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It’s a little dim inside the elaborate Beaux Arts ballroom of the Indonesian Embassy. “We’re not allowed to turn all the lights on,” explains Leigh Panlilio. “They’re trying to save money.”
Indonesia has been strapped since its currency crashed last year, but it can still afford to export the culture of Bali, the lone Hindu outpost in the predominantly Muslim country. Balinese music and dance lure tourists to the island; they also bring Panlilio and about 25 other people, most of them Americans, to Indonesia’s Dupont Circle embassy each week to practice on its gamelan percussion orchestra. The more accomplished of these musicians perform, with traditional dancers, as Gamelan Mitra Kusuma.
A gamelan consists of drums and gongs, but mostly metallophones, which are similar to xylophones or marimbas. The Balinese style is distinctive: The musicians play interlocking parts, creating speedy, shimmering, intricate melodies whose flurries of notes can sound explosive. This mode is called gong kebyar, which means to flare up or to bloom suddenly.
“It’s only one kind of chord,” explains Panlilio, who used to play in the punk band Reptile House and now maintains Gamelan Mitra Kusuma’s Web site (www.his.com/-panlilio). “It’s a fifth, which is a power chord on guitar.”
Balinese music has influenced many minimalist and totalist composers, notably Steve Reich, whose Drumming draws on both Balinese and West African precedents. In Bali, however, gamelan music is ceremonial: It accompanies dance, shadow-puppet theater, and religious rituals, including spectacular cremations. The performers typically wear elaborate costumes, although at a rehearsal last week the dancers swayed in sweat pants and T-shirts beneath the ornate pink, ivory, and gold ceiling.
Gamelan Mitra Kusuma (which means “Flowering Friendship”) performs mostly compositions by its Balinese musical director, Nyoman Suadin, an exuberant, childlike man with an easy laugh, who also choreographs the troupe’s dances.
Panlilio has played with the troupe for almost eight years, but says, “We’ve only been organized for about a year and a half.” He credits Suadin for the change: “The old director didn’t really push us. A lot of the serious people dropped out.”
Suadin teaches Balinese music in Maryland, Pennsylvania, and upstate New York. Washington, however, holds the focus of his aspirations. Standing in the shadowy ballroom at rehearsal’s end, he gestures toward the gamelan instruments and the casually dressed group of jazz musicians, rockers, and outright amateurs who’ve just played them. “This,” he says proudly, “is my group.”Mark Jenkins
Gamelan Mitra Kusuma performs a free concert Thursday, Aug. 20, at 6:30 p.m. on the steps of the Freer Gallery of Art.