Music for Music: Balawan


Music for Music: Balawan, Jazz, and Gamelan

By Dan Ursini © 2018

It’s not easy, but a stringed instrument like an electric guitar can be played one-handed. It’s called tapping and it involves hammering the fretting fingers hard enough to produce a sound. Many musicians learn to tap just enough for the occasional high speed special effect. But some with exceptional talent and ambition figure out how to tap notes with both hands at the same time, often using double-neck guitars; or two different guitars. Those with real vision tap guitar(s) like they are playing a piano so they can do the melody, chords and bass at once.

The rarest of these musicians use it as a key element in developing a hybrid kind of music. Such is the case with the Balinese guitar virtuoso Balawan.

The casual posture he strikes, with one guitar  strapped around  his neck and the other placed—like a significant afterthought—on the guitar case speaks volumes about his talent and composure.

Balawan grew up listening to gamelan music.It originated on Bali and employs mallets and gongs, drums, and tuned metal bars. An expansive artistic culture involving music, theatre, and dance grew up around it. Western composers going back to Debussy and Satie have found gamelan easy to love but difficult to use in their own music. But since the 1990s, Balawan has been developing an elegant fusion of jazz with a brand of Balinese pop music which incorporates elements of gamelan, Indian classical music, and Bollywood.

One measure of the richness of a culture is the range of contradiction it can absorb and still remain coherent. In that respect, Bali amazes. A great visual metaphor for this stretch capacity is provided by the artists in the video below. As a stock-still  Balawan rips through a screaming solo, a beautiful dancer moves with measured grace—even as one of the musicians does a chipper comic dance right beside her. Meanwhile, percussionists using metallophones and drums push deftly forward. There is no sense of Dada disruption. It is the ordinary role-shifting in an art form of  remarkable expressive fluidity.

Balawan has devised highly inventive arrangements for some standards; his take on Gershwin’s “Summertime” is like nothing I have ever heard. It features the rapid changes of tempo and dynamics which help define gamelan. There is a gentle percussive drive throughout which supports spirited soloists using instruments such the melodica. Around 5:40 Balawan does a solo which is a crash course on extremely fast, technically varied playing. The whole of it has a gravity of its own: buoyant and haunting, gentle yet determined.

I highly recommend checking it out—along with any and all of his videos: His YouTube channel alone includes about 300 videos.

See also: Sound Cloud

Photo Credit of Balawan: Joko Photography via Creative Commons via Wikimedia

Dan Ursini and his wife Valerie live in Oak Park, Illinois. Over the years he has done many kinds of writing. Ursini served as the first resident playwright for the Steppenwolf Theatre of Chicago (1978-1983); he worked for ten years as a Contributing Editor for Puerto Del Sol magazine ; he wrote performance art pieces presented at  Chicago venues as Club Lower Links and Club Dreamerz. Ursini wrote radio theatre presented on NPR in the early 1990s. Throughout all this, he has worked full-time at the Law Library at DePaul University where for a decade he also wrote articles for Dialogue, the DePaul law school’s alumni publication . In addition, he was active for some years as a bass guitarist in various Chicago blues/gospel/funk/lounge configurations. Currently Ursini is working on his latest novel. A play he wrote with Robert Rothman, A Mensch Among Men, a fictionalized account of real-life Jewish Chicago-area gangsters, recently had two staged readings in Chicago. Dan can be reached at: danursini@aol.com