Every week, I spend time poking around random Bandcamp tags in search of new, interesting recordings from outside the usual North America + UK + Western Europe sphere that most promos come from. I’m almost sure that’s how I ended up on the Bali Gamelan Sound Bandcamp page. Agustín is an Argentinian student who fell in love with gamelan music and went to Bali to learn and study it. It’s been nearly three years since he arrived. He continues to document and share recordings of traditional gamelan music, using the proceeds to support musicians and instrument makers on the island. I reached out to learn about his story.
So let’s talk about the gamelan project. First, where did your interest in Indonesia first begin? Did gamelan music start your interest in the country and culture, or did that come later?
My interest in Indonesia began when my Argentinian friend Juan Pereyra came to Bali in 2018 to study Balinese Gamelan, and that was the first time I heard about it. I started listening to some compositions on YouTube, and it seemed surreal.
My interest in the archipelago was 100% about the music. To be honest, I didn’t know anything about the country besides the amazing sounds of the orchestra. Then I fell in love with the island and its people.
How did you end up in Indonesia?
After my friend Juan came back to Buenos Aires, I signed up for a Darmasiswa Scholarship to study Indonesian Arts and Culture. I was awarded 1 year of Karawitan (Gamelan) Studies at the University ISI Denpasar, Bali. My father was so excited about the opportunity that he bought me an airplane ticket to travel.
What is it that you are drawn to and love about gamelan music?
I love the idea that musicians don’t usually use any musical notation, and they can remember songs that last even up to 25 minutes long. Usually, they play by ear and reach a level of complexity that is very high.
To me, it brings a sound of purity. The resonance of Bronze instruments for me is related to a universal feeling of love, compassion, and religions like Tibetan Buddhism. There is a special vibration in the ensemble called “Ombak,” which means wave, and it’s made on purpose, so when hitting 2 different instruments in the same note/tone… both instruments will sound slightly out of tune and will create a unique modulation, like an LFO in the synths, but natural.
Gamelan doesn’t need any type of electricity. You can be playing in the middle of the forest without any connection. It feels like meditation.
There is also a need for collaboration. You can see that with the interlocking or the “Kotekan” of the songs. Usually, at least 2 players are needed to play one melody, so it’s a communal experience. Big groups consist of around 30 players.
When did you start this documentation and recording process, and what pushed you to start making and sharing these recordings?
After my scholarship finished, I did a project in order to sign up for the University and get some Master’s Degree credits. I came up with the idea of “Bali Gamelan Sound,” which consisted of documenting the Spiritual Musical Sound of the Balinese Hindu Religious Ceremonies. This was during the pandemic, so the island was empty of tourists. Famous places were calm and unpolluted, and the Balinese families returned to their roots. The coffee shops and restaurants were closed, and the beaches were empty. But the art was raised. It was like living in the Bali of older times, where local people were in the religious and cultural experience.
What’s been the biggest challenge with this?
The ego is the only barrier that can divide us from the divine of living a human experience. Once we cross that barrier, we realize there is only unity. We are one Planet, one Universe, one humankind. It makes me calm to believe that there is no separation between anything.
How have you been able to help support these local performers and everything through this project? I imagine raising awareness of their music and sharing it has been a big thing, but you also mentioned how you are using proceeds towards developing Balinese Culture and Artists, which is fantastic.
I support the project mainly through funds from my personal work and Art Foundations, which provide assistance for specific projects. There are also donations on websites like Bandcamp, where listeners can directly add value to the music recordings.
The abundance that comes into the project goes directly to Balinese Art in different ways, supporting their concerts, compositions, studies, recordings, photo sessions, and buying instruments from local builders.
And can you tell me a little about the sample packs you’ve put together and how you’ve gone about using them yourself with your own works?
I have now recorded up to eight sample packs of different Gamelan Ensembles. I created a website called “Bali Gamelan Samples,” also in Bandcamp where you can find Gong Kebyar, Balinese Angklung, Gender Wayang, Rindik, Jegog, Gandrung, Semar Pegulingan, and Selonding sounds of the instruments.
Since I entered a Sanggar for the first time (the rehearsal space for Gamelan), I knew I wanted to compose with the Gamelan instruments…so the path for that was to record samples of each Gamelan Ensemble and have them available for playing in any software.
I feel it’s a blessing to open a laptop and have access to those ancient sounds. The freedom of carrying a pair of headphones and a computer, going to the beach, forest, or anywhere, and playing Gamelan with a sampler is something exquisite for me.
I like adding reverbs, soundscapes, delays, creating atmospheres in temples or gardens, and witnessing the surrounding life.
Sharing the samples with the world opens up the spectrum where Gamelan music is listened to… people become curious about the origin of the sounds, and foreign musicians start creating unusual compositions.
What do you hope to do in the future with the project?
With Bali Gamelan Sound… I would love to collaborate with more friends and grow the project in unexpected directions. I feel it’s time for the experience to open its wings, letting co-creators use the platforms and online communities already created, giving them life with new ideas.