- Indonesian Cultural Diplomacy and the First International Gamelan Festival and Symposium at Expo 86
In 1986 the city of Vancouver celebrated its centenary by hosting what would be the last world exposition to take place in North America. From May to October, Expo 86 occupied a seventy-hectare site along False Creek in the city’s downtown core, attracting some twenty-two million visitors, who flocked to a lavish event that ran a deficit of nearly C$250 million.1 Its theme of “World in Motion—World in Touch” was conceived, like many world expos, to celebrate human achievement in innovation, technology, and communication. Particular to Vancouver’s Expo 86 was its focus on transportation and, more so, its grandiose marketing strategy to sell the city as a critical node on the cultural and commercial axis of the Pacific Rim. While Expo 86 was, as Eleanor Wachtel mordantly observed, a summarily regional affair aimed at bolstering Vancouver’s declining economy—created, she wrote shortly after the conclusion of the fair, “with no real program at all, conceived by persons with essentially no interest in world’s fairs”—it offered a space for the kind of [End Page 428] international cultural exchange in one particular regard overlooked by Expo 86’s many critics: at the Indonesia Pavilion, the First International Gamelan Festival and Symposium featured three and a half days of performances by Indonesian and Western gamelans and lectures from international speakers.2 Held from August 18 to 21, 1986, at various locations on the Expo 86 site (the Xerox Theater, the ASEAN Plaza, and the Plaza of Nations, as well as in the Indonesia Pavilion of Expo 86 itself), it was conceived as a space where tradition, modernity, East, and West would intersect in a fruitful exchange of ideas. In this article we suggest that far more occurred.3
The symposium’s impact was uniquely decisive for gamelan in Canada. Adhering to the custom of gifting gamelans to host countries that showcased them during performances and events, the Indonesian delegation donated a Javanese gamelan to Simon Fraser University in Vancouver and two Balinese gamelans to the Université de Montréal, ushering in a new era of study and performance at those institutions.4 Like many other cities around the world where similar donations were made, both Vancouver and Montréal now have thriving histories of gamelan performance dating back more than thirty years. But Expo 86 was held during the height of Indonesian president Suharto’s “New Order” regime of integrationism, procapitalist expansion, and industrialization, which began when he took power in 1967. We argue here that the symposium, planned to coincide with Indonesian Independence Day, afforded the republic an opportunity to leverage gamelan’s potential as an instrument of cultural diplomacy and became a means for exporting and presenting Indonesian sovereignty on a global stage. These diplomatic overtures came at a critical moment in the Indonesian regime, a regime whose New Order was marked by brutal authoritarianism, as well as massive social and economic reforms.5 By another turn, the symposium was the first opportunity for contemporary musicians to affirm the vibrant international community of gamelan composition and performance; it instantiated the decades’ worth of what Michael Tenzer describes as “on-the-ground, people-connecting” work being undertaken by practitioners across the globe.6
We begin this article by contextualizing the symposium at Expo 86 within the history of Indonesia’s participation in world’s fairs and expositions, where encounters with the exotic were once bound up in complicated renderings of self and other for both Western and Indonesian actors navigating colonialism’s receding hold on the global stage. We then move forward with an account and analysis of concerts and lectures at the symposium, which for the first time offered an international range of perspectives and contemporary practices of gamelan performance and theory. Here, participants debated the fluid meanings of tradition and the modern in gamelan, a blurry and often illusory dichotomy that was borne out in performances of new compositions. Finally, we conclude by [End Page 429] assessing the symposium’s lasting impacts not only on Canada and the United...