When a friend introduced Wayne Vitale to Balinese music in 1979, he says it was a “no looking back moment.”
“What can any musician say about being obsessed with something?” Vitale recalled of hearing the sounds for the first time. “It's just …... you've got to do it."
Decades later, and Sacramento-area listeners will have a rare chance to experience Balinese music and dance in Folsom on Thursday night, when Gamelan Sekar Jaya performs at the Harris Center.
The San Francisco Bay Area-based company of 60-plus musicians and dancers has been around since the year Vitale first got hooked.
Gamelan Sekar Jaya combines a large percussion orchestra with dancers. Most of the musicians are volunteers — people who live in the Bay Area — taught by visiting Balinese master artists.
“The instruments have either bronze keys or they're made up of bronze gongs of various sizes,” Vitale explained. “And it's rhythmically very intense music, very complicated and dynamic, the tempos are often changing. It's pretty exciting stuff.”
He described that performers sit on the floor and don’t follow along or read sheet music. “I think it's really different, from an audience perspective, not to see musicians staring at a page, because you can engage with the audience," Vitale said.
Under the direction of gamelan composer and performer I Nyoman Windha and dance master I Nyoman Cerita, the ensemble is the first group outside of Indonesia to ever receive the Dharma Kusuma, Bali’s highest award for artistic development.
"Within Sekar Jaya the membership is actually quite diverse,” Vitale said. “In terms of age, it goes from teenagers up to 70 years old and more. And economic levels, you have all the way from starving students to well-to-do professional adults. On the ethnic-diversity front, it's mostly people of European descent and Indonesians, but we've done collaborations with Indian dance ensembles, so we try to stretch out as much as we can."
Vitale thinks most audience members are drawn to the group’s performances because of the dramatic Balinese dancing that accompanies the music.
“The dancers, they work out extremely intricate choreography, plus it's just plain colorful,” he said. “The costumes are beautiful, and the instruments are painted red and gold.
“Kids especially go crazy for Balinese music and dance just because it's so visceral and the characterizations are so compelling, there are demons and angels and kings and princes, many of them drawn from Balinese mythology. I mean, the kids' eyes just light up when they see this.”
Two other people formed Gamelan Sekar Jaya with Vitale and Michael Tenzer in Berkeley 40 years ago: Rachel Cooper, who now heads Global Performing Arts and Cultural Initiatives for the Asia Society in New York, and Balinese gamelan musician I Wayan Suweca, who has taught and performed throughout Asia, Europe and the United States since the 1970s.
“Suweca sees Gamelan Sekar Jaya as kind of his baby in a way,” Vitale said, “like he planted something in another country and it really flourished.”