“We should get Bandem for our concert,” my friend, then-gamelan teacher at Bard Tjokorda Gde Arsa Artha, said that January in 2009, when fellow Giri Mekar member Bill Ylitalo suggested that we plan an outdoor concert that year. At the time, I had absolutely no idea of who Bandem was, but Tjok Gde, himself descended from one of Ubud’s royal families, advised that getting Bandem to help us was going to be very important. “Everyone in Bali knows Bandem; he’s a very big deal,” he said. Soon Bard would know Bandem too.
So this spring, professors Dr. I Made Bandem and his wife, Dr. Suasthi Bandem – both currently serving as scholars-in-residence at the College of the Holy Cross and two of Bali’s most well-respected performers, educators and leaders – will return once again to perform with the ensembles and share their expertise.
Bandem’s credentials and accomplishments are daunting. They include a Master’s degree from UCLA, a Ph.D. in Ethnomusicology from Wesleyan University, serving as the chancellor of the Indonesian Dance Academy (now known as STSI) and as a member of the House Assembly of Indonesia in Jakarta. He has published innumerable books and articles, all while maintaining international lecture and performance engagements. The list of awards and accolades is prolific. He is also credited with the initial organization of Denpassar’s now-famous Bali Arts Festival – an annual monthlong event celebrating its 33rd season – with support from the former governor of Bali, Dr. Ida Bagus Mantra.
At 67 years old, Bandem exhibits the strength and vigor of a much-younger man. His eyes twinkle with inspiration. His smile is quick and engaging. Dancing and performing throughout his entire life, he recalls watching and learning from the time of his earliest memories. He enjoys talking about his father, the famous master dancer, Arja drama or Balinese opera master I Made Kredek, who was his first teacher in the village of Singapadu. At the age of five, he participated in his first performance; at 12 he was sent to study with the Balinese dance master I Mario, the choreographer who is famous for originating the Kebyar style of dancing.
Bandem’s wife, Dr. Suasthi Bandem, having earned her own PhD through Gadjah Mada University, has just published a book and is working on another. Besides her performing, choreography and educational activities, she is considered one of the leading role models of Indonesia’s Women’s Emancipation Movement. When not teaching in the US, she organizes performances of the Makaradhwaja Dance Troupe in Bali that may include from 50 to 150 performers.
Together they are lecturing and performing and choreographing. “We are doing everything together both in real life, family life and on the stage,” says Bandem with a contented laugh. Married in 1967, that collaboration now includes a list of engagements while in the US that have taken them to colleges up and down the East Coast.
What is the advantage of teaching in the US from Bandem’s perspective? “Together, we are able to promote understanding, teaching students about multiculturalism, about our different worlds. America is one of the best places for world studies. We can help to create world peace through the study of gamelan and dance,” he says.
Driving with the Bandems, conversation flows smoothly, ranging from talk of performances to just about anything. No subject is off-limits, be it art, music, painters, politics, economics, education, health or the environment.
“I am so impressed by your infrastructure, Ibu,” (a Balinese title meaning Madame or Mother) Bandem says out of the clear blue. “What do you mean, Bapak?” (the honorary form of Sir or Grandfather) I ask. “Well, your roads, your electricity, your garbage service – everything.” These commodities, though available in Bali and throughout Indonesia, are, simply put, still evolving. “Well, we’ve been at it for a very long time,” I respond, thinking about my hometown of Detroit and how such things had taken a dramatic and obvious downhill turn the last time I was there.
“They’re building a ski mountain in Kuta,” Suasthi tells me. “Oh!” I respond, thinking of the ski mountain in Dubai at the Mall of the Emirates, and am a little bit dismayed. “This is okay, Ibu,” Suasthi reassures me. “The Balinese children will enjoy seeing the snow.” In an odd way, I can see her point.
Gamelan seems to be about recognizing cycles, both in life and in music. Repetitive, complex and energizing or soothing melodies are sometimes punctuated by abrupt starts and stops; the percussive and virtuosic strokes of the drums reverberate to the core; a rhythmic counterpoint of metallic instruments struck with wooden mallets signals complex interactions; the resoundingly deep final stroke of the very large gong carries the weight of meaning: It starts, it ends, it begins again. These are the cycles of our lives.
An Evening of Balinese Music and Dance, Hudson Valley Balinese Gamelan Orchestras, Saturday, April 27, 8 p.m., $10 suggested donation, free for Bard students/staff/faculty & kids under 16, Bertelsmann Campus Center Multi-purpose Room, Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson; (845) 758-7250.