Performing Indonesia: Islamic Intersections, our third festival of Indonesian music, dance, and theater, celebrates the many manifestations of Islamic culture in the island nation, which is home to more Muslims than any other country. We’re interviewing some of the more than eighty musicians, dancers and other performing artists who will appear throughout the festival’s run. Andy McGraw, who was involved in the festival’s planning, is part of two ensembles performing the evening of September 22. An associate professor of music at the University of Richmond, McGraw describes himself as “a dad, an ethnomusicologist with wide research interests and a performer of many kinds of musics.”
Q: When and why did you take an interest in Indonesian music?
A: In 1995, I was playing in a jazz band in Kansas City (my hometown) when I was contacted by someone in Singapore interested in a temporary house trade. One of the musicians in the jazz band had studied in Indonesia and suggested I go and retrieve some instruments he had left in Bali. So I arranged to have a friend cover my drum-set students, and my girlfriend (now wife) and I headed over to a part of the world neither of us knew anything about.
After exploring Singapore, she headed north to Malaysia and I headed south to Indonesia, without a guidebook or any knowledge of the language. I immediately became lost in the chain of islands between Singapore and Sumatra. I rode sailboats up river into Central Sumatra, where I spent several days believing I was in Java. After several more days of travel through Sumatra and Java, mainly by “goat class” train cars, I ended up in Bali.
Throughout this passage, I was amazed by the striking cultural differences (music, language, food) between villages and humbled by the consistent generosity I was shown. Despite being completely ignorant of local customs, likely committing faux pas after faux pas, I was almost always treated with patience and grace.
When I arrived in Bali, I began studying with I Wayan Gandra. With his father I Madé Lebah, Gandra had led the first Balinese tour to America in 1952 (famously appearing on The Ed Sullivan Show). On my second night on the island, he took me to see not a tourist performance, but a mabarung temple festival contest between two of Bali’s finest gamelan ensembles. I had never experienced such intense musicianship. The cohesion of the ensemble, in absence of conductor or notation, introduced me to social and musical forms I did not think were possible. I was immediately hooked.
Q: You teach courses about global music. Why should students—particularly American students—study this subject?
A: My primary teaching goal is to introduce students to aesthetic difference: to challenge students’ aesthetic common sense by exposing them to musical systems foreign to their prior experience. This is intended to perform two ethical functions: 1) to demonstrate the mutability and variability of human culture globally, reminding individuals that their own culture is constructed and changeable and 2) to instill a sense of expansive collectivity: that they have a link, and maybe even a kind of loyalty, to people they have never met, to people that represent the cultures they are studying.
Music evolved primarily to foster social relationships. Its very ambiguity (we never agree exactly on its meanings) allows us to connect through it (we can all agree that it feels good). That shared emotion creates empathy. When an American student shares a concrete musical experience of joy with a visiting Indonesian musician, for instance, they establish a connection that would be difficult to forge through writing, or online, or even through casual conversation. But beyond that, it connects that student in a concrete way not only to another individual but to “the Balinese” and “Indonesians” in a way I don’t believe a history book (or, more often today, Wikipedia) can.
It is crucial that young Americans develop a felt empathy for as many cultures as possible. I’m talking about informed, specified understandings and interests in concrete cultures, not some vague, generalized camaraderie or cosmopolitanism, which I don’t think does much to energize a real sense of obligation. Being the foremost military and economic power in the world today, America can wreak historically unprecedented levels of damage globally, but it also holds almost immeasurable potential for enacting positive change. The better informed individuals are about the world and its cultures, the more likely they are to act in ways that sustain and respect those cultures. Most importantly, the more likely they are to listen to those cultures.
Q: Tell me a bit about your plans for the September 22 performance.
A: My primary plans for the September 22 performance are to not make any mistakes! Momenta is a wonderful ensemble, and although I’ve performed with them before, I’ll admit I’m a bit afraid! I am excited about this performance partly because of the wide variety of genres on the program. I Wayan Yudane and Jack Body’s House in Bali is a lush, lyrical work that buzzes with the incommensurable tuning clashes between Western and Balinese instruments. Tony Prabowo’s works lean towards the more austere style of global modernism. Thrown into the mix are Indonesian kroncong asli tunes, which the visiting Indonesian singer Ubiet Raseuki has recently been reviving. Kroncong is a “light classical” form that was very popular in independence-era Indonesia (circa 1950s–60s) with a deeply nostalgic resonance. This form is almost never heard in America. Both Gamelan Raga Kusuma and Orkes Kroncong Rumput, the Balinese and kroncong ensembles we have in Virginia, are working hard in preparation!
Q: What do you hope audiences will take away?
A: I want the audience to take away a sense of the incredible variety and vibrancy of Indonesia’s musical ecology. Most importantly, I hope they come to see Indonesia not only as host to many different kinds of “traditional” music but experimental, modernist, collaborative, and classical musics as well. I hope that audience members do not get aesthetic whiplash! Finally, I also hope audience members feel free to ask questions after the concert and to stick around to interact with the gamelan and kroncong instruments.
Reserve tickets now for Strings Meet Gamelan: Chamber Music from Indonesia on September 22.