supportive of Ayu’s similar passion. Her brother then told her father that he wouln’t continue to play gamelan if Ayu didn’t get to play in high school. After that little shock, the family then became completely supportive of Ayu joining Madu’s studio and the music high school in Bali.
Because of the negative stigma of being a female gamelan player, its difficult to get girls to be interested in playing. Unfortunately, Ayu didnt get as many opportunities to play as the average male gamelan player, but now being labeled as one of Made’s students, more and more people are wanting to see her play. She is seen as something rare among so many male players.
Just like Ayu, Balot’s parents didn’t agree with him being a musician, but more on the reason that it is not a suitable career to make money. Eventually his family finally came around to the idea because they trusted Made to mold and teach Balot. In Bali, if Made invites you to study with him, it is a huge deal and you should take the that opportunity. If Made saw something special in Balot, then his family has to trust that judgement and let Balot pursue music.
Made has an incredibly open mind when it comes to the battle of the sexes in music. He doesn’t see someone’s gender as a way to quantify their talent. He believes in the mind. The potential. There is more than just gamelan in the world. There is more to see. He is more interested in what is out there, while still respecting the Balinese tradition. Both Balot and Ayu have seen a significant difference in their playing and creativity after being taken on as a student of Made. They are taken more seriously and people look at them differently, with more respect for their craft. Because of Made, Balot has been inspired to become a composer and enroll in ISI, the arts institute in Bali. He has made Balot and Ayu really believe in themselves. Even though they both attend arts school, they feel that they learn the most here. Not only about music, but about the world and themselves. They have learned that music is more about how you respect one another.
Made teaches only a small percentage of technique, and the rest is learning from your emotions from the inside and learning how to pull it out of yourself. It is a process that is constantly progressing and growing. This process doesn’t see age. Balot, at the age of 29, has learned more about self-confidence from Ayu during their time here. He says you can always learn from the children, from their confidence. They see things more simply than adult. You do have to respect your elders in Balinese culture, but here, you also need to respect your youth. For Ayu, she has learned how to compose from Balot. From this, she has learned to use her music as a form of reflection and understanding of her inner self.
Just like Ayu, more and more women are being taken under the wings of gamelan teachers and given chances that were not initially there say, 20 years ago. Even though its still quite intimidating for the average girl to start gamelan, especially when the girls are initially put into dance as early as the age of 2, but women like Ayu show these aspiring women that it is possible to break through that barrier and learn. Many people are now asking Ayu to teach their children and want her to compete in multiple gamelan competitions around Bali. Opportunities for women are growing everyday.
I have learned that it is very Balinese to be competitive. Gamelan is an artistic war from one village against another. Sometimes, they even have people sneak over into the other village to hear what they are doing, and mimic it and make it better for the upcoming competition. The biggest lesson I think that Made has taught all of his students is that you need to play for yourself. Music is supposed to build you up, not break you down. He shows them that it is used for meditation, for positive growth, not only in your musical talent, but in your life. You can communicate how you feel through music.
What I learned from Ayu and Balot that day was absolutely priceless. As a classical musician, brought up in a strict ochrestral music style, college was a rude awakening. I lost the love of music early on in college and considered dropping it all together. I lost the fun in it. It did seem like a battle. I had to beat the person ahead of me. Something that was my therapy, my safe place, became this chore. Into my later years at Rice, I found more of a rhythm on how to turn out results and eventually get into the groove of enjoying the music I previously feared to play. But my self confidence really didn’t kick in until I graduated and went to Music Academy International before my Zeff year. That was the first time I was playing not to prove to anyone that I was worthy of being there. I was playing for myself. And I played so much better than I ever had.
Sitting there with Balot and Ayu really reinforced that mentality I recently discovered. As Balot said, its a process that will never stop forming and growing. My interview with Balot and Ayu was truly eye opening for me. Even on the other side of the world, people deal with the same problems and work through them the same way. When you enjoy the music you play, people around you will also enjoy it and feel the joy that you are radiating.
Thank you Balot and Ayu for an amazing day!
Made helping keep the beat
Balot playing along with the children with a meter long wood flute
-I legit fell in a hole at night on the way to visit my friend for dinner. Like Alice in Wonderland style. After falling and screaming and flinging my phone across the road, an Aussie man laughed because he thought I tripped, then I heard a “Oh shoot, shes like down”. Then his family came to help me and a nice Balinese boy came to personally wipe all the blood off my legs. Never have I thought that I had to use the excuse, “Sorry I’m late, I fell in a hole” ever in my life.
