Chances are you may not know what Gamelan is just by it’s name, but the hypnotic beat of the Balinese music is something that has already been part of your life through pop culture for years. Used in movies, video games and popular sci-fi series, Gamelan is a traditional music style of Bali that is steeped in tradition and history.
In a new independent documentary Bali Beats of Paradise you are transported into a world where Gamelan is still played within the traditional sense as musician Judith Hill uses the music to blend with her soulful tones and modern music. The documentary takes you through her journey with Hill and Indonesian composer Nyoman Wenten to create a song that not only resonates with her style but includes the beats and culture of a society that has been thriving for centuries.
The hour long documentary gives viewers just a taste of the Gamelan, Hill’s music and the reason for their collaboration. The music will move your soul and have you dancing with the beat. We were able to sit down and talk with both Judith Hill and Director Livi Zheng to ask more about the documentary and their inspiration.
How did the subject matter of the film first come to you? Was it the music video first or the documentary first?
Livi: Last year, the Indonesian Consulate asked me to film a Balinese Gamelan concert. So, I said yes because I love filming, I love filmmaking, film is my first love. When I arrived at the concert, it was a full house and I saw how the audience reacted to the music. It really inspired me to make this a feature film and make it something bigger. And then, so basically after the concert, I edited it. And then once the concert coverage on YouTube and it got really good feedback, we got press from all over. Internationally, as well.
Judith: I was also putting together this big show called The Golden Child. It’s a musical that basically brings culture together. I’ve always been such a fan of Balinese Gamelan music and dance and so I was looking for unique collaborations where I can infuse different cultures and style. And I was introduced to Livi by a mutual friend and we just clicked immediately. And she told me about her documentary and how she’s doing this documentary on Balinese music and was also interested in collaboration of different styles of music so that’s kind of how we came together.
Livi: I introduced Judith to Wenten because Wenten is a Balinese dancer all over the U.S. He’s performed in Walt Disney Hall and he’s collaborated with a lot of artists and he also teaches in several universities, including UCLA and Harvard. Wenten has been in the U.S. for 40 years and he’s going to retire. And he wanted to leave a legacy. So then he had an idea to do a music video with Judith and have me direct it and that’s Queen of the Hill. So, he wanted a fusion between pop music and Balinese Gamelan with Balinese costumes and it’s very colorful and everything. And so the music video is already launched, it’s now on YouTube. It has over a million views and the music video Queen of the Hill is also featured in the documentary Bali: Beats of Paradise.
Gamelan is new to a lot of our readers, can you tell us more about the music and it’s history?
Livi: Gamelan is Indonesian traditional music but Gamelan has influenced a lot of the pop culture. For example, do you know the film Avatar by James Cameron? It uses Gamelan. The Los Angeles Times wrote about this. And also, the TV show Star Trek used Gamelan, as well. The Nintendo game Mario Brothers also uses Gamelan. So, actually, you probably have heard Gamelan but you just haven’t seen it. I wanted to learn it. And they teach it at MIT, they teach it in Harvard, they teach it in UCLA. A lot of schools have it and 49 out of the 50 states have a Gamelan program. But I think if you’re not a composer, maybe you’ve heard it but you don’t know it’s Gamelan. But actually, it’s in a lot of films and everything that uses Gamelan.
In Bali, Gamelan is part of daily life. Even if you’re driving down the street, you’ll see a procession. When you’re born, when you become an adult, when you get married, even when you die, Gamelan is being played. So, it’s a big part of Balinese life and you can’t separate Gamelan from a Balinese life, actually. That was really cool to be able to, when I was doing the film, I was part of a wedding and we were part of a lot of ceremonies. And it was just like you know that if you’re Balinese, you can’t separate Gamelan in your life.
What inspired you musically?
Judith: Well, a lot of soul, classic soul, and funk. I grew up around people like Sly and the Family Stone, Billy Preston. I listened to a lot of Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin but I also listened to a lot of classical. I listened to Bach and Chopin and of course, world music. I’ve always been inspired by different forms of world music, choirs, Bali music, traditional Japanese. So, I’ve always just loved a diverse group of musical styles but my first and foremost is always going to be funk and soul.
Livi: I grew up in Indonesia and actually, in Indonesia we have a lot of influence from the U.S. pop culture. So, I grew up watching Hollywood movies and also listening to American pop songs. So, yeah, so probably what you hear on the radio here is probably what I hear growing up. Yeah, the music here is never foreign to me, it’s what we grew up with.
What was it like for you guys to be working on the documentary and the music video at the same time?
Livi: I think both the documentary and the music video kind of goes together. And it also goes together with Judith’s show The Golden Child that’s actually launching in December. Yeah, so it was just great because it started from one thing, just a casual introduction, to something bigger. And also now the film is officially competing for the Academy Awards.
What surprised you the most about Wenten as you got to know him?
Judith: I think what I loved about him is just how genuinely sweet he was and just such a kind heart and spirit. But also his real depth of knowledge in the history of Gamelan music and Balinese music. I was just intrigued and I learned so much from him and his wife, just hanging out with them and realizing that there are so many nuances and intricacies to the art form. There was a moment where we were in the studio and he was teaching me how to play it and it was definitely difficult and I learned so much from just that. That there’s just so much depth and skill to the art form. And then what was really fun was him teaching me some of the dance moves and that was really cool, too.
