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In Memoriam: I Wayan Tembres

Brilliant and Much loved Traditional Balinese Musician, I Wayan Tembres, Dead at 84


Wayne Vitale - a composer, performer, and teacher who has long been inspired by the music of Bali - contributed the following article, remembering the Balinese musician, I Wayan Tembres. Vitale is a founding member and former director of [Gamelan Sekar Jaya],  an ensemble of sixty musicians and dancers known around the world for its cross-cultural work. He is also a director of Vital Records a recording label that releases critically acclaimed CDs of Balinese music.

In Memoriam: I Wayan Tembres

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Bapak I Wayan Tembres, from the village of Blangsinga, Bali, one of the island’s most brilliant drummers and beloved gamelan teachers of the late twentieth century, passed away after a brief illness at a hospital in his home province of Gianyar on October 30, 2011.

He was about 84 years old.

Since I had such close connections to this great artist—I lived at his home for more than three years, later joined by my wife Sarah, immersed in his musical world—I feel inspired to write at some length about his extraordinary life and contributions. Pak Tembres, later known as Kak or “grandfather” Tembres, was not only my kendang teacher, but also my musical guide in the world of Balinese music, my host, friend, and guru in the largest sense. We traveled hundreds of times together to various villages, where he taught and performed; usually I brought him on the back of my motorcycle as he told stories and joked along the way. I witnessed him in action first hand, often playing in the groups he taught, and learned as much by slow absorption as by direct training. He was like a father to me, and I hope I can do some honor to his memory.

Perhaps the best way to do so is to cut right to the chase: Pak Tembres was a drummer of stunning power, skill, and taksu. While there are many great drummers in Bali, his playing stood in a special class. This had to do, in part, with two interrelated qualities: One was the absolute solidity of his strokes and rhythmic groove. Each stroke, from low dag to almost inaudible filler tone, was so assured, so perfectly placed in networks of drum patterns, and so clear that other gamelan players (and his drumming partners) were drawn completely into his magnetic field. This was a great satisfaction to all: One could relax and breathe easier when Pak Tembres was playing, since his command was unquestionable, and his rhythmic control never faltered. To be led by such a drummer, or play kendang lanang with him, was a pure joy.

The other quality was the sound of his drumming. No other drummer I have met before or after could create quite the same sound as Pak Tembres. Again, I fall back on metaphors: His pak or plak, slapping strokes on the left drumhead, were, to my ears, “wet”—they seemed oiled and round and penetrating at the same time. His dag, the deep stroke on the kendang wadon (female drum, which he almost always played), had the kind of punch and depth that every rock drummer longs for in his kick drum. You felt it in your gut. His kumpung, an overtone stroke, was like a bell. These and other strokes were so distinctive as to create a rich palette of tones, which he wove together in abundant variations. His sound was instantly recognizable.

These two qualities were animated by his burning inner musical drive, and gave his playing in certain moments the feeling of a freight train—unstoppable, frighteningly powerful, and altogether beautiful. At other moments, such as when he lay back waiting for a topeng dancer’s next angsel (break), a quiet underpinning of rhythms flowed from his drum, no less clear or anchored, but kept at a low whisper. Then, when the moment came, the roaring freight train would reappear and be all the more sensational by contrast. This dynamic range was part of what made him a quintessential kebyar drummer.

Another part of Pak Tembres’s power as a musician came from a different kind of magnetic quality: his warm character and down-to-earth humor. He had a story, wry comment, or off-color joke always at the ready. He talked about “learning this piece in time to wash the cows,” “giving the cutest dancers just the angsel they want,” and compared musical qualities to those of his favorite arak or to a cockfighting match. Gamelan groups, in those days filled almost exclusively with farmers and laborers, loved him. He was one of them, and the camaraderie brought them even more tightly together. Rehearsals became filled with laughter that tempered (and at moments infused) the intensity of their playing.