-Finding people’s houses in Bali is near impossible for me because 1) I was driving a little scooter everywhere and depending on google maps yelling into my ear, 2) there are streets that exist in real life, but Google doesn’t consider them to be real in maps, and lastly, 3) you have to watch out for herds of ducks that run through the rice paddies or dogs that decide to take naps in the middle of the road.
-I was mugged by a monkey at the Uluwatu Temple. I leaned up against a wall to attempt to take an artsy picture of another monkey and then I see a little monkey hand come across my face and take my glasses. Then he proceeded to eat my glasses and then a Balinese man came up to the monkey with a banana and threw it at the monkey and grabbed my glasses. Positive reinforcement. Spoiled little furry devils.
I met many new friends through the Narwastu Gamelan Ensemble. Many were Westerners who were studying gamelan for a year at the local university, the Indonesian Institute of the Arts. One night, they invited me out to an album release of record that was a compilation of new music by Balinese composers on traditional gamelan instruments.
I arrived to the record release party right on time as per the Facebook event, still used to the precision of Korean time. I forgot that the Balinese are on island time, which means the event wouldn’t start for another hour. The venue was also a coffee bar, so I got a coffee and sat there by myself watching everyone set up for the release party. Trying to not look as awkward as I felt, I began to talk to one of the local musicians there who was helping set up. Little did I know, he was the co-founder of the record label that was responsible for this album release, Insitu Recordings.
Insitu Recordings is not only a record label, but also an arts collective made up of composers and musicians from all around the world who share a passion for Balinese music. Co founded by I Putu Gede Sukaryana (Balot) and Jonathan Adams, Insitu Recordings uses traditional Balinese gamelan in new and innovate ways to create an entirely new sub-group of music. From playing Bach inventions on one of the various metallaphones, to adding an American style rock band to a traditional gamelan gong kebyar ensemble, Insitu is giving traditional Balinese gamelan music a fresh coat of paint and creating something new and exciting anyone around the world would enjoy. Every couple of months, Insitu Recordings releases an installment of music by various composers from all around Bali, and even some composers from the West. It is a platform for young and talented musicians and composers to showcase their music to the public and get their music out there in the international music world.
Balot and I ended up talking all night about what he wants to see happen in the Balinese music scene and how he want to change the way people view music here.
The Balinese are incredibly competitive when it comes to gamelan ensembles. Balot compared gamelan competitions to a war. He wants to change this idea of music being more than just a competition where someone is better than the other, he wants it to be more of a positive activity. “People aren’t playing for themselves anymore” Balot says. He wants to remind people that music is almost like therapy because it is a reflection of one’s self. Because of Balot and Insitu Recordings, more and more contemporary composers are allowed to showcase and celebrate their talent on a broader spectrum while still respecting the Balinese music tradition.
Balot’s over all mission for Insitu Recordings opened my mind. What if I don’t completely focus on just women in percussion? What if I go even farther? I realized that although it is good to focus on women in traditional percussion ensembles and see how they have essentially “stuck it to the man” in regards of playing instruments that are traditionally only for men. But if I focused solely on women-only projects, I felt like I was doing the same thing to men that they have been doing to women all of these years. They are 50% of the population. If they have a musical mission that interests me that is made for the common good of the community, I should research, study, and learn from them as much as any other woman I have studied thus far.
This got me thinking. Women are choosing now to drum; not just for the sake of drumming, although I know that is quite an important factor, but they’re doing it to foster change for the better in their community. When Nidhi, Michelle, Leontine, etc. taught children how to play drums, they didn’t just teach girls, they taught any and everyone for the greater good of their community. They aren’t there to find the next Mozart, however, it doesn’t hurt if you find one, they’re using music to spark change and hope to anyone who wants to play along. Whether you’re a victim of domestic abuse, have HIV/AIDS, trying to find your next meal, or just want to play on a drum for the fun of it, they are there for you, using MUSIC FOR CHANGE.
I had my aha-moment. I know it might sound like a simple concept, and that I’ve even done outreach for children during my time at Rice, how did I not think of this before? During those music outreach days back in Texas, I didn’t feel like I was actually making a difference with an hour presentation. Maybe I did for some of the kids, but the feeling I experienced during my first half of my fellowship was incomparable. It was more than a music class for for kids I studied, it was therapy. This changed the attitudes of many people and was then directly poured into that community. Music fosters confidence and hope in people who originally think that things aren’t possible, that things aren’t going to get better. By seeing and learning first hand from the amazing women in Africa, I’ve learned that Balot is doing the same thing, but in Bali. By using gamelan as a starting point, Balot has allowed many new composers see that there is more to see out there. “We need to gain perspective and see what is out there while still respecting the Balinese tradition”. Because of Balot, there is now a community of young composers and musicians in Bali who can collaborate and make music that which they can share with the world.
