Gamelan Returns to Tennessee

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The UTK Gamelan Ensemble (with electric guitar), in performance in Fall 2017, the semester prior to me joining.

Last Spring, I had the pleasure of joining the UTK Gamelan Ensemble, led by my friend, colleague, and erstwhile committee member Leslie C. Gay. The band (so to speak) was composed of an eclectic mix of students and community members ranging from the musically gifted (e.g. David Webb, Kali Altintasioti) to the less so (Tyler Sonnichsen). I was excited to continue with the ensemble this Fall semester when I received a disappointing email from Les saying that there would be no Gamelan until the Spring. This was nobody’s fault; our Gamelan had been borrowed from some institution in California, and the music school’s term of lease had expired. The good news was that an all-new Gamelan contracted for UTK was in the works somewhere in Bali. The bad news was that it wouldn’t be ready on time to ship and arrive in Knoxville anytime this Fall. As the saying goes: cheap, fast, or good… pick two (and even two is often pushing it).

I should have anticipated how much I would miss the Gamelan, considering how busy last semester was. Last Spring, it became a perfect break from my routine: two hours every week where I crossed campus, unplugged from the matrix, and played music that I never had to feel guilty for not practicing because I couldn’t practice it (unlike those childhood piano lessons for which my mom essentially set her money on fire…sorry, Mom). This semester, being back on the full teaching schedule, highlighted the Gamelan-shaped abyss in my life.

First, What is Gamelan?

I’m going to pretend we’re having a conversation, and you just asked me this question and that you’re not reading this on the internet with the ability to open up a new window, scroll through dozens of articles explaining it, hundreds of photos, and thousands of hours of streaming video of people performing it better than I ever could. But, since that’s the first question I get whenever I tell anyone in person that I was in a Gamelan ensemble, I’ll answer the question here as I would in person.

The Gamelan is a coordinated set of percussive instruments intended to be played (often, but not always) in syncopation. It’s associated with Southeast Asia, predominantly Indonesia, though different islands have differing styles and approaches to performance. I’d be loathe to call it a “performance,” too since the islanders willed it into existence as something more spiritual and communal.

Spiritual AND Communal? Tell Me More!

Gamelan

via FactsofIndonesia.com

This is my favorite thing about Gamelan. Everybody in front of a set of chimes or the gong (the one Indonesian word that sneaked its way into English) is equal. Almost any of the instruments can be foregrounded in performance. Anyone can sit down and play. Of course they would improve the more time they spend playing just as with anything, but it’s a percussion ensemble that encourages everyone to play, not just the handful of people who can shred. That being said, the Gamelan can integrate an electric guitar and nobody would complain. This Spring, Jorge Variego sat in on bass clarinet to debut what could only be described as an avant garde art piece (free-Gamelan, in other words, like free jazz), and the audience ate it up.

An epiphany I had at our first practice was that this was an approach that much Western popular music had forgotten. I know that trained musicians (or musicians in general) in countries like the States have been gradually disappearing in an age where STEM has conned its way into near-hegemony in our schools and funding for music programs is being slashed. Still, music cannot fully shed its promordial function as a group activity, not something reserved for a privileged few. Prior to the modern phenomenon of music publishing and copyrighting (less than 200 years old in the United States), music had enjoyed a long history of user-friendliness and root populism. Broadside ballads like “Barbara Allen” were meant to be sung by inclusive groups of revelers in parlors, as seen here in one of my favorite movie scenes of all time.

Arguments do exist that music predates language; humans are born with a variety of potential instruments on their person. Tuvan throat singing styles clearly mimic sounds of nature. Hamboning, an autopercussive song-and-dance style, worked its way into the Southern legend via slave traditions. Even some 80’s dream-pop songs with non-linguistic, non-lyrical vocals could be argued to be instrumentals.

So, Why Is It Important?

Obviously, in the handful of communities (mostly Universities) lucky to have one available, the novelty of Gamelan is one reason for its surging popularity in the United States as much as its accessibility. You know it’s novel enough for Fred Armisen and IFC to cart one in for a joke in the Documentary Now! series. But, novelty breeds fads, which gamelan clearly isn’t. The syncopation, timbre, and democracy all form a trusty foundation through which to expand the music’s appeal worldwide.  In so much Western music, percussion is relegated to the background of the band, and percussionists (well, rock drummers) become the butt of jokes.  Even in bands where the drummer is the best actual musician (e.g. Fugazi, Manic Street Preachers), fans tend to take them for granted. It’s always gratifying when percussionists get the respect they deserve, and even better when Gamelan foregrounds all the different ways, usually several within the course of one performance, someone can simply be a percussionist. To put it most bluntly, it sounds gorgeous, and most importantly, it’s just really, really cool.

For me, at least, being in a gamelan ensemble provided the grounding experience for which so many people turn to yoga, meditation, prayer, or some combination of the three. It was great to have in my life for a semester, and then it was difficult getting used to not having it. Today, however, I got a message from my old friend Konstantine, who will be stepping in for Les and leading the UTK Gamelan Ensemble this semester. Our first meeting/practice/jam session is next week, and I can’t wait. I’ll announce it again as it gets closer, but make your calendars for April 17th.

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Ceng Ceng (pronounced ching-ching): the single hardest instrument (for me) to play (well) in the Gamelan.

