Ki Midiyanto, Sari Raras co-founder and shadowmaster. Courtesy: UC Berkeley Department of Music

Hailing from the Indonesian islands of Bali and Java, gamelan has thrived in Berkeley for more than half a century, but it’s still a rare occurrence for the town’s two great ensembles to perform within days of each other.

Gamelan Sekar Jaya, the most celebrated gamelan orchestra outside of Indonesia, gives a free performance Sunday, April 23, in Civic Center Park as part of the free Berkeley Asian Cultural Festival. While Gamelan Sari Raras isn’t nearly as well known, the UC Berkeley group has similarly deep ties to Indonesian masters, with roots in Java rather than Bali. 

Performing 3 p.m. Sunday, April 16, at Hertz Hall, Sari Raras accompanies a Javanese shadow group interpreting the Rescue of Sita, a classic portion of the Indian epic Ramayana. It’s a rare opportunity to experience the coruscating music in the context of a shadow puppet performance by Javanese artists. 

“This is the first time in years we’ve had a guest dhalang,” said Gamelan Sari Raras co-founder Ben Brinner, chair of UC Berkeley’s Department of Music, referring to gamelan puppet master Ki Gunarto Gunotalijendro. “And it’s the first time since 2001 that we’ve had a group of Javanese musicians. It’s a very different kind of production for us, presenting a style that’s very condensed with rapid shifting of tempos.” 

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With roots dating back more than a millennium, Javanese gamelan is performed on a large set of mostly bronze-forged instruments. It evolved to accompany dance, rituals and elaborate shadow puppet performances that serve both as communal entertainment and sacred storytelling. Rather than serving as a vehicle for soloists, a gamelan ensemble is evaluated by the extent to which it functions as a single organism. A group’s personality arises as a gestalt.

The art form is still so beloved in Indonesia that leading performers are usually too busy to travel outside the country, which is why the Sari Raras event is such a rare opportunity. For Sunday’s performance the multi-generational ensemble which features about 18 members, is joined by Javanese musicians Sutendri Yusuf, Dunung Basuki and Angger Widhi Asmara, star vocalist Heni Savitri, and Midiyanto, a longtime gamelan teacher at UC Berkeley who co-founded Sari Raras with Brinner in 1988. 

Traditional Javanese gamelan performances could easily extend for eight hours or longer. The Hertz performance will likely run under two hours, a condensed style that  was “created by a group of young faculty at ASKI, Akademi Seni Karawitan Indonesia in Surakarta, under the direction of Dr. Gendon Humardani,” Brenner said, which he witnessed in the 1970s when he was living and studying in Java.

The new style “was influenced by film and TV and flashback scenes, which provide a good way to situate a story,” he said. “The head of the performing arts academy put a lot of importance on innovating the arts while preserve tradition, and he developed new approaches to shadow plays and theater.”

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The Sari Raras performance tells the story of the exiled king Rama and his beautiful wife, Sita, who’s kidnapped by the ogre king Ravana. In an extended version of the game telephone, details and characterizations have morphed over the centuries. In the Javanese version Ravana is portrayed as immensely powerful and evil, “but he’s not seen that way in India,”  Brinner said. “Rama can come across as the victorious prince, or as wishy washy, avoiding conflict.” The narrative is in Javanese, and English supertitles summarizing the plot will help audiences follow the action. 

Not surprisingly, Sari Raras and Sekar Jaya share some members, including Brinner’s wife, Lisa Gold, a lecturer Cal’s Department of Music. They’ve even tackled the logistical challenges of performing together “though moving two sets is a phenomenal amount of work. It really is heavy metal,” Brinner said. 

“Numerous people in Sari Raras have also been in Sekar Jaya. We often bring their Balinese artists to teach our members. They’re a community-based group. We’re a university-based group. We just don’t perform as often and we haven’t made as much of an effort to publicize our concerts.” 

Sekar Jaya’s spring schedule includes a free May 7 performance as part of the Asian Arts Museum AAPI Heritage Month Celebration, and June 3’s “Gamelan in the Garden” event at the San Francisco Botanical Garden. On June 10, the company welcomes the public to the Gamelan Sekar Jaya Banjar Community Center with an open house as part of the ongoing capital campaign to pay for the recently acquired building

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Andrew Gilbert

Freelancer Andrew Gilbert writes a weekly music column for Berkeleyside. Andy, who was born and raised in Los Angeles, covers a wide range of musical cultures, from Brazil and Mali to India and Ireland....