Much like food, music is another one of those beautiful, universal things in life that has the power to bring people from many walks of life together.
Having the opportunity to watch an advance screening of “Bali: Beats of Paradise” by award-winning director Livi Zheng, I was reminded of just that idea. The film dives deep into gamelan music, which is aptly described in the film as “the soundtrack of Balinese life.” After visiting Bali a few years ago, it remains one of my favorite places in the world, for so many reasons. Thus, I took a great interest in this film.
Gamelan, known as the music of Indonesia, incorporates bronze, iron, bamboo or wooden bars, along with bronze and iron gongs, gong chimes, cymbals, bells, and two-headed drums to create its unique melodious, shimmering sound. Although you might not be familiar with gamelan music, chances are you’ve heard it before if you’ve watched “Avatar” or “Star Trek,” or played Nintendo’s “Mario Bros.”
By creating “Bali: Beats of Paradise,” Livi Zheng hopes to expand upon what most people have heard at some point in their lives, and give it more depth, meaning and cultural background.
As the director explained to us after the screening, “I just want to share the story of Balinese gamelan which has influenced the biggest films … So that people not only hear gamelan, but they see gamelan. I just want to share it because it’s actually already been used in a lot of things but a lot of people still don’t know about it. And as an Indonesian, I want to share this music.”
Livi’s road to becoming an award-winning director required determination, passion, and perseverance to overcome the initial setbacks along the way. “Actually, my first script got rejected 32 times. So, don’t let rejection bring you down. Just (think of it) like, you know what? You’re a step closer to getting it funded,” she said. With this mindset, this young, talented, and inspiring Indonesian woman got to where she is today; a long way from when she first started out on this path with a three-person crew and a dream.
Judith, who has sung a duet with Michael Jackson, added, “I was lucky to work with a lot of different people and inspired by a lot of different people. But in my journey, every chapter I’ve learned that when you’re really true to yourself and you follow what your heart is telling you and you give it all, the stars will align and the doors will open up.”
“Bali: Beats of Paradise” explores the beautiful musical art form of Livi’s country through Nyoman Wenten, a Los Angeles-based gamelan artist and ethnomusicology teacher at various institutions, including UCLA. The film gives us an inside look into his collaboration with Grammy Award-winning musician Judith Hill, who has appeared on “The Voice” and Michael Jackson’s “This Is It.” By combining Wenten’s traditional gamelan background with Hill’s modern musical influences, they create a beautiful masterpiece of gamelan, Balinese dance, and funk music in the music video “Queen of the Hill,” which has garnered over 1 million views on YouTube.
With Balinese dance and colorful traditional costumes, combined with Judith Hill’s funk and aura of female empowerment, along with the setting of Joshua Tree in California, the music video struck me as a magnificent way to blend elements from around the world to create a unique, magical, and cross-cultural work of art. In fact, the entire film serves as a reminder that much of what we take for granted in mainstream entertainment actually comes from a rich and diverse cultural history, and holds great meaning for the people of those cultures from which these influences are gleaned.
“I was just greatly inspired by (gamelan) because there’s so much power, especially as a woman, that you can have in just subtlety of movement… (I learned that) gamelan is such a powerful form of dance and music,” said Livi. “It’s just so captivating, and it inspired me as a woman and as an artist to explore different parts of myself. I was born and raised in North Hollywood, L.A. So, me tapping deeper into my Asian roots was really special and… this project allowed me to do that.”
Personally, I related deeply to Livi’s experience, as an American-born South-Asian female having learned and performed the precise, graceful, and expressive Indian dance form of Kathak for 10 years. Studying the intricacies of traditional Indian dance was a profound way to get in touch with not only my roots, but another facet of my identity.
On the topic of Balinese dance, Livi added that “In Bali, actually, it’s not for tourists, it’s part of their life…. And everything is so colorful in Bali and that’s just a part of life. It’s not for tourists or anything like that. It’s for themselves, for their life.” What a beautiful way to live.
By watching and supporting films like “Bali: Beats of Paradise,” it leads to greater understanding, appreciation, and unity across cultures — something that we could use more of, especially in today’s world. After recently premiering at the Motion Picture Academy, “Bali: Beats of Paradise” hits theaters in Los Angeles and New York on November 16th, followed by one-night only screening events in select cities. You can find more information here, and view the trailer here.
As Nanik Wenten, Nyoman’s wife, summed it up, to the Balinese people “dance and music is food to our soul.”
In other news, stay tuned for personal accounts and adventures from my travels over at Tanaya’s Travels, coming soon!