Yes In My Backyard is a semiweekly column showcasing MP3s from new and emerging local talent.
Housed in the cavernous hardwood expanse of New York’s Indonesian Consulate, the massive, shimmering army Gamelan Dharma Swara are a 20-plus-member crew that explores and subverts Balinese tradition in lightning-fast blurs. Led by Balin-born musical director I Nyoman Saptanyana and Kansas-bred executive director Andrew McGraw, the crew explores gamelan gong kebyar, a style already marked by high-velocity tempos and violent shifts of mood, but now embellished with a New York avant-jazz ear for propulsion and curious detours. Take McGraw’s original piece, “Sikut Sanga,” a 13-minute OCD romp inspired by a number of newer Balinese works, Javanese music, bebop, and game-show theme songs, joyously blurring the line between parody, mash-up, and tribute in one gloriously post-modern pastiche. It’s the highlight of their self-titled debut (out now via Turis/Arts Indonesia), a double CD that documents the ensemble’s tour of Indonesia, a trip that culminated in a performance at the 2009 Bali Arts Festival — the first time a foreign group has ever been given the honor.
The MP3 below is a seven-minute sampler of the CD’s many riches: You can hear an excerpt of “Sikut Sanga” from 4:00 to 5:38. McGraw’s genre-bending compositional style on the song leaps across spheres like a Naked City cut-up, rapidly turning on a dime from interpolations of Dizzy Gillespie’s “A Night In Tunisia” to self-aware snatches of “New York, New York” to rapid-fire blurs of chiming pyrotechnics. “Yes, this was pretty much Naked City applied to Balinese music,” says McGraw. “Contemporary Balinese composers have an incredibly rich palette, but they haven’t yet experimented with mash-ups. I wanted to play with it.”
When did you fall in love with gamelan music?
In 1996, I was playing in a jazz group in Kansas City when I got the opportunity to do a house trade with someone in Singapore. One of the musicians in my band had studied in Bali and suggested I “stop by” to pick up a drum he left there. I foolishly jumped on a boat from Singapore to Indonesia, which turned into a two-week trek in which I got very lost in Sumatra. Eventually, after overland travel through Java, I made it to Bali. The night I arrived I was taken to a temple contest performance between two of the best ensembles on the island. Although I had heard gamelan on CD before and didn’t really enjoy it, seeing it live was a life-changing experience.
What type of feedback did you get from playing such an experimental piece at the Bali Arts Fest?
The feedback was really positive, partly I think because we offset some of the weirdness with some absurdist and kitschy theater, which the general Balinese audiences like quite a bit.
What were some of the difficulties of bringing an ensemble this large all the way to the other side of the world?
Americans, and especially New Yorkers, are an extremely individualistic bunch. Trying to get them all behind a single idea, and trying to negotiate the different cultural expectations of our Balinese directors, was an extreme challenge. One we met, in the end. There are also the major logistic and financial challenges, but those don’t compare to the cultural/social challenges.
What’s the most memorable show you’ve played in New York City?
We’ve played a lot of really odd shows in town. One including a performance at the U.N. in which one of our Balinese dancers went into a trance. We played with a neo-dada-ist group at the New Museum that involved Tony Conrad and porn stars reading the Necromancer. Fat Cat is always fun, because it’s a rather rowdy vibe that reminds me of performing in Bali. And we’ve played at nice stages at Lincoln Center, Asia Society, Japan Society, the big local universities, etc. But the smaller gigs, like the Stone and the Issue Project Room, are always more fun.
OK, what’s the best place to get Indonesian food in New York?
Queens: Upi Jaya. Brooklyn: Java Indonesia Rijsttafel. Chinatown: Sanur.