Amazing how quickly I have immersed myself in Sukawati, where I would stand out as a pale-skinned foreigner. After about 5 days of eating fried everything over rice with bare hands, and of private lesson with I Wayan Sarga, a master Gander wiz and one of the surviving Gamelan royality of Bali, the OG, it feel very, very strange sitting at a coffee/smoothie bar in Sanur or Ubud surrounded by white folks ordering a salad. I make no mistake about being a total alien myself, but the way that Sarga and the Mrs (whose name we haven't figured out yet) Pak Dek, Dwi, and the Old Man (whose name we haven't figured out yet) have welcomed me into their homes - it sometimes gives me the illusion of belonging.
My arrival was delayed thanks to Air Asia, who apparently only hires "porno-hot" (coined by Jay Mohr) flight attendants but alas, I was dead asleep after alcohol-infused 8 day stay in Tokyo. Once my drive Made Alit drove out to the moped-filled streets of Denpasar, the rush came back. Yes, I am back - in DEEP ASIA (coined by Shinji the GM, my buddy in Kuala Lumper) where traffic laws are merely suggestions, the city streets are store fronts/eateries/toilets at the same time, and #zerofucksgiven is on yet another level.
Here comes another ant the size of my pinky nail.
Right away, it comes down to eating. That's Asia for ya; drop everything you have - first you eat (and bath which seems to be another one of main concerns Balinese have). Shortly after my reunion with Maria the mastermind of Bali and Beyond, and meeting the host of my stay and his lovely family, Sarga the guru and Mrs would not let you be without meal, let alone skipping it. Along with the huge round tray is a bowl of water to wash your right hand in; always with your right hand #notetoself and I'm sure I could have asked for utensils, but when in Bali ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
And before even asking for/about it, there is Sambal; yes, THAT sambal from Amsterdam which I described at the earlier post, but in its original form which is more like salsa and not in paste form I saw in Ams. The word Sambal literally means hot sauce, and comes in many variations. Upon throwing just a tiny bit on steamed rice and grabbing a half handful to your mouth, you immediately realize that the lady does not fuck around. Mrs Sarga's recipe takes fried shallots, fried garlic, fried chili and add shrimp paste, then some coconut oil - you end up with a complex mixture of flavors and the kick, you'd be sweating after a few bites if youre not careful. Now I see and taste the origin of what I had in Ams, what Dutch based their version on.
Hold the phone, that is merely a half of the equation; she has fried chicken marinated with chilli peppers, tempeh their primary source of protein, chicken nugget-like fried morsels, and a special dish for us westerners who demand vegetables; water spinach with top ramen. Yuck, you might be thinking, but mind you they are poor; the monthly minimum wage in Bali was at around $155 last year, a bottled water costs about .40 (and they do not drink tap water) This feast we have been served almost twice daily is not their regular meal. Besides, this spinach ramen is tastetown; surrounded by heavily-greased and deep-fried, its a nice breeze with subtle saltiness and whatever she has going for the soup base. The tricky part is throwing this on a bed of rice and eating it bare hand, but that also has proven to be the best part; everything on the plate, including sambal, mixes up with rice and creates this amazing incidental rice dish midway through the meal. And when youre just about to fill up and ready for that same bowl of water to wash, signaling that youre done with the meal, plates of mango, papaya and watermelon. Of course they are amazing, not just sweet but has this refreshing sourness that makes the sweetness pops even more. A perfect dessert.
I have not eaten out as much since Sarga kind of expects me and Maria to eat with them, but there have been a few meals I have had outside; a local favorite called Waroeng SS (stands for Spesial Sambal) who offers more than a dozen kinds of sambal, a crazy flavorful spinach and a fried egg which killed me, also a very decadent Avocado juice mixed with chocolate syrup - I need to revisit. Mai, a fellow japanese Gander student of Sargas brought some Nasi Goreng and fried banana desert from a nearby stand which were killer as well. And at this place in Sanur, a few other places in Ubud where I had gone craving fresh vegetables have been great in terms of being able to get an LA-type food for less than half the price, but Mrs Sarga is not even the same ball park, not even the same sport. The assault of flavors, the explosion in my senses, and the homey comfort; the trifecta of homemade cooking. It can be a lot to take on a daily basis, but when I don't have it I crave. My body craves it. GIMME.
