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The Boston Phoenix Balinese Bounty

Mickey Hart's Bali Sessions

By Banning Eyre

JULY 19, 1999:  Mickey Hart says life after the Grateful Dead couldn't be better. When he's not leading his eclectic percussion ensemble, Planet Drum, or helping to digitize the Library of Congress (he was appointed Director of American Folk Life there in June), he finds time for the far-flung field-recording adventures he used to have to squeeze in between tour dates in the Dead's busy calendar. Hart's most thrilling expedition so far took him to Denpasar in Bali last year, where over the course of three sweat-drenched nights he recorded 12 hours of music by various gamelan orchestras and traditional ensembles from all around that Indonesian island. A generous sampling of his Balinese bounty has now been compiled on a lavish three-CD Rykodisc package called The Bali Sessions, Living Art, Sounding Spirit.

"All these great ethnomusicologists are really running the show," says Hart, playing down his role in the Bali project. "I am just a remote recordist with a love and a distribution system." In fact, though, Hart approached this work with a clear concept. "I didn't want to do what had been done," he says in explaining why he avoided the bronze kebyar gamelan ensembles that dominate most existing recordings of Balinese music. "I wanted to go with the jew's-harp, the bamboo, the iron gamelan. And I wanted to find the new music of Bali."

Hart's instincts were right on target. His Bali Sessions isn't a collection of obscure musicological tracks only a scholar could love. In short, it's entrancing -- a five-star contribution to the world's shockingly small body of well-recorded Indonesian music. And as modest as he may be about his personal contributions to the project, he's more than comfortable praising the music itself: "Of all the percussion-driven ensembles on the planet, Indonesian gamelan is the apogee. And I've listened to them all."

A few years back, Hart produced Music of the Gods (Rykodisc), a historic Library of Congress recording of pre-World War II Balinese gamelan. On arrival in Bali this time around, he was pleased to discover that Music of the Gods is now revered as a classic there. And once musicians and scholars realized that Hart was behind the new project, they did everything they could to help him. Determined to get the best results possible, he hired private cops to cordon off the Institute of Music in Denpasar to keep out traffic noise and barking dogs. Arranging one group after another around a single stereo microphone, he came away with pristine, balanced recordings every time.

The first CD features short pieces and emphasizes variety. It begins with the iron-keyed Gamelan Selonding, probably the precursor of all the other forms of gamelan. With just six instruments, no cymbals or drums, and slow tempos, these opening tracks are lulling and meditative. Of the four groups on this CD, the Gamelan Genggong, which includes Balinese jew's-harps made from sugar-cane leaves, is the most surprising, as resonant boings blend with soothing gongs. The disc concludes with rare recordings of Gamelan Jegog, an orchestra in which bamboo stalks and trunks replace iron or bronze bars on the struck instruments.

CD #2 starts out innocently enough with more bamboo gamelan before moving into nearly an hour of electrifying kecak, the chattery, wild, "monkey chant" that has been a hit with tourists to Bali since the 1920s. Hart says that one million tourists visit three million Balinese every year and that though this has inspired a lot of Holiday Inn music, tourist money has also allowed the gamelans to develop and progress. Kecak performances get more and more elaborate, and this one is right off the charts. Hart decided to use it all. "I just laid it on. Grateful Dead, second set, baby!"

The richest music on The Bali Sessions comes in three long pieces that make up the third CD. Now at last we hear the bronze gamelan instruments, where "male" and "female" versions of each instrument are tuned a few degrees apart to create shimmering overtones. The music is called kreasi baru, literally "new compositions." "These are younger musicians playing new music on older instruments," says Hart. "It's almost like jazz. The music has morphed into a modern version of gamelan." Lush layered vocals give way to frenetic musical passages as these pieces transition through textures and moods, always interesting, always leading somewhere new.

Hart concedes that Balinese music is not for everyone. A famous heavy-metal pal of his once told him that those "shimmering" overtones sounded to him like "stepping on crushed glass." Hart loves that, a comical reminder that music exists only in the listener's ear. But many listeners will find enchantment here, because the music and the presentation on The Bali Sessions are second to none in this arena.

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