Alex Dea: Wholeheartedly
into gamelan

Slamet Susanto, The Jakarta Post, Yogyakarta

In 1972, Californian Alex Dea happened to hear the sound of a gamelan orchestra.

He was then 22 years old and the music he heard was an arrangement by Tjokro Warsito, then a lecturer specially assigned to teach gamelan in the United States.

Dea, then seriously into studying jazz music, said he was charmed by that experience: The music touched his heart. Although its rhythm is slow, gamelan music can penetrate deep into the human psyche.

""I'd heard Indian and Balinese music and was then studying jazz. However, the moment I heard gamelan music, I immediately liked it. I was deeply moved by the rhythm,"" Dea told The Jakarta Post after a collaborative performance of Mocopat and the royal servants of Yogyakarta Palace during the recent International Gamelan Music Festival in Yogyakarta.

Gamelan is a musical genre that is universal in nature as it can be played in any situation, for a variety of purposes. It can be used as music accompanying a particular traditional event or a rite, such as a leather puppet show performance or a palace dance-drama.

On the other hand, gamelan is also suitable for different types of traditional entertainment such as campur sari (modernized traditional Javanese songs), and dance-drama using people instead of puppets, with stories taken from the shadow puppet repertoire.

""In essence, gamelan can be used to express many human emotions: It's an expression of feeling,"" Dea said.

Given its versatility, Dea is sure that gamelan can survive in this globalized world. It will not lose its place due to modernity.

However, gamelan he says, must be adaptable in that it can be used in collaboration with other types of art and music without losing its own unique identity and substance.

""I've seen young people playing gamelan and I believe it will survive, especially as many contemporary artists have blended gamelan with technology,"" he noted.

For Dea, gamelan has even become a world tradition and is capable of bridging the gap between oriental and occidental cultures.

Both positive and negative elements of occidental culture have come to Indonesia. Meanwhile, in the West, many schools teach gamelan to their students. Consequently, gamelan can bridge the gap between East and West.

""As a means of expressing human feelings, gamelan is an instrument that produces balance in life. Man must think to live. However, if you rely only on your brains and logic and pay no heed to your feelings, you will find something missing in your life,"" Dea said.

""In the same way, you will also find something missing if you prioritize your feelings over your logic,"" he added.

Dea, who ""fell in love at first sight"" with gamelan, has seriously learned to play it. He studied for his PhD degree in gamelan at a university in California and, at the same time, began to learn Indonesian.

After obtaining his PhD, Dea moved to Indonesia in 1976 to learn more about gamelan.

""During that time I traveled to and fro between Surakarta and Yogyakarta palaces to learn gamelan from the experts. I had many teachers there. My main instructor was Ki Tjokro,"" he said.

Every time there was a royal rite either at Surakarta or Yogyakarta palaces, Dea would be present because he wanted to learn more about the genre.

""Even now, I'm still studying hard. The most difficult thing for me is studying Jawa Kromo (the highest or most refined level of Javanese language). I can speak Javanese but my language is of the low or crude variety,"" Dea said.

Dea often collaborates with royal servants in gamelan performances. One of his gamelan compositions, In Pelog, is the result of his collaboration with Prof. Dr. Sumarsan, an Indonesian teaching at Wesleyan University in the United States.

Dea has one special ambition: He would like to write a special book on gamelan. ""I'm preparing the material for this book,"" Dea said.

To finance his gamelan studies, Dea is working as an expert in a computer company. ""I often travel to Singapore or elsewhere on office assignments.

""The money I earn is spent on my artistic endeavors,"" he concluded.

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