I was so excited that night that I had a break through. I had a new burst of energy and inspiration for my project. I thought to myself, “This. This is what I want to bring back home and do with my life”. I left the release party with a CD of the new album and plans to meet with Balot again, and got a celebratory Cuban sandwich and ginger ale from my sandwich guy down by the beach.
You can check out the amazing new compositions of Bali’s talented young composers HERE. Support the arts and buy some of the music! Be the cool hipster that has worldly music on your iPhone when you backseat DJ and everyone automatically thinks you’re deep or something!
I have a “food guy” in each place I live for a go-to meal. Just insert a different food before “guy” in each country:
-South African coffee guy: His place was really close my hostel and we got to talking after he noticed me stretching in my really weird contortionist-ways with my arms while writing and yelled out loud “good god what?!” Then his dog peed on my white shoes. Whatever. His place had great coffee.
-Rwandan banana muffin guy: Another coffee shop where that monkey (pictured in one of my previous blogs) would just chill and stare at me…maybe he was just staring at my muffin. My ultimate go-to snack while working on my blog
-Korea fried chicken guy: There’s a little known fact that Korea is famous for their chicken and beer. Well, I thought it would be too lame to go to an actual restaurant by myself for dinner still at this point (I eventually got over that fear in India), so there was a guy with a GIANT wok in the main shopping district in Seoul with fried chicken made by the gods. Perfect lonely people snack
-Balinese Cuban sandwich guy: The sanitation was questionable, but I had an iron stomach after Rwanda. Plus nothing beat having an ice cold ginger ale outside the 7/11 with my favorite stray cat I befriended and would feed her the scraps. I swear I had human friends, too.
I hit the ground running at my first rehearsal with the Narwastu gamelan ensemble. I’ve seen gamelan performances before on Youtube and I even attended a gamelan concert during my first couple of days in Bali, but this was the first time I was touching distance to the instruments. It was the first time to hold the mallet, to touch the bars; I felt like a child again touching the piano for the first time.
Jonathan, one of the founders of Narwastu, sat me down in front of one of the instruments, the calung, and handed me a mallet and told me to follow the student playing right next to me. For the most part, I kept up with the rest of the ensemble. I would watch and mirror what the girl next to me would play and luckily, I hit a majority of the correct notes. Gamelan is very similar to a vibraphone with its metal bars; however, instead of using a foot pedal to dampen the entire instrument, you are the dampener. After every note you play with the hammer in your right hand, your left hand will dampen the note by pinching the bar with your thumb and index finger.
Traditionally, gamelan is taught aurally through repetition and memorization. I found this to be incredibly difficult because the music is written to attain a unified musical expression, with all of the melodic lines in unison while repeating passages “X” amount of times. What was difficult for me was it felt like each phrase was repeated “X” amount of times, and the “X” seemed quite random. Western music slowly transforms from one phrase to the next, but Balinese gamelan, to me, felt like a random number of times something was repeated, which would leave me guessing what the next section was.
Memorizing what seemed to be hours upon hours of music was my main challenge when trying to understand and absorb Balinese gamelan; however, nowadays, you can find sheet music to some of the pieces. But this isn’t like your typical Western Classical music transcriptions you see of Bach and Beethoven. Instead of a staff with notes that go up and down indicating how high and low the pitch is, each note has its own symbol and is written out left to right and spaced out farther to indicate a note is to be held for a longer amount of time and closer if the note is to be held for a shorter amount of time. Below, your an see the music I (partially) learned to read and how it correlates to the metallaphones I learned to play. Just like in elementary school music class, the symbols of the notes, for this particular example they are numbers, where written on the bar. I felt like I was learning how to play piano all over again, but luckily I naturally took to the metallophones and caught up with the class quite quickly.
There are many different types of gamelan ensembles all through South East Asia. Each ensemble…in each village…on each island…in each country practices a unique version of gamelan. Even though each ensemble has specific performance practices and made with various types of materials, they are all made up of the same basic ensemble.
Java, the biggest island in Indonesia and home to the country’s capital, Jakarta, has an entirely different version of gamelan compared to Bali. Many Javanese people move to Bali for various reasons, and along with them also comes their own version of gamelan. Through the Narwastu ensemble, I was able to join and practice with a Javanese gamelan entirely made up of Javanese musicians and my friend from Canada, Sarah.
