For more than 40 years Gamelan Sekar Jaya has provided a nurturing home for Balinese music and dance in the East Bay while helping spark a cultural renaissance back in the art form’s homeland. Commissioning leading composers and choreographers from Bali and collaborating with Bay Area artists across an extravagant array of disciplines, Sekar Jaya gracefully navigates a two-fold path marked by both reverence for tradition and creative innovation. Sekar Jaya is the only foreign group ever presented with the Dharma Kusuma, Bali’s highest award for artistic achievement.
The route itself is precarious, but the organization’s physical requirements have made maintaining a stable foothold here a daunting task unto itself. Encompassing some five-dozen members in four distinct gamelan ensembles, a dance troupe, and a broader community of Indonesian participants, Sekar Jaya requires considerable space to both rehearse and store dozens of the company’s hammer-struck metallophones and gongs. When the landlord of the group’s longtime South Berkeley headquarters at 3023 Shattuck Ave. (a block south of Ashby) decided to put the building on the market, Sekar Jaya faced a dire predicament.
Instead of looking for new digs, the company has taken ownership of their building, a $1.5 million purchase made possible by a $600,000 grant from Community Vision and the Hewlett Foundation as part of a larger program “to support BIPOC-led real estate acquisition.” The process extended over some 18 months and culminated on April 8 when Sekar Jaya closed on the nondescript two-story, 3,400-square-foot stucco building that they’d rented at well below market rates since 2001.
“If we had to move, I don’t know what we would have done,” said Gillian Irwin, Sekar Jaya’s general manager. “Our rent would have doubled, if we could have found a space, or we would have needed to massively downsize in a much smaller space. We’re so grateful to have received the Community Vision grant. With that and some generous loans from members, we were able to purchase our building without financing.”
Part of a South Berkeley arts corridor that includes Shotgun Players, La Peña Cultural Center, and Starry Plough, the building is more than an acoustically reinforced rehearsal space. An upstairs apartment provides lodging for guest artists from Bali and the lovingly tended backyard includes “a beautiful shrine for our Balinese community to celebrate holidays,” Irwin said. “We hope many people will see what we’re doing, the love and commitment to this community, and how beautiful and vibrant the Indonesian and Balinese community is in the Bay Area.”
The Bay Area community has two spectacular opportunities to get reacquainted with Gamelan Sekar Jaya in the coming days. On the afternoon of Saturday, May 28, the Yerba Buena Gardens Festival presents the world premiere of Sudamala, a musical prayer composed by renowned Balinese musician and composer I Dewa Putu Berata, founder and director of the storied Balinese gamelan company Çudamani. Sekar Jaya reprises the new work on Saturday, June 4, at Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center Park in Berkeley. Both concerts are free.
The production opens with Rejang Sudamala, a dance and musical ritual performed during ceremonies or holiday gatherings. It’s a work that features members of the local Indonesian community and is “less about technical skill and flashy performance and more about offering your artistic expression as a gift to the community and to the divine,” Irwin said. Supported by a Gerbode Foundation Special Award in the Arts, Sudamala features new choreography from Sekar Jaya’s 2022 guest dance director Emiko Saraswati Susilo and a guest appearance by dancer and beatboxer Rashidi Omari of Oakland’s Destiny Arts. In the middle of Sudamala, Sekar Jaya’s dancers and gamelan gong kebyar ensembles present a new work by I Dewa Putu Rai, the company’s 2022 guest music director and artist-in-residence.
The ritual that Sudamala centers on involves purification, “which feels quite timely, because of COVID and everything happening all over the world,” said Saraswati Susilo. “One of the things I find amazing is that the idea of these purifications can be huge or very small, starting with the knowledge that there is something wrong, something amiss or out of balance and we can do something together. It’s a ritual you can do it at your home, but in all cases you need someone else to help you with that process. The idea is that everybody needs to come together for that issue to be addressed.”
Sudamala isn’t the company’s first performance since the advent of the pandemic, but the Yerba Buena Gardens and Civic Center Park performances mark a rebirth after the major disappointment around the cancellation of Drupadi, which was scheduled to premiere at the Presidio Theatre in March 2020. A collaboration between Gamelan Sekar Jaya and ShadowLight Productions, the innovative piece featured a new score by Pak Berata for a retelling of the Hindu epic Mahābhārata from a female perspective, with the dancers performing behind a screen while wearing shadow costumes.
“The day before we were going to open was when everything got shut down,” Irwin said. “We have a short video, but the whole project, months and months of work, was lost.”
Like so many other organizations, Sekar Jaya turned to Zoom to keep the community together. A percussion orchestra composed of instruments made of bronze, iron, wood and bamboo, gamelan originated hundreds of years ago on Java and Bali, an island of Hinduism in the midst of the sprawling archipelago of Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation. It’s an art form “that’s not meant to be played alone,” Irwin said. “You really can’t do it. The music relies on these stratified structures and interlocking patterns.”
Instead of practicing, the ensemble members delved into the music’s history and concepts, with study sessions often led by Pak Berata. By the fall of 2020, they started meeting regularly in small groups at Oakland’s Bushrod Park. The musicians brought their instruments home when possible to keep up their chops. In many ways, the organization’s independence gave it unusual flexibility.
Most gamelan ensembles in the U.S. are associated with universities, including the very first one, which was founded in the early 1960s at UCLA by pioneering ethnomusicologist Mantle Hood. Composer Lou Harrison and fellow composer and instrument builder Daniel Schmidt connected at Berkeley’s Center for World Music in 1975 and made gamelan an important part of the Mills College music program. And then Berkeley gave birth to an alternative vision when Rachel Cooper, Michael Tenzer and their teacher, Balinese master I Wayan Suweca, launched Gamelan Sekar Jaya in 1979.
Dedicated to the study, performance, preservation and creation of new work in various traditional Balinese performing arts, the company quickly established tight relationships with leading artists in Bali via a series of trips and residencies. At the same time, Sekar Jaya embraced collaborations with signature Bay Area arts organizations, including the Oakland Symphony and the California Symphony, Keith Terry’s world percussion ensemble Crosspulse, the silent film mavens of Club Foot Orchestra, ShadowLight Productions, and various North and South Indian arts groups, such as the Abhinaya Dance Company and the Chitresh Das Dance Company.
These efforts did not go unnoticed in Bali. In 1985, the group became the first non-Balinese gamelan group ever invited to perform at an arts festival on the island, a situation that was both thrilling and nerve-wracking. In an interview a decade after that triumph Vitale recalled the uncertainty they faced. “We had no idea how we’d be received or how they’d respond,” Vitale said. “In addition to doing traditional pieces we also did some new works that kind of played on this cross-cultural thing, and the Balinese went bananas. They loved it. They were completely thrilled and honored that foreigners were paying so much attention to their art form.”
With a home of its own, Sekar Jaya is well placed to build on that legacy.