 

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The Mystery of Govi

I’ve been embroiled in trying to meet a couple of deadlines this week, so here’s another entry in a similar vein to the one about the Caretaker. Have you checked that one out? Because The Caretaker’s stuff is amazing.

Govi was an enigma to me for at least ten years. Maybe fourteen or fifteen, even. I realize calling him an “enigma” is appropriate, since he and Michael Cretu are both German-bred zen-seeking musicians with a flair for making music that suburban moms did crossword puzzles to in the nineties. Also, they both had ridiculous hair/general appearances while at their commercial peaks: Cretu looking more or less like you’d expect the person who made “Return to Innocence” to look, and Govi in full Alan Jackson cosplay on the cover of Cuchama, his third album and likely his first to be named for an indigenous holy site in the California desert. Because it was 1993 and fans of schitzophonic world music weren’t much for buying vinyl (it’s hard to flip the record over with wet clay all over your hands), the label Real Music (out of Sausalito, why not?) released it solely on CD.

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Here’s a video somebody made for the song “Torero” accompanied by footage that appears to be taken from a Made-for-TV prequel to “The Prince of Tides.”

Now, I’ve never seen “The Prince of Tides,” and I have no idea what it’s about, but I think horses running on a beach wouldn’t be out of place in there. Here’s my story about why I love this song.

In June of 2000, I returned home from a coming-of-age trip to Spain with about 35 of my high school classmates. After sleeping off my first bout of jet lag, I went straight to the Napster-equipped family computer (possibly KaZaa, if it was after Lars Ulrich and his rich buddies detonated Napster) and searched for Flamenco music. One of the tracks that come up on the server just said “Govi-Flamenco.Mp3.” It had a very high usage rate on the network, which meant it would probably download in fewer than 3 hours. I double-clicked, and within a few minutes, I had a 5-minute long dream that transported me back to the whitewashed houses of Andalucía and the parched landscape on the outskirts of Segovia (my favorite place on that trip, and to this day one of my favorite cities on Earth).

The Mp3 lived on the hard drive of whatever computer I was using for years. I had a Compaq Presario laptop through my four years of college and into my first year living in DC. I burned it to mix CDs I would use for studying or really anything that required an ethereal Flamenco gypsy experience (so, you know…anything). Even as Wikipedia expanded into hegemony, it never occurred to me to seek out this recording’s origin story.

One day last year, I  was on YouTube, streaming music in my office when I wound up on some post-rock channel. Every now and again, I’ll decide that my work mode requires some This Will Destroy You (whose music, ironically, has the opposite effect on me). I listened to The Best Pessimist’s “Walking with Happiness,” an beautiful instrumental track that’s as great as its title is terrible.  YouTube, in its quest to make you listen to the same VEVO artist 35 times per day, slid me over into world-music territory on its algorithm. I clicked over to ensure that “Return to Innocence” wasn’t the next song in my queue, and I saw a few tracks by Govi lined up on the right column. I hadn’t thought of that name in ages, but I started stumbling through YouTube trying to remember what that song was called.

After a few false starts, I landed on one video with that unmistakable Flamenco guitar intro. This was it! It was called “Torero.” It certainly lent more credence to my idea that this was just some Spanish guitar guy backed by studio musicians. I didn’t expect, though, for Govi to look as vanilla as he did. After some light googling, I found out he wasn’t Spanish at all. He may have well been trying to fool people into thinking he was; he had an album called “AndalucÍan Nights,” for crying out loud. This would put him in league with Martin Denny, whose successful 1950’s Exotica records went to excessive lengths to put listeners in an Hawaiian frame of mind, despite being recorded by non-Islanders in New York City.

Speaking of Hawaii, guess who is based there now. Govi. He is German by birth (born Werner Monka in 1949),  played in various bands describable as “classic” rock in his early twenties, then went full-on New Age and moved to India. He adopted the name Govinda, which he shortened to Govi – how conveniently vaguely Spanish. I have no idea how well his albums have sold, but I guess he wouldn’t keep making them if nobody was buying them. He looks perfectly happy now at age 69, somehow looking younger with all of the gray hair and wrinkles than he did with the mustache and fluff-mullet thirty years ago when he put out his first album of pure moods. Speaking of which, it took long enough, but they included him on the fourth one.

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Of course, Govi has an official website with his authorized bio, if you want to check that out. I struggle to think of any other “mystery artists” I have, which is what makes me somewhat sad that the mystery of Govi has been solved. It doesn’t effect my enjoyment of “Torero,” but knowing what he looks like and his life story does strip the song of some of its power for me. Maybe it’s because I’ve gotten older and less imaginative, but when I hear the track, I don’t think as much about Southern Spain as I do about what Govi would look like playing it in some studio. This was at the root of the evil behind the cinematography of any novel, as well as MTV, open-access encyclopedias and streaming media: “We codify the image so you don’t need your own anymore.” Mystery is important, sometimes.

Texas punk cartoonist Ben Snakepit told a great story in his zine (it might be in the Tales from the Crapt zine; not sure) about once when he was a kid, he bought a Dead Milkmen tape at the mall. The cassette had a much more chaotic and abrasive band recorded onto it. Years later, working in a record shop, he heard the mystery band and all the memories of that moment, listening to this surprise recording in his room and being confused, came rushing back to him. That’s the first thing I thought about while writing this.

Alright, back to editing. If you have a similar “mystery band discovery” story, I would love for you to share it in the comments.