I arrived late to the first rehearsal because its quite easy to get lost when I’m the one driving. I arrived to the general area Sarah told me to meet her for rehearsal. Because Bali doesn’t really use street signs or addresses, I had to walk around for a while until I heard the ensemble playing and followed the music to one of the member’s house. Gamelan is an incredibly sacred practice for the Javanese as well, and to show my respect to the ensemble for letting me be apart of rehearsal, it is polite in Indonesian culture to approach each member individually, shake their hand with my right hand, with my left hand over my heart, and gently nod my head in thanks. It was increasingly generous of them to let a random American girl join their rehearsal, so I wanted to show them my utmost respect for them, their music, and their culture.
They welcomed me in as their own instantly, even though the only way to communicate was through laughing and point. One of the players invited me to play next to him and handed me a mallet and a cheat sheet of music. Instead of the symbols you recently saw above of Balinese music transcription, the Javanese ensemble indicated numbers to each note. One of the leaders of the ensemble came to sit in front of me and played the notes so I could watch and mirror his playing. Towards the end of rehearsal, the wife and son of one of the players came to greet us with Indonesian snacks and listened to the last remaining songs.
I thought it was funny that I have lived such an entirely different life than these people, yet the world has now become so connected that we were all sitting there together. During our last song, the son of one of the players sat in the middle and began to “dab” to the music. For those of you who don’t know what “dabbing” is, it is a famous dance move from some music video that is really popular right now, apparently. I don’t know, its a dance move of some sort and here is a lovely instructional video for reference:
I know it may seem funny that this little kid “dabbing” made me take a step back and really realize how amazingly connected the world is now. We are all so connected, but many people choose to stay within their own parameters without gaining perspective of other cultures. I was sitting in a room with a group of people who couldn’t speak my language, and I couldn’t speak theirs, and we were brought together on a deep and personal level by sharing each other’s culture and music. If we were not able to bond through music, we at least bonded by laughing at the little Javanese boy “dabbing” in gamelan rehearsal!
-Do NOT step over the gamelan instruments! My best guess is to show respect for the instruments, but you never know. Mount Agung (the volcano of the Gods) could erupt or something.
-Many people come to Bali to study yoga even though balinese people neither invented nor regularly practice yoga…but they sure know how to capitalize on it!
-Every year, some Balinese villages partake in an animal sacrifice to Mount Agung. It takes 6 hours to hike up, and 6 hour down. Most people just throw a duck or chicken down the volcano, but sometimes they have to sacrifice a cow or goat. Try to imagine leading a cow up a 3,000 meter high mountain just to kick it over the edge.
(Featured Image taken from the Narwastu Ensemble website)
One weekend, I thought it would be fun to go with my friend Ji Heon to a concert. It was winter, so it was difficult to explore Seoul without my Texas body freezing. I learned the hard way that snow does, in fact, melt when it sticks to your coat, face, or hair; who knew you needed an umbrella?! After this horrible realization, I preferred indoor activities. This led me to find the all-female drumming troupe, Drumcats.
I seriously had no idea what to expect from this show. All the reviews I found were incredibly positive and raved about Drumcats. The group of women drummers was proclaimed to be one of the best female drumming troupes in the world. Naturally curious, I bought tickets for Ji Heon and me to attend a Drumcats performance.
Upon entering the venue, I instantly felt deja vú, from when I saw Cirque du Soleil in Las Vegas. The theater was filled with tourists, excited to see the concert. The room went black. Then appeared six petite Korean women playing marching drum-line instruments, clad in tight leather and lace lingerie. Now it made sense why the raving reviews I read online were from older men. The show consisted of lots of high-pitched giggling, four costume and set changes, and repetitive drum cadences.
Although this show was by no means a stroke of musical genius, these women have tapped into a very difficult market with a show that leaves people wanting more. I admire that they are making people excited about music, recognizing that is the goal for most musicians.
Seoul is an amazing metropolis where one night one can see Drumcats; the next morning one can attend daily traditional Korean music concerts at the cultural center. Seoul has made traditional music accessible and affordable for the entire population. Although seats for traditional music performances weren’t filling up as fast at a Drumcats concert, I was amazed that South Korea has kept their traditional music from being more than displays for tourists. Unlike Korean pop music venues, tourists rarely discover the unforgettable concerts at the National Gugak Center that focuses on Korean music and composers. During the many concerts I attended there, I was one of maybe a dozen or so non-Koreans present. The other non-Koreans were ex-pats or fellow musicians.
