Many MIT students will head home this summer, but two of MIT's performing ensembles are planning a different kind of homecoming.
The student musicians in MIT's Rambax, which plays Senegalese music, and in MIT's Gamelan Galak Tika, which has its roots in Bali, are preparing to play, for the first time, in the home countries that inspired their music.
On May 23, Rambax will embark on a two-week study tour of Senegal, West Africa. The group will attend classes taught by world-class Senegalese musicians and dancers and experience sabar drumming within the context of daily life in Senegal.
The 11 members of Rambax, along with co-directors Assistant Professor Patricia Tang and resident artist and master Senegalese drummer Lamine TourÌ©, will present two performances in Senegal, one at a Dakar nightclub, sponsored by the prestigious Africa FÌ»te organization, and the other at a "tannibeer," a neighborhood drum and dance party, organized by TourÌ©'s family of prominent griot percussionists.
In addition to sharing their music, Tang says that the traveling MIT student-musicians will also offer the youth of Senegal "their love and expertise of science." Rambax members are organizing a "poster session" in which they'll present their scientific interests to students at the University Cheikh Anta Diop in Dakar. "We hope the trip will bridge the gap in our musical understanding as well as help bridge a cultural gap," said Tang.
The group will live in a rented house in Dakar, arranged by TourÌ© and his family, who will serve as tour guides and organizers, said Tang. She reports that the co-directors have divided the duties so that TourÌ© is in charge of practical logistics such a housing, food, workshops and performances and Tang, who has traveled to Senegal frequently in the past nine years and lived there from 1997-98, is handling the managerial aspects.
"We hope that our joint leadership will make this trip a unique opportunity for the students," said Tang, who founded Rambax in 2001. "Lamine is very excited about bringing his MIT students to Senegal to show them his culture and introduce everyone to his family, and to study sabar in its original context," she added.
Rambax members are enthusiastic about the trip as well. "I'm excited to have this opportunity to experience the culture that bears such an intense form of music and expression," said Sasha Devore, graduate student in the Whitaker College of Health Sciences and Technology, who has been playing in Rambax for three years.
The trip has been funded in part by a grant from the Council for the Arts at MIT, Dean of Student Life Larry Benedict and Dean of Undergraduates Robert Redwine.
In a similar vein, 31 members of Gamelan Galak Tika will travel to Bali, Indonesia, on June 18 for a two-week tour. The group will perform at the acclaimed Bali Arts Festival.
With a rented gamelan, similar in size and tuning to their own, the ensemble, consisting of gamelan players and other instrumental soloists (guitar, cello, bass, percussion, keyboard) and dancers, will perform at the annual monthlong festival of music, dance, theater and other cultural and commercial activities.
"I've always had it in my mind to bring Galak Tika to Bali," said the group's director, Evan Ziporyn, who founded Galak Tika in 1993 and was once a member of Gamelan Sekar Jaya, the first American group to perform at the Bali Arts Festival 20 years ago.
This year, Ziporyn said he felt the MIT ensemble was ready, "musically, artistically and psychologically." Yet he says it was the intense motivation and effort by the members that is actually making this trip possible. "I'm simply responding to their energy," said Ziporyn, who is the Kenan Sahin Distinguished Professor of Music at MIT.
Most Western or Japanese groups go to Bali with almost all traditional pieces, Ziporyn said. But Galak Tika will be performing only new, experimental works in Bali. "I feel the Balinese don't need to hear our versions of their traditional music," he said. "The artistic challenge is to do this while still conveying our respect for the traditional culture."
Among the works to be performed will be "Gringsing," the latest composition by Galak Tika artist-in-residence Dewa Ketut Alit, considered one of the most innovative young composers in Bali today.
Miranda Fan (S.B. 1995) marvels at the idea of an American ensemble visiting Bali to premiere the works of a Balinese composer that had been commissioned by Galak Tika. "We're presenting a great program of new works," she said, calling it, "one that truly represents our group's identity and spirit."
Galak Tika will also perform with Alit's Gamelan Ì½udamani, a professional ensemble based in the village of Pengsekan, Ubud, Bali, with whom they will present a "mabarang," a performance in which two gamelans face each other and trade off pieces.
While in Bali, Galak Tika will reunite for a number of performances with Balinese dancer I Nyoman Catra and composer/singer Desak Made Suarti Laksmi, with whom the ensemble frequently worked during the duo's extended residence in the United States.
Aaron Woolsey (S.B. 1995) has been with Galak Tika since the ensemble was formed in 1993, but has never been to Bali. "Going on this trip is like finally reaching the promised land, for me," he said.
Woolsey added that he thinks the tour will also inspire their audiences in Bali. "They'll get to see how serious people outside of their community are about Balinese music, and how their culture and arts have brought so much joy to the lives of people living half a world away," he said. "We will get to play our style of Balinese music and share our music with people that have a deep appreciation and knowledge of it."
For Blair Schoene, a graduate student in earth, atmospheric and planetary sciences, the trip will be a return visit to the country and to a culture he called "so foreign and yet so functional and fascinating that I was forced to redefine how I perceived our role as humans on this planet."
Schoene notes that though world statistics define Bali as overpopulated and impoverished, he finds it "rich in identity, community and family values, and it has a deep appreciation for the integration of religion and the arts into a sustainable and happy way of life." Schoene credits playing Balinese music with helping him remain connected with the things he learned from the people and culture there.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on May 18, 2005 (download PDF).