Now I need to talk about the living legend I've been sitting across 2 sets of Gander from.
Actually, lemme start from how lucky I have been to have met someone like Maria and Cliff who were there when David Lewiston, the recordist who opened the minds of western listeners with the 1967 release "Music from the Morning of the World: The Balinese Gamelan," revisited Bali in 1987 and helped him gather the local musicians for the session which ended up in "Bali: Gamelan and Kecak," the only recording of this music I owned then. Through 3 decades of coming here and making real connections with people in Sukawati, which is known for its lightning fast style of Gamelan, Maria has earned the love and respect of the community, along with the friendship with Sarga, the last standing master of Gander.
I am not ready to detail where he comes from; for that we need to wait for Maria to compile all the information she has gathered in the last 30 years. All I know is that, in the changing landscape of Balinese Gamelan music, he holds the key to the old and mysterious ways. Another student of his and an acclaimed shadow puppeteer, Kohei, a Tokyo native who's been filling me in on a lot of background as Maria has been #blessed tells me that the younger (and possibly more well-educated in western ways) can play just as good as Sarga does, but tends to lack the vibe, the tone, the magic that he has (and a bunch of old guys used to). And the magic it might as well be; it is the sacred music designed to please gods, and when played by a great ensemble like the one I got to see at the Temple Festival called Banjar, it sucks an audience into a kaleidoscope of polyrhythms and resonating frequencies. The magic Sarga or a Gander virtuoso has is that s/he can create that kaleidoscope with just one instrument, 10 keys consisting of 2 octaves of a pentatonic scale. If you gather everyone in a village, 80% has the knowledge and the ability to play at least one out of many Gamelan instruments, a testament to how important Gamelan is to Balinese culture. Only 1% though, can play a Gander. And the masters enjoy the respect and adoration of the community, which comes with a price however; Gander players tend to be a bit eccentric because, according to Kohei's theory, as hard as the instrument is to master Gander often gets buried in a big ensemble. Surely a source of frustration when a pair of Gander players can basically replicate what an entire ensemble does, if you can imagine a pianist playing in an orchestra with a toy piano.
Now, I cannot fully speak of the eccentricity of Sarga for I lack the language skill to understand what he says, but my impression has been sort of what I would imagine hanging out with Charlie Parker must've been like, minus the dope. You cannot trust him with scheduling; either he is casually late/early or he gets it completely wrong (I had to lose a hotel reservation because of it). He is loud, loves to joke often inappropriately, and loves women. He spits a lot; I initially thought it was his chewing tobacco, but then spotted him spitting on a floor to wipe the dirt off where he was about to sit. Demands everyone to basically go with his plan, even when there seems to be none. #facepalm 😂 Even the lessons have been pretty loose with plenty of time just hanging out with each other and with occasional visitors. He does not verbally explain things much, even to other students who's fluent in Indo. All that said, he does not let one wrong note go by even from a beginner like me. One of the very few English words he knows; WRONG. He visibly gets annoyed when you play wrong. On the flip side, he puts on a big, almost comedic smile when you play right, and starts playing all kinds of fancy shit on top of your notes to fuck you up.
I do not play percussions. I don't know rudiments. I can barely play keyboards. It was my bad going into this with basically no prep. The biggest challenge has been the memorizing; Satu (one) - my brain is old. Dua (two) - every phrase is pentatonic and indistinguishable until you really know it. Tiga (three) - there'll be an extra beat or two here and there which breaks the 4/4 norm. I never took this long to learn a song which only consists of a pentatonic scale. I couldn't even hum it for the love of gods. Day Tiga or empat (four) however, there was a moment when I was playing somewhat right and Sarga started playing the counterpoint - it made sense. The series of notes which felt to me monotonous and indifferent up to that point started to really sing. It open the window to the kaleidoscope of sounds so slightly that I got the sneak peek of it, something that has been beyond comprehension until I sat in front of the instrument.
That doesn't mean that I got though the tune without fucking up; I fall apart shortly after. When I look up to Sarga though, I'm sure he could tell that I was hooked.
Soundchaser/two-time Independent Music Awards finalist. New EP "Six Songs from Insomnia" is out on all major streaming platforms.