Another thing I noticed about Koreans is their love for live music. The people seemed to thrive on experiences of live performances, regardless whether concerts of K-Pop, western classical music, Pansori folk music, or interactive drumming shows. I was impressed by the respect audience members had for the performers.
I became close with Elisandra Fabregas, a Spanish-American composer and professor at Kyung Hee University. She used teach at the University of Texas at San Antonio Department of Music, in my home community! We met in Seoul through mutual contacts. Elisandra was nice enough to expose me to great concerts, both Korean and Western classical music, while I was in Seoul. We discussed cultural differences between being a musician of traditional and classical music in Korea versus the United States. One thing that particularly interested me was the respect Korean students show their professors. Before a lesson, it is customary for the student to bow to the professor, as a sign of respect. Although I only knew Elisandra for a short time, she was incredibly helpful and opened my eyes to a completely new world of music that I continue to study and play. To Elisandra Fabregas, I bow and offer my most enthusiastic gratitude – Thanks!
And so ends my month in Korea, where I have learned a total of ten Korean words, how long to grill meat at a Korean BBQ restaurant, and how to properly swirl and open a bottle of soju (video of soju-opening instructions below).
I know this guy seems weird, but the video is really informative and even teaches your how to properly pour and receive soju.
Now onto warmer weather and sweaty clothes: BALI, INDONESIA!
During my month in Seoul, South Korea, I was quite lucky to be hosted by my friend, JiHeon Ahn, and his family. I experienced local Korean lifestyle, from house slippers to highly sophisticated toilet technology! Even though I was only in Korea a few weeks, I was able to take music classes, attend various traditional Korean and western classical concerts, and learn a lot about Korean culture.
I became especially close to JiHeon’s grandmother, whom I eventually called 할머니 (pronounced Halmeoni), which means “Grandma” in Korean. She would take me to her traditional drumming and music classes at the community center and various concerts. Halmeoni constantly fed me her delicious home-cooked Korean food. Making sure I was well fed and happy, Halmeoni left sandwiches and fruit on my doorstep most mornings. She was the first to introduce me to Pansori music and other traditional Korean folk music.
Pansori is a type of Korean folk music consisting of a singer and a buk drummer as accompaniment (pictured below). Frequently compared to an opera, Pansori is much like a one-man-show where the singer performs an entire story consisting of various characters and narratives by using different voices and gestures. During this dramatic show, the drummer plays the buk, a no-tone drum literally translated as “drum”, and adds encouraging words as embellishment. (The words apparently were encouraging, although I never understood a word of it. But yes, I felt uplifted.) The buk drummer must have the ability to select and change rhythms any second, depending on the singer’s character at that moment. It is customary for the vocalist to be female, and the drummer, male. They are both seen as equals while in other folk music, either the singer leads or the drummer leads. There is an absolute balance of gender between the vocalist and the drummer
For such an old genre of folk music, Pansori reminded me of early 20th-century experimental songs like Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire and Charles Ive’s Charlie Rutlage. (For the non-classical music geeks out there, I recommend youtubing these songs if you want either nightmares or confusion.)Pansori is intensely expressive, almost like talk-singing, improvised without a real key or melody. It is all entirely up to the vocalist. The drummer chills in the background and makes sure there is a consistent beat, providing critical structure and cohesion.
One night, Halmeoni took me to a Pansori concert where some of her close friends were opening at an art gallery. The small gallery was packed to the brim. Halmeoni did not take no for an answer, she squeezed us to the very front. While the concert was performed, a man sat on the ground with rice paper and began to paint what I presumed were key words and pictures relating to the story being sung. This added an entirely new dimension to the music, making it multi-dimensional performance art. (Check out a portion of the concert (but here, the singer is playing a wooden flute) in a video below) I was so interested in the concert that Halmeoni took me to her Pansori drum class the next day.
The next day:
Halmeoni and I entered a classroom in the local community center. There were four other students; I was the youngest by fifty years. Before any music actually occurred, we enjoyed various Korean snacks and drinks brought by the students. One woman brought homemade kimchi, Halmeoni and I brought sweet bread, one man brought Korean rice wine and warm tea.
Side note: Korean rice wine is strong stuff! I felt pressured more when drinking with these older Koreans than I ever did during four years of college parties. If my cup was still filled, they commented on how I needed to finish it. When I finally emptied it, they instantly refilled my cup. I propose American orchestras should adopt this pre-rehearsal snack and drink time, maybe even employ adorable Korean grannies to make sure all are fat and happy before rehearsal.
