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Indonesians in Focus: I Wayan Balawan

Username By Barrie | December 19th, 2006 | Comments No Comments

One thing that I have always wanted to do but never got around to it and that is to learn to play the guitar. I have always admired anybody that can play a musical instrument and in Indonesia there are many of these.

I Nyoman Balawan is one such artist but he plays the guitar in a special way as Kurniawan Hari wrote recently in the JP.

I Wayan Balawan: Roaming with magic fingers

I Nyoman Balawan did not look like the much-admired guitarist who makes females in the audience at his concerts cheer enthusiastically when The Jakarta Post met him at a cafe at a plush shopping mall in South Jakarta recently.

Wearing blue jeans and a gray T-shirt, the 33-year-old guitarist looked just like any other student from the nearby university, who often stroll around the mall.

Instead of carrying his exceptional double-neck guitar, Balawan had a denim bag with a long strap.

In contrast to his appearance at some concerts which were very expressive, Balawan was calm and soft-spoken during the interview.

“I’m so intense in concerts the audience may think that I’m emotional. I’m not emotional. That is part of my character. Even if I’m just practicing in my room, I’m very expressive,” he said.

Balawan, who is a graduate of the Australian Institute of Music in Sydney, is highly admired by his fans for his speed and “touch tapping” technique.

Normally, a guitarist must use two hands to play a note. One presses down a string behind a chosen fret to prepare the note, and the other either plucks or strums the string to produce the note.

With a touching-and-tapping technique, a guitarist produces a note using only one finger by quickly tapping his finger down behind the appropriate fret. The force of impact causes the string to vibrate enough to immediately sound the note.

The technique was first developed by American guitarist Stanley Jordan. Balawan is the only Indonesian guitarist to play in this style.

When he returned home from his studies in Sydney in 1997, Balawan saw several bands emerge in this country but they lasted only for two or three years.

Bands come and go. Only a few last the distance.

Balawan promised to himself that he had to develop music that could last long. If possible, the music should inspire fellow Indonesian musicians.

With some colleagues, he formed Batuan Ethnic Fusion, a musical group that blends jazz with Balinese traditional compositions. He released the album GloBALIsm in 1999. Two years later, the eponymous album, Balawan, was released.

“For me, a musician must have style and uniqueness. I don’t want to be an ephemeral musician. I want to build a stable, professional career,” Balawan said.

For that reason, Balawan practiced and developed the touching-and-tapping skill. To his surprise, the audience loved his performances.

Balawan said public appreciation had motivated him to improve.
Born in Sept 1973 in Bali, Balawan is the fifth of seven children in the family. Some of his brothers and sisters are artists — traditional dancers and sculptors.

Growing up with such traditional influences, Balawan felt in love with music, especially Balinese traditional music. At the age of eight, he started to play guitar. Even today, while now a professional guitarist, Balawan enjoys playing ethnic-influenced music. “The music I play is influenced by Balinese music. I play it because I’m very comfortable with it,” he added.

Not only does he play Balinese-influenced music; Balawan’s music also has the nuance of traditional music from other regions such as Central Java or Betawi (Jakarta).

During his concert with guitarists Dewa Budjana and Tohpati at the Jakarta International Jazz Festival (JakJazz) last month, Balawan played Javanese childhood song Cublak-Cublak Suweng and traditional Jakarta tunes Jali-Jali and Keroncong Kemayoran.

The trio of guitarists calling themselves Trisum wanted to introduce the young audience to traditional songs. “We must maintain our traditional songs and culture,” said Balawan, who practices the guitar for at least two hours a day.

His attractive skill plus impressive ethnic-influenced music have attracted fellow musicians overseas. That is why Balawan is often invited to perform at a variety of music festivals.

Balawan has toured 15 cities in Europe. He has also performed four times at the International Guitar Festival in Germany. In Norway, he performed at the Blues Festival. The guitarist also played for the Pop Asia Festival in Japan.

Balawan and Japanese guitarist Isato Nakagawa were the Asia representatives at the East Meet West Guitar Festival in Germany in 2000. He also collaborated with Australian Tommy Emanuel to perform at the Open Strings Festival in Germany the following year.

“Being invited to participate in a music festival is an honor for me. It is not easy to play at music festivals overseas,” he said, adding that first he had to send a CV and examples of his work on a CD to the organizer for assessment.

If everything runs as scheduled, Balawan will tour to the United States next year. However, he did not mention the cities at which he would play.

Some invitations to play overseas fit perfectly fit with his hobby — traveling. On the sidelines of every concert overseas he spends time roaming the forest or mountains.

During a visit to Norway a few years ago, he went outside his hotel just to experience the freezing temperature of minus 30 degrees Celsius.

Amid his busy schedule, he released the album Magic Fingers in 2005. He also plans to make another album next year.

“Music is part of my soul. As a musician, the most important thing is public appreciation. For me, to have five people listen attentively to a concert is better than a crowd who talk to each other,” he said.

Apart from performing at music festivals, Balawan also plays at clubs in Bali and teaches local teenagers. He said he wanted to share his experience and skills with them.

However, the economic decline in Bali following a series of terrorist attacks has prompted Balawan to seek better prospects outside his home base.

“I plan to move to Jakarta next year. Tourism in Bali is down. I’ll return to Bali once it has recovered,” he said.

Kurniawan Hari

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