What was something for each of you that you discovered about yourself during the filming process?
Livi: So, for me, I’m from Indonesia so I know Gamelan but I’ve never learned it and I never had a formal education about Gamelan or anything like that. I just know we use Gamelan for a lot of things. But I never really knew the backstory of Gamelan, the important, and how it’s being used in Avatar and Star Trek. And for me, it makes me closer, I feel closer, to my roots and I’m actually now learning Gamelan. I grew up learning martial arts, I never learned music. I don’t know how to read music notes. But now I’m learning Gamelan. It’s like Judith says, it’s definitely not easy but since I kind of learned a lot about the history and the backstory of Gamelan, it’s so great to be able to learn it. And I’m learning, actually, directly from Nyoman Wenten. And now I want to share Gamelan to even more people. And because now, I have a deeper understanding about it.
Judith: I think for me, I was just greatly inspired by it because there’s so much power, especially as a woman, that you can have in just subtlety of movement. And I think that Gamelan is such a powerful form of dance and music and just learning how the different women would move their bodies and more so, their eyes, and hold command and power in such a subtle way. It’s just so captivating and it inspired me as a woman and as an artist to explore different parts of myself. And me being half Asian, as well, I was really inspired by Eastern art form and really diving into that more. I was born and raised in North Hollywood, L.A. So, me tapping deeper into my Asian roots was really special and I think that this project allowed me to do that.
What advice would you share to encourage more women in film in the future?
Livi: I think if you have a dream, just go for it and don’t let… Like, let’s say, you want to make a film and the budget would be big. Don’t let budget be the obstacle. When I first did my film, my first feature film that I ever directed, I was going to shoot it with three crew and $10,000, basically. Because my brother is in film and I have a friend who’s in film that has a DSLR. So, we were going to shoot it, just the three of us, with $10,000 and we were going to make it happen. And we didn’t let the fact that, oh, we don’t have a million dollars or two million dollars to do the film, stop us. And if you decide to do something, people around you will see your passion and they will help.
So, eventually, we got even more budget, better than we imagined. We filmed with Red Camera, they used Red Camera to film Jurassic World, Pirates of the Caribbean. And we have Oscar-nominated crew and we were renting crew. And that all started with basically an idea I wanted to film with three people. And then we ended up having a big crew and a big cast, pretty big for a first feature film, we had probably around 100 in total, camera and crew. And so I think it’s very important to not let budget or anyone stop you. Actually now, everything’s big, you can just do it. And actually, my first script got rejected 32 times. So, don’t let rejection bring you down. Just kind of like, you know what? You’re a step closer to getting it funded.
So, just think of it that way. I know it’s heartbreaking when you spend months and months to make a script and then people just reject it without even a reason. They’re just like, “Oh.” Sometime they don’t even reply to you. And I know it’s very heartbreaking but you just kind of have to keep going because, I mean, whatever film you’re on, it’s going to be difficult to do something. But if you just keep going, it will happen. Maybe it will take longer but it will happen. Like, I did my first feature film when I was 23. So, it’s doable, it took me a couple years but it’s very doable, to kind of pursue your dream. Yeah, I mean, I think until now it’s like when I want to do something, I just make it happen whether I have a big budget or I have a small budget. Just do it and people will start helping you along the way.
Judith: Well, same as with Livi. Just follow your passion and give it 120% every single day. 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. And I think that it’s important also to be proficient and know how to do a lot of things and not rely upon other people to make things happen for you. Like, with my album this time, I learned how to mix my own record, I produced my own record, I composed and arranged and did everything. And it’s just really important to be in control and be able to know how to do everything so you can fully realize your dream and not have to rely on anybody to do it. It takes a lot more work but at the end of the day, it’s rewarding because you’re in control of it and you’re following your dream.
And then later on, you get a bigger team, you can tell them how you want things. But as long as you know how to do it and you know exactly what you want because you have that experience and you’re able to do it, it will be the way you want it to be. And so just keep pushing through no matter what happens. Rejection is another step to success, just as Livi was saying. I was inspired by what you were talking about. But I think the same thing. Every season there’s always a lot of rejection but you just keep going. And the most important thing is to do it because you have a message of love and you have something to give to the world and that stands the test of time.
Livi: So, I wanted to add a little bit. My hometown and my family also comes from there is called Blitar. So, Blitar is a small town and in the town, there is no movie theater. Actually, this year, they just opened the first movie theater. So, for me, to even have a career in film, it’s not something you think of. Because in your town, there’s not even a movie theater. Until this year, this is the first time they have a movie theater. And for me, being able to be in the U.S. in Hollywood and making films, it’s just kind of like, really it’s… I don’t ever imagine being here making film and it’s just something like… It’s like living the fantasy, being here. I’ve been here 10 years now. But yeah, I came from a town that didn’t have a movie theater until this year, basically.
BALI: BEATS OF PARADISE will have its world premiere at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills, CA on Wednesday, November 7 and will subsequently open in theaters in Los Angeles and New York on November 16 followed by one night only screening events in select cities across the country. Follow Bali: Beats of Paradise on Facebook for more updates on the film and where you can see the film!
Watch the Bali: Beats of Paradise Trailer below:
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