I learned various traditional songs during rehearsal, and I even kept up with the class! Of course, all the students knew the songs so well, they sang as they drummed, while I was concentrating solely on keeping my hands in the right area of the drum. Here is a video of my teacher, 황정원 (Jung Won Hwang), playing and singing one of the Pansori songs we were learning. Jung Won Hwang is certified by the government of South Korea for preserving and keeping Pansori music alive and accurate to tradition.
Like what you see? There’s more videos on class in the “videos” tab!
With the rise of K-pop and the obsession with Western classical music, Pansori and other Korean folklore music is losing popularity. It mostly is enjoyed by the older generation. Children are taught how to play traditional Korean music in school, but my generation’s interest in this genre is quickly declining. Because of this, the government has found it necessary to appoint certain artists and musicians to preserve traditional Korean art and stimulate interest among younger generations of musicians. Pansori music is now seen as more of a cultural attraction, rather than a part of daily life.
At one point, I was able to to experience the general public playing and enjoying traditional Korean music; however, it was not in a concert or class. It was during one of the weekly protests in Seoul’s main square.
Hundreds of thousands of people came out every Saturday in November and December, 2016, to protest peacefully against President Park Geun-hye, during accusations that she and close friends had extorted millions of dollars from the Korean government and businesses for personal gain. It was amazing how absolutely huge the protests were in Korea; whereas internationally, the civil unrest was barely reported. Many of my friends and family had no idea this was happening in Seoul, other than knowledge of corruption charges against President Park. I think there were a few reports about it on BBC News, but the huge protests were not mentioned prominently elsewhere.
Each Saturday, the entire main business district of Seoul was shut down, in order to keep the protesters in one consolidated area. Police forces used giant buses to contain the crowds, and to block people from watching or joining the protests. It was nearly impossible to not go through the crowds during the protests each Saturday, because my normal bus stop was closed down due to road closures. Therefore on Saturdays, I had to walk through the ENTIRE protest to get to the next functioning bus stop. It was quite an experience, making my way through the masses of people.
Along the way, I discovered the protests were like a giant music festival. A famous Korean singer came to give a benefit concert after a few politicians spoke about the issues at hand. And then I heard of all things…. people playing the buk and other traditional percussion instruments! I decided to stick around and watch what they were playing. I was amazed to see first-hand when political chaos was happening, the people held tightly to traditional culture. It unified all Koreans. This was their culture, their music, their country. You can see pictures from the protest on the “South Korea” tab under “pictures”.
If you are interested on how the Korean public protested every week for months to impeach their president (which eventually happened), read Wikipedia’s summary here. It was an amazing feat. I feel we, as Americans, can learn much from the Koreans and how they peacefully persisted for political justice.
That’s all for now, friends. Next blog is about my adventures seeing the famous Korean act, DRUMCATS!
FUN FACTS TIME:
-You get cute little slippers when sitting at certain restaurants/cafes (i would have to wear the man size because Korean women have fairy feet)
-“She has a flower in her hair” is an old idiom for “that girl is craaaazy”
-ANIMAL CAFÉS EVERYWHERE! I went to a cat cafe and a raccoon cafe. Here’s a video for proof
So far with my blogs, you have seen Leontine in action teaching two separate classes at the Meg Foundation and the Kigali Music School. In this blog post, I will got more into depth about her classes and share a little bit about her life, her aspirations, and her role as a woman drummer in Rwanda.
Leontine is the same age as me (22) and started training as a community music youth leader with Musicians Without Borders in 2009. It took one year to train as a music leader. In 2012, she started drumming lessons with one of the Kenyan MwB teachers. In addition to lessons, she watched YouTube videos to learn new rhythms and improve her drum set skills. She would watch the videos, write down the rhythms, then play them on the drums when she would have the chance to practice on a real drum set.
Leontine found her passion teaching music and now wants to be a full-time music teacher with the help of MwB and their teacher training courses. This super woman stops for no one. She has her own band that plays at local functions and weddings, where she not only drums, but also sings! She plans to go to university in the near future and study music in the hopes of traveling internationally with her music. Because of her positive attitude and amazing chops on the drum set, many young girls, including her younger siblings, see her as a role model. People even come up to her during gigs to ask if they can learn from her! Leontine’s parents are incredibly supportive of her choice to pursue music and help her create many opportunities for her to excel in music. No one can stop this firecracker!
Leontine works at a couple of schools and organizations around Kigali as a community music leader. In my previous post, you’ve seen her teach the kids at the MEG Foundation, but now I’ll explain what she teaches at the Kigali Music School and the WE-ACTx for Hope clinic that works alongside MwB.