Drumming Styles

Kebyar was indeed Pak Tembres’s most native musical style, and to hear him play certain core dance works of kebyar—e.g. Taruna Jaya, Kebyar Duduk, Oleg Tamulilingan—was a sensational experience. There his volcanic powers could be fully unleashed, especially in the solo (tunggal) sections. But there were other styles, including those that became cross-fertilized with kebyar, for which he was also well known. Among these was arja, especially in the form arja gong (that is, arja performed with a gong kebyar and not on the original gamelan guntang), which was still popular in the mid 1980s when I first knew him. Here I should note his long relationship with the gamelan group of Lodtunduh, which performed arja and prembon (a hybrid of arja and topeng) hundreds of times in that period with Pak Tembres at the helm. The performances often lasted through the night. This group was especially devoted to him. As is typical of these relationships (now increasingly rare), Pak Tembres was never paid to teach. But when the right opportunity came the group would be ready to reciprocate. In 1984, Pak Tembres was on the verge of hiring laborers to rebuild part of his home; but word of this plan got to Lodtunduh. The group showed up the following day in the back of an open flatbed truck, equipped with tools. Not only did they do all the work but supplied all the cement, wood, and tiles. These were lifelong relationships. Pak Tembres enjoyed them with several other village seka gong.

Topeng was another of his favored dances, since it involved so much improvised solo and pepanggulan drumming, and a close interconnection with dance. He was famous for his drumming in Jauk in its various forms (e.g. Jauk Keras and Jauk Manis), the quirky and effervescent masked dance that is an essential part of the Barong/Rangda story but often played as a stand-alone work. In these dances Pak Tembres could apply the full range of improvised variation and color that distinguished his playing, bringing alive various facets of character and movement—rapid steps, vibrating fingers, surprise jumps, bawdy gestures—with gems of accent and rhythmic texture. (I was most fond of his batu-batu, improvised off-beat strokes, in Jauk Manis, which he placed with potent dramatic effectiveness, building and leading with inevitability to the next angsel.)

Melding of music and dance

Pak Tembres partnered for several years with the famous dancer I Made Jimat of Batuan, winning accolades in Festival Gong performances of Jauk in the late 1970s and early 80s. This was a duo of virtuosos, with an wide dramatic and emotional range made possible by their technical mastery. (They also toured together to New York in 1979.) Their partnership was also an exemplary illustration of a central aesthetic in Balinese performing arts, that music and dance should be completely wedded. This goes beyond technique and practice, becoming a matter of an incomprehensible, seemingly magical connection between performers. One dancer said, “if you just thought about moving, Pak Tembres knew it.” Dancers were always happy to discover Pak Tembres backstage, and know he’d soon be drumming for them. He watched them with every fiber in his body, and devoted his musical powers to responding with the right stuff—underlining movements, highlighting qualities of character, and, most importantly, catching even the subtlest of cues for angsel with instant and unmistakable accents and preparatory patterns, uniting the entire gamelan orchestra.

Like other great drummers, his movements were as beautiful to watch as his playing was to hear; his style was to let his movements arise naturally out of his playing, without exaggerating gestures in a overtly theatrical way. Pak Tembres’s assurance and strength guaranteed the visual impact would be impressive.

Teachers, groups, tours, awards

Pak Tembres’ experience, spanning many years, was vast. Offered here is only a brief and incomplete sketch, assembled both from my own notes and from secondary sources such as the Riwayat Hidup (Proyek Penggalian/Pembinaan Seni Budaya Klasik, 1981/82).

Among his teachers, Pak Tembres mentioned Ida Bagus Kompiang (Bona) and I Nyoman Regog (Peliatan) although local, informal learning is the norm in Bali and he learned much in his early years from his own father, a gifted musician, other elder musicians of Blangsinga, and those of neighboring villages.

Groups he taught in the district of Gianyar included those of Blangsinga (his home village), Pinda, Saba, Blabatuh, Buruan, Bona, Br. Manuaba/Tegalalang, Pering, Br. Padpadan, Peliatan, Lodtunduh, Mas, Batuan, Sukawati, Laplapan, Pejeng, Tampaksiring, and the town of Gianyar. In other districts, he led groups in Blumbang (Bangli), Galiran (Karangasem), Dentiis (Klungkung), Kedis (Buleleng), Bualu and Nyuhgading (Badung). He toured to various other cities and towns in Indonesia, in part via his brief tenure as a government employee of ARRIL in the early 1960s.

His international experience included tours to Tehran in 1970, to New York in 1979, and to California, where he was Guest Music Director of Gamelan Sekar Jaya in 1984. (Ironically, I had no direct experience of that tour since I was living at Pak Tembres’s home in Bali at the time). Although he couldn't speak English, his warmth and musical command endeared him to the group instantly. A year later, during Sekar Jaya's historic first tour to Bali, he and his musical compatriots from Pinda helped train the ensemble for its performances throughout Bali, working with us in intensive rehearsals. In typical Tembres fashion, he turned one of the tour's most intense moments lighter, as he blessed us with holy water before the group's first mabarung performance in Buleleng. As we sipped the sacred tirta, laughter erupted as it became clear that he had mistakenly grabbed a bottle of arak instead. Pak Tembres's “spirit” warmed our show in a way no one expected.

