Conversation between Dewa Alit and Rob Waring ahead of the Gamelan Salukat Nordic tour 2023
DEWA ALIT & ROB WARING
Dewa Alit is a contemporary composer for gamelan and non-gamelan
instruments working in Bali and beyond. He is known for his radical yet
well-calculated approach to the traditional values in music.
Dewa Alit grew up surrounded by Balinese traditional music and
played in many gamelan groups as one of the leading musicians from
a young age. In 2007 he founded his own group — Gamelan Salukat
— seeking a wider path for expressing his approach to new music in
gamelan and performing his compositions on a new set of instruments
of his own tuning and design.
Dewa Alit's album Chasing the Phantom (Black Truffle, 2022)
was included as one of the year's top releases by The Wire and The New
Rob Waring is a composer, vibraphonist and percussionist and Associate
Professor of percussion at the Norwegian Academy of Music in Oslo.
Balinese music has been one of his most important sources of inspiration
and he has graciously provided his own set of Balinese Semaradana
gamelan for Gamelan Salukat to perform with for their concerts in
Norway and Sweden.
This conversation was conducted over email in January 2023.
I have been thinking that, for a European audience that has little or no
familiarity with Balinese music at all, it will be challenging to try to give
them an awareness of what it is about your music that is unique, why it
is to be considered modern, and how it differs from, let's say, Gamelan
Gong Kebyar music of the past 50 or 100 years. For European listeners
who have not heard it before, many of the old Gong Kebyar classics
would sound quite modern. And this can even be said about European
music. If we think about the music that Igor Stravinsky wrote 100 years
ago, I would guess that for many people today it still sounds quite
Any thoughts about this?
I myself cannot explain why or how my music is considered modern,
because I never think of what my music's category is. I just always move
forward for something new even from my own music. It's only other
people who try to categorize my music calling it new music, modern,
contemporary, experimental, underground and so on.
I am not surprised by your answer. Let's avoid the categories. You have
been moving forward for a long time now. Can you describe some of the
ideas you have explored along the way, and how the journey has brought
you to where you are now?
I was a gamelan musician from very young and I played many compositions
from very traditional where we don't know who composed them,
to works of other composers, some already died, some still alive, and
even foreign composers writing for gamelan. And from very young I also
wanted to compose my own music, like I liked writing poems. It just felt
like something that naturally came out from me.
One of the things I explored from a very early stage was to something
new on Semaradana gamelan, which was not as popular compared to
gong kebyar at that time, but I saw semaradana embraced more possibilities
for something new.
And one thing I saw possible on semaradana was to mix some scales
in 7-tune gamelan. That is something unusual for a gamelan piece to
shift or mix scales in one piece. I also didn't find any instrumental
compositions written for gamelan Semaradana yet at that time. My
piece Geregel that I started writing in 1998 was the first instrumental
composition specially written for Semaradana-style gamelan.
I composed many pieces for Semaradana since then, but I came to feel
the limit even with that system, so I created Gamelan Salukat with
a new tuning system in 2007. This gamelan has gone a few times of
renovation and re-tuning to come to how it is now. My compositions for
Gamelan Salukat also evolved along with my gamelan instruments.
I am curious about some aspects of the cultural context because I have
some impressions of Balinese mentality, culture and society. Please
correct me if I am wrong about this!
My impression is that it must be difficult in Bali to be primarily focused
on exploring what is new, different, not traditional. Of course, you could
say that this is difficult everywhere in the world — and of course, that
is true. But in some societies there is a huge emphasis on the individual
and that people should strive to realize their own potential by following
their dreams. In Bali, I think the primary focus is on community. People
are encouraged to realize their full potential in terms of how they can
participate in, and contribute to, the community.
If this is true, one would think that a Balinese artist who constantly
strives to follow their own urge for discovery, breaking with many traditions
along the way, would experience a lot of criticism and resistance.
Is this true? Have you had to struggle to be able to follow your artistic
Yes, your impression is right about Bali, that there are many challenges
for both my compositions and Salukat as a group. I think the younger
generation today are more open so I feel I have more room now than
10 years ago for example. Only my work is still beyond their ability to
understand such works. Also, some part of the suppression comes from
politics in arts here. I don't work for the government or art institutions,
I'm very independent. So not many ‘big' people like me — it is not
necessarily about my music.
Struggle, yes. It is very big. Now it's easier because I'm now free from
any ties to authorities and to the community. Gamelan music has a
strong tie to the community, as you know, and I too came from that as
a very active gamelan musician. People tried hard to keep me and my
group to stay in their world, so it took a long time to be free like I am
It is good to hear that you find the younger generation more open. I
know how much you have traveled and taught outside of Bali so I was
wondering whether you were referring to youth around the world in
general, or Balinese youth specifically.
I was thinking of the young Balinese/Indonesian people.
On the subject of political influence in the arts — As I understand, the
tourism industry in Bali began with a Dutch company during colonial
times. They marketed an image of Bali as the ultimate island paradise,
where everyone is a skilled craftsman or artist, where Hindu philosophy
permeates all aspects of life and maintains a sense of balance, and
where the unique indigenous culture is in danger of being destroyed by
modernity. Ironically, at the same time as the Dutch had an interest in
Bali being frozen in time and promoted as the last paradise, the tourists
themselves were a major modernizing factor and threat to the traditional
culture that was attracting them.
And after independence, Balinese themselves have taken over the
cultural tourism business, which leads us to the question of politics
today. What do you think about the influence of cultural tourism on
Bali's musical evolution? Are there positive and negative sides to it?
Is innovation being stifled by the marketing machine? Or has cultural
tourism also led to fruitful interactions between Balinese and international
musicians and a positive interchange of ideas?
I cannot make a generalization about what is positive and what is
negative, because every Balinese musician and artist have different
expectations, experiences, in different situations.
I never thought of money when doing music as a musician either as
a player or a composer. But when I paint (I paint traditional Balinese
paintings also) besides the fact that I enjoy painting, I have also painted
for money, selling them to tourists when I was young and needed money
for music school. I played gamelan for tourists for many years and I
didn't enjoy it, but I have to admit I did benefit from tourists who paid
for my paintings.
And I am very happy that my music is acknowledged NOT because of
the cultural marketing (my music is opposite to what they want to
promote as romantic ‘Balinese traditional music') and that Salukat's
tour like this is free from any tie to it.