The Kigali Music School
There are three drum students that Leontine teaches every Monday at the Kigali Music School. During class, each student is given a certain amount of time on the drum set to master the rhythmic patterns of the week. Leontine teaches standard drum set rhythms from a traditional rock beat to reggae. She then finds popular Rwandan music to sing along to while the students play to help them keep a steady tempo and feel the groove of the song. It’s one thing to play a certain rhythm on the drum set, but it’s another to understand how to groove with a song and embellish when appropriate.
The three students, who were all boys, respected Leontine greatly and always seemed eager to play in class. If she wrote a rhythm down on the board, they would quickly write it down in their journals and start tapping out the rhythms on their legs so they could be perfect when it was their turn on the drum set. Some got the rhythms faster than others, but with time, each of them would get the rhythm and play it with the class during group performance time.
During one of the the classes, I showed them a little bit of a basic standard jazz swing. This was much harder than I anticipated because none of them really listen to jazz. It was a difficult concept to explain swing-eighths to them (for the non-musicians, think of the cymbal part that is at the beginning of the Pink Panther theme song). It took them a while to understand that jazz drum set is about grooving to the beat all while keeping a steady tempo. You have to learn to not listen to yourself, but to the band in front of you and tailor yourself to them, not the other way around.
Below, you can see a video of Leontine talking about her time teaching with MwB:
WE-ACTx for Hope Clinic
Leontine also teaches at the WE-ACTx for Hope health clinic. To recap from an earlier blog post, WE-ACTx for Hope has teamed up with MwB to help support the needs of children and young people living with HIV. Different musical activities and music therapy sessions are embedded in the clinical support structure providing opportunities for positive creative expression and social empowerment through musical interaction (taken from the MwB website). Leontine and other youth members would come everyday to the clinic and would engage with the children while they were either waiting for their parent’s or their own treatment. You can imagine how difficult it is for a child to understand why he/she has to go to a clinic every week to take medication. Luckily, the musical activities MwB organizes for them really brightens their day and makes going to the clinic something to look forward to. They get to play around on the drums, sing songs, play musical chairs, etc. It’s a safe place where they can forget the outside world and just be a kid.
Well friends, this is my last post for Rwanda. It had its ups and downs, but overall, I have learned so much from the people I met here, be it music or not. Thank you everyone I met and worked with in Rwanda and I really look forward to working with y’all again!
Next stop: Seoul, SOUTH KOREA
-Rwanda has an incredibly strict noise ordinance to the extent that many restaurants and bars have decibel readers.
-Real butter can be hard to come by sometimes. On the expat Facebook group, many people will tell you the secret places they find their butter, and some people even make their own.
-MwB has around 30 djembes for group music activities. They weren’t in the best of shape, so I decided to tune them and teach Leontine and other youth leaders how to properly tune djembes (Thanks for the how-to tutorials, Dingi!)
Leontine works as a music teacher at the Meg Foundation, a UK-funded NGO. The Meg Foundation is a primary school and women’s co-operative located in Kinamba, one of the poorest communities of Kigali, Rwanda’s capital city. It was founded by, and today is still run by, Meg Fletcher.
Each child admitted to the school is given two meals a day, school supplies, and uniforms. Students are offered quality education consisting of music, English, math, and hygiene classes. Even though the Meg Foundation school only goes up to grade six, the number of graduates increases every year; many plan to attend university one day.
In addition to the primary school, the foundation offers adult classes teaching basic literacy, information about HIV/AIDS, handicraft making, and sewing. The craft items produced at the co-operative are sold to benefit the members, mostly young mothers of children attending the primary school.
Below, you can see some of the women in the co-operative weaving traditional Rwandan baskets for sale.
I entered the Meg Foundation primary school looking for Leontine after lunch time, during recess. The children were quite rowdy and interested to know who I was. Many of the children greeted me with a “hello” or “good afternoon”, eager to show off their English skills.
Once I found Leontine, I offered to help set up her class outside. I had little to do, since the children were so excited about their music class that they set up everything themselves. Students are taught that the drums are a privilege to play. They must show respect to Leontine and the equipment in order to play.
We sat outside in a circle together, ready for Leontine to begin the class. There were only seven or eight drums available, not enough for every student. Each student received a pair of drumsticks to click together, while waiting for a turn on the precious drums.
I was lucky to experience Leontine’s amazing skills as a teacher. She was able to command the attention of a group of excited students within seconds. Once Leontine moved to the circle’s center, the children knew to pay attention and listen carefully to her instructions.
