By Sonia Kurniawan
If only he were back in Bali. He would not have so many sleepless nights. His heart would not ache with sadness because of his inability to infuse the feeling of his beloved gamelan music into the hearts of his American students.
"How am I to make my students one with the music?" he has asked himself constantly.
That has been the lingering question since I Ketut Gede Asnawa, now a music instructor at the University of Illinois, moved to the United States nearly 13 years ago. Blinded by work stress and the feeling of not belonging, he could not always see that his move saved a very precious life.
"I don't know what would have happened if I hadn't moved ," he says. "Thinking about it now, it scares me."
Asnawa was born in 1955 in Denpasar, Bali, Indonesia. He was a farmer's son and the seventh of 10 children. Bali, home to most of Indonesia's Hindu minority, is renowned for its arts, including Balinese dance, sculpture, painting, leather, metalworking — and the gamelan.
As a boy, Asnawa did not have the luxury of Playstations, Nintendo Wiis or X-boxes. Instead, the young Asnawa found entertainment in nature and music. He played in the paddy fields, fished for catfish and scared the ducks. He reclined atop bales of hay at the rice granary and stared at the night sky until sleep became too tempting to resist.
With this bucolic life came the Balinese gamelan — a traditional Indonesian orchestra collection of bronze percussion instruments. Asnawa's first taste of the gamelan came at age 7. Young and curious, he experimented with the ensemble: gongs, metallophones composed of a larger pair (ugal) and a smaller male-female pair (gangsas), chime gongs (reongs), and palm-sized cymbals (ceng-cengs). He also toyed with the double-sided membrane drum (kendang), which functions as the orchestra's rhythm keeper and plays the role of the baton in western classical music.
The gamelan instruments are made and owned by the community, not individuals.
Asnawa's neighbor was a gamelan musician and had a small gamelan set at his house. He always welcomed Asnawa in to play. Playing the gamelan is second nature to Balinese children, but Asnawa stood out. He could listen to interlocking layers of the gamelan music — the ting-a-ling chime noises of the ceng-cengs or the shimmery ringing of the reongs — and then easily imitate their beats.
He loved the fiery side of gamelan music, filled with racing beats and intricate rhythms. To him, the gamelan was like a feisty child in broad daylight: playful, spontaneous and loud, a contrast to his quiet, polite and reserved nature. Seeing his talent, his uncle took him to the local bale, where the community gamelans are kept, for lessons.
"If you can play the gamelan well," Asnawa says of life in Bali, "you should offer yourself to the act of learning the gamelan. It's like a religious duty . The art of the gamelan is a part of worship to please the gods."
Gamelan musicians are well-respected figures in Balinese culture. They play a critical role in sustaining Balinese tradition — especially if they're musicians of Asnawa's caliber. A pioneer in contemporary gamelan, he has written books about the gamelan and is well-respected among Bali's 3.1 million residents. In Bali, he's a celebrity; in the United States, he is unknown.
Room 1188 of the Music Building starts to vibrate in rhythm to the beating of the drum, the shimmering of the gangsas, the booming of the gongs, and the clanging of the ceng-cengs. Asnawa's gamelan class is now in session.
"One, one, two, two, one, one, two, two, por, por, three, three, por, por." Asnawa's distinctly accented voice rises above the din as he counts to the beating of his drum.
"Slow down, Peter!" Asnawa tells a student who brings down his mallet onto the reong a moment too soon.
"One, two, three, por, em parang!" Asnawa says, as he tries to guide Peter by making his voice mimic the reong's sound. "One, two, three, four.
"You're still too fast, Peter!"
Peter's confusion is not unusual among Asnawa's American students. They lack wirasa: the natural spirit, spontaneity and feel of gamelan music that the Balinese people seem innately to grasp and embody. Perhaps it would be like trying to teach the Balinese western classical, Cajun or Appalachian folk music that is culturally foreign to them.
His American students are so focused on getting the notes right that they forget to listen. He wants his students to be able to shed their studied individualistic behavior and listen, reciprocate and play as part of a community.
"Why am I here in America, if I can't get them to play right?" he asks.
Asnawa had planned to be a gamelan professor at the music conservatory in Bali. Yet, despite his high stature, life as a teacher and gamelan musician in Indonesia can be hard — and wages are low. So, in 2003, when he was offered a Gamelan teaching position as a visiting professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City Conservatory of Music, he took it. He uprooted his wife and two children from Bali and moved to the U.S. with hopes of a more materially prosperous future.
Soon, he received a terrible surprise.
Asnawa had long noticed that daughter Ni Made Yunirika's right shoulder was higher than her left, but he brushed if off, thinking that it was nothing serious. When he moved to the U.S., though, he took her to Kansas City's Children Mercy hospital for a check-up. The diagnosis: Yunirika, now 20, had scoliosis. If left untreated, the spinal issues would cause her serious problems and perhaps even death due to organ damage.
Yunirika has had three operations and constant check-ups since the diagnosis. Asnawa knows that if he had stayed in Bali, she would likely be crippled. Today, she is healthy.
"I'm very grateful that I moved to the U.S.; if not Yuni would suffer later," he says.
Yet Asnawa has struggled to adapt to American culture, which he sees as individualistic, high-strung and outspoken, unlike the more conservative, leisurely and collective culture of Bali. He misses Bali. He misses his friends. He misses playing the gamelan with his countrymen — the interlocking beats and the spontaneity of the performance. The feistiness of the gamelan music in Bali is dulled here in America.
The feeling of wirasa is missing.
Asnawa's house in Urbana is a statement of his longings. Inside his two-story home, a faint smell of sandalwood permeates the air. It originates from an incense stick placed on small basket made with coconut palm leaves — a typical Balinese offering.
"It's to ward off evil spirits and a gift to the gods," Asnawa says.
The alabaster-colored walls are lined with hand-carved wooden masks and various shadow puppets called wayangs that normally accompany gamelan performances.
A large painted canvas depicts the story of Ramayana, a Balinese epic. Asnawa is particularly fond of this painting, which depicts Bali's native wayang characters.
"It's a rare painting, this one. It can only be obtained at the Kamasan Village in the north of Bali."
Pictures of family and friends from back home adorn the fridge. In his living room is a small gamelan set, where he and his children sometimes play for guests.
"This house is a place where I can feel at home and be myself."
Asnawa knows his students fall short of grasping the feeling of wirasa. But, for the benefits to his family, he has made his peace. He patiently teaches his students one mallet hit at a time, hoping to at least instill in them: "Magguru, Panggul dan Kuping" — roughly translated, it means to learn by watching and listening.
After all the years in America, Asnawa is grateful.
"That's the funny thing about life. You'll never know where it will take you," he says.
He doesn't regret moving: "I'll do it all over again if I have to."
Yet he also knows he won't be truly content until he returns home to his beloved Bali. Asnawa closes his eyes and sighs.
Yes, he will definitely return home. Just when, he is not sure, probably after his daughters finish their college degrees.
"I'm definitely coming back home."
Sonia Kurniawan is a University of Illinois journalism student. This story was done in a spring semester version of Professor Walt Harrington's literary feature writing class. Funding came from the Marajen Stevick Foundation.