Of all the groups he led, perhaps the most famous was Gong Pinda, only a couple of miles from his home. He and Bapak I Wayan Kumpul, the leader of Gong Pinda in that generation, were a drumming pair made in heaven. They knew the same variations and angsel patterns, and Pak Kumpul would hold down the fort on kendang lanang (he had a near perfect memory) while letting Pak Tembres stretch out with dazzling variations. As another lanang player and partner to a famous drummer once said, “It’s like volleyball: I set it up, and he comes in for the slam.” Together, these two drummers and Gong Pinda faced off, in one of the historic mabarung (gamelan competition) battles of that period, against Gong Gladag in 1969. This famous battle of the bands, held in Bangli, lives on in local folklore, like a Balinese version of the Ali vs. Frazier fight only a few years earlier. It was so eagerly anticipated that thousands of people came to witness it. However Pak Tembres was barely able to pull the Pinda group through the match: Earlier in the day, he was on the back of a motorcycle that crashed, and he broke his jaw. (Upon seeing him later that eve with a brace on his jaw, one of the competition judges quipped, “Are you dancing topeng today, Tembres?”) Brave, but demoralized by their leader’s accident, the Pinda group lost. This remains, however, only a footnote to the main story in this thread of Balinese cultural history: Older musicians who saw Gong Pinda play under Pak Tembres speak of it with a wistful expression, remembering one of the highest peaks of kebyar in this group of astonishing musical power and showmanship.

Pak Tembres formed his own ensemble, Wiran Jaya, in 1980s. This group, which I played in and helped promote, was formed originally as a gong suling since they had only the bare essential instruments (drums and gongs), and since Pak Tembres’s brother, I Wayan Sadra, was a famous suling player and maker. However over the following two years they slowly acquired enough bronze instruments to form an near-complete gamelan gong kebyar. Aside from Pak Tembres and Pak Kumpul, the membership was composed of eight musicians from Gong Pinda, as many again from Blangsinga, and a few from neighboring villages. Their goal was (as Colin McPhee quoted another Balinese musician decades earlier) “a little fun and a little profit,” in this case by playing in the international hotels in Kuta and Nusa Dua. In Wiran Jaya, the scales tipped clearly away from profit (the fees hotels paid to performers were pitifully small) and towards fun: Crowded next to the instruments into the back of open trucks, we faced the wind with stories and raucous laughter in the hour-long ride south, picking up dancers at various villages along the way. Once at the hotel, we played the standards of the tourist performance repertoire—including, in those days, Oleg, Panyembrama, Manuk Rawa, Wiranata, and Topeng—along with famous instrumental works from Pinda such as Goak Macok and Kembang Kuning. Most tourists, focused on the dancers (or their buffet dinners) had little or no idea of the extraordinary musicians on stage.

Pak Tembres remained active well into his 70s, teaching and performing. He was honored on a few occasions in the Seniman Tua (Elder Artists) award ceremonies, which recognized the life accomplishments of Bali’s finest living performers and visual artists. In 1992, he showed up to a Seniman Tua ceremony at the Taman Budaya (Art Center) in Denpasar, dressed in his own pakaian seka (group costume). He waited impatiently for the speeches to end, not because he was looking forward to his own award and performance demonstration—which turned out to be a sensation—but because he was on his way to a gig elsewhere.

Among Pak Tembres’s proudest achievements were two of the government penghargaan (awards) he received during his peak years for outstanding artistic accomplishment. One was the Wijaya Kesuma, received from the district of Gianyar in 1968; another—his highest award—was the Dharma Kesuma Madya from the province of Bali, which he directly from the hands of Bali’s beloved governor, Ida Bagus Mantra, in 1981. The latter was still hanging on his wall upon his death a few days ago.

Pak Tembres, you gave much to Balinese culture, sharing a supreme artistry and love of life with musicians, dancers, audiences, and students. May your unmistakable angsel and humor resound into your next life!

Wayne Vitale
Nov. 7, 2011


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