After a song to welcome me to the class (it was the most adorable thing in the entire world), we played several “call and answer” musical singing games with our drumsticks. I even taught them the “boom, snap, clap” game we all played in elementary school. (OK, it did not go as well as I intended, but The kids got a kick out of my attempt). Then we spent the rest of our music class rehearsing for their big end-of-the-year showcase for parents, that was coming up in a couple of weeks.
I learned that it is critical for Rwandans to educate their children about traditional Rwandan culture and where their ancestors came from. The Rwandan people are incredibly patriotic, something I admire greatly. They are passionate about their culture and strive to keep it active in everyone’s daily life. Because of this, children are taught traditional music and dance in schools. They learn the history and purpose of Rwandan songs and dances.
Fast forward to the showcase performance for parents. I arrived at the school a little late. (I was recovering from severe dehydration after my trek to visit the gorillas in the Virunga National Park, DRC – check out photos in the “pictures” tab!) Every student’s entire family was present for the showcase; I couldn’t even see the stage, there were so many people thronged together. Luckily, I didn’t miss any of the show. One of the mothers grabbed my hand and led me up front to the V.I.P. table to sit with with Meg, herself. I was told to sit down, smack dab in the middle of this giant table with decorations.
I thought to myself, “Oh wow, I didn’t even do anything to deserve being here…”. Along with Meg and the guest of honor, I was introduced to the entire audience. As they gestured for me to stand up and wave, I thought, “This is embarrassing, I’ve just been an observer”. It was wonderful to be welcomed so warmly, a great example of enthusiastic Rwandan hospitality.
The showcase opened with a tribal skit that included traditional drumming and dancing. The skit enacted a performance for the king and queen of the tribe, way back in old-time Rwanda. All the students were dressed in traditional Rwandan clothing, and they performed ritualistic Rwandan dances. The “intore” is one of these dances, a traditional fighting dance actually performed for generations, to entertain the tribe’s rulers. (You can see the videos of intore dance performed at the bottom of this post and in the “videos” tab). After all the dancing and singing, each class of students came up to demonstrate their English language skills. They recited stories like Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar, performed skits about hygiene, and told what they wanted to be when they grew up.
Meg addressed the audience following the student performances, remarking how amazing the students had been the previous year. She extended her best wishes to the Year Six students, as they moved on to secondary school after the holiday break. Once the showcase concluded, every family fell in line bearing gifts of fruit for Meg and her teachers, expressing their deep gratitude for the school and the foundation. Some of the families even came up to offer hugs and to thank me.
Then an incredible thing happened: Everyone began to dance! Drums were playing, people were singing and dancing, even I was pulled into the crowd to dance! This amazed me, for many Rwandans tend to be quite reserved, especially around foreigners. Being with a hundred people, as they spontaneously celebrated their children’s successes, was a joy I’ve never seen being in a mass of people. It was joy and hope of what the future would bring, and it was beautiful to experience it with these terrific people.
Getting to know these children is something I will treasure forever. They were so willing to learn, with incredible potential to be in the world around them. If you would like to donate or sponsor one of the students at the Meg Foundation school, please check out http://www.kinambaproject.org.uk to learn what you can do to help. There is a link for donating from the USA as well. You may donate one time, or consider sponsoring a child for a year to receive a picture and story about the sponsored student. A donation of $360 ($30/month) can sponsor a student for an entire YEAR. This includes school uniforms, textbooks, meals, and supplies for music and art. Your help literally would change a child’s life.
Now for my fun facts!
-Our guard (many people in Rwanda have gates and guards for security) had a couple of pet rabbits. Many pet rabbits were eaten by stray cats (RIP Bumbina). Susan survived and was my buddy. Even though she pooped on me, I fed her carrots and let her play in the house.
-There is a casino in Kigali. A friend took me there and promised I’d win money at blackjack. We were both out of there within 45 minutes (looking at you, Felix)!
-If you remember my past fun facts about the milk culture in Rwanda, may I add that there are milk bars where you just sit down and drink fresh milk. Fresh warm milk. Imagine.
-When you order any bottled drink (be it a beer or soda, whatever), the server will always ask if you want it served warm or cold. When it’s sweltering hot outside, warm beer is really not fun.
As I mentioned in my previous post, Musicians without Borders (MWB) works with local musicians to “teach singing, songwriting, and music therapy, making use of Rwandan traditional culture to address the trauma of the genocide and conflict” (from the MWB website). Overall, the goal is to create sustainable music programs that can be replicated as a model for other communities in Rwanda and neighboring countries. This is how I met Yves, a local Rwandan musician who works alongside MWB as a teacher and liaison between the organization and the Rwandan population. Continue reading Rwinkwavu and Ingomas