Asian Theatre Journal 23.2 (2006) 401-407
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The enormous stalks of bamboo that flanked the austere stage at San Francisco's Cowell Theatre for "A Gathering of Gamelans" provided an apt visual metaphor for the themes that emerged from the eight-day festival, which featured nine San Francisco Bay Area performance groups. Bamboo grows allover Southeast Asia and represents a common resource among different Southeast Asian cultures; likewise, tuned percussion music—in the form of gong-chime ensembles—is also widespread in the region. This tall bamboo variety is not native to the Bay Area, yet appears to thrive when transplanted (festival organizer Larry Reed brought the bamboo from his own San Francisco back yard)—so too gamelan and the theatre and dance genres it accompanies thrive in the California milieu.
Gamelan is a foreign-language term that virtually all aficionados of "world music" recognize; it suggests an orchestra from Indonesia consisting of tuned percussion instruments. The term is often broadened to include bamboo or string ensembles that imitate the stratified musical textures of gamelan music, or even metallophone-dominated ensembles from mainland Southeast Asia and the Philippines, and this wider use was evident in this festival. I suspect that the worldwide broadening of the category of gamelan is attributable at least in part to the international name recognition that it affords. From the stage during one of the performances, Larry Reed confessed to the audience that calling the festival "A Gathering of Gamelans" was not, strictly speaking, [End Page 401] accurate. He quipped that other alternatives (e.g., "A Meeting of Metallophones") had been considered and rejected. What was more important than linguistic precision, he suggested, was that all sorts of Southeast Asian and Southeast Asian-inspired performing arts were flourishing in the San Francisco Bay Area. According to the festival's program, Reed felt "moved to honor the artistic traditions of Southeast Asia"; the festival was intended "to offer audiences a way to experience first-hand the clear (and subtle) relationships among various traditions."
The relationships among the traditions are quite different in the United States than they are in Southeast Asia. Although there is no large Indonesian community in the Bay Area, six of the nine performing groups presented musical styles from Indonesia (Balinese, Javanese, and Sundanese). The Indonesians in these groups are for the most part professional artists whose presence in the United States relates directly to their expertise as musicians, dalang (puppetmasters), and dancers (i.e., they were invited to the United States to teach Indonesian arts to Americans). They preside over ensembles peopled mostly by interested Americans, including myself, only a very few of whom claim any Indonesian heritage. In contrast, the Bay Area's Thai, Filipino, and Cambodian groups consist almost entirely of immigrants from those countries or their children and grandchildren. Given these different pedigrees, it stands to reason that many of the goals and motivations for these groups—as well as the teaching and learning processes and performance styles they develop—will be quite different. That doesn't mean, however, that it is inappropriate for these groups to come together to share their accomplishments with one another and with the community at large.
And in this respect, the festival represented quite well the San Francisco Bay Area's diverse Southeast Asian performance scene. It reflected a remarkable social milieu that, as Larry Reed put it during a radio interview with Tania Ketenjian on her KALX radio show Sight Unseen, is known for "accepting people for who they are, that allows them to maintain their own identity, their own culture, as well as be part of our culture." This clearly applies to immigrants to California who struggle to make sense of their dual identities; it applies equally well, I think, to some native Californians, who at times find themselves alienated from their own society and find relief through identification with an alternative coherent world view. Both approaches have the happy side...