An excerpt from The Island of Bali is Littered with Prayers

Last week Mormon Artists Group announced the availability of a fine edition version of BYU Assistant Professor of Music Jeremy Grimshaw’s The Island of Bali is Littered with Prayers, an account of his trip to the island to study gamelan music and subsequent efforts to start a gamelan orchestra in Utah. I’m pleased to bring you the following excerpt from the book. Tomorrow I’ll post a Q&A with Jeremy.

The fine edition version is limited to 25 copies and costs $125. You can purchase it (and read more about it) at (for some reason the website doesn’t do direct links to its pages — so click on “Works” when the page loads and then The Island of Bali is Littered with Prayers). Other editions of this title may become available in the future. Mormon Artists Group fine editions almost always sell out so if this does interest you and is within  your means, act quickly.

From the section on unpacking the gamelan instruments when they arrive in Provo.


When the instruments arrived, I couldn’t help but notice that the unpacking party was a kind of music of its own: a polyphonic chorus of hammering, the groan of boards being forced out of square, nails squealing at the pull of crowbars. The twenty-one crates, some of them as big as refrigerators and all of them sturdy enough to protect their heavy, precious cargo on the nine thousand mile, three month- long journey from Bali, Indonesia, to Provo, Utah, put up quite a fight before giving up their contents.

Luckily, a large welcoming committee had already assembled for the job: some percussionists who had learned about these new exotic instruments, an Indonesian biochemistry major looking for a reminder of home, a few students, some with prior musical experience and some with none, who had simply fallen in love with recordings of Balinese music and were eager to try it out. One of the reasons I had ordered these instruments was because I had experienced their curious ability to create a sense of cohesion and community, simply through the sounds they made. As it turned out, they had already begun their work even before they were out of their boxes.

Although the builders of the instruments had emailed some pictures from Bali, we were still taken aback by the instruments’ beauty. The giant gongs hung suspended between intricate gilded scepters. The double-headed drums were sheathed in bold swatches of hand painted fabric. The jackfruit-wood frames of the graduated bronze xylophones were covered in elaborate carvings, with figures and filigree busily jostling for space.

The front panels of several of the instruments depicted scenes from the Ramayana, the Hindu epic recounting Prince Rama’s rescue of his wife Sita from Ravana, the evil ten-headed demon king of Lanka: one packing crate fell away to reveal a golden deer fleeing from Rama’s arrows into the forest; more hammering and pulling, and suddenly a benevolent gold-winged vulture appeared to protect the princess; someone tore through layers of bubble wrap, and there was Hanuman, the animal-god, arriving at Sita’s room to deliver Rama’s ring as a sign of her imminent rescue. The back panels depicted various stories from the Panchatantra, ancient Sanskrit animal fables created to prepare the children of nobility for their future responsibilities. Lined up in a row and viewed from the back, the instruments, bustling with monkeys, jackals, crabs, cranes, and snails, looked like the cars in a miniature circus train.

Each scene was carved in relief and painted in gold against a deep blue background. Blossoms, cornices, and rounded crenels, in gold and bright red, surrounded these tableaus. Fierce buta kala, demons meant to scare away evil forces, protruded from the instruments’ sides.

The two largest instruments bore our group’s name on their front panels: Bintang Wahyu. My good friend Ed Luna, a polymath expert in the languages, dance traditions, and musical styles of Indonesia, had suggested the name to me. It ingeniously followed two Balinese traditions while at the same time reflecting the unique spiritual aspirations of the instruments’ new home at Brigham Young University, the flagship school of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter- day Saints, or Mormons. First, the name Bintang Wahyu invoked divine blessing through vivid imagery: bintang means “star,” especially a star of good omen; wahyu, means vision or revelation (in fact, wahyu is the word for the Book of Revelation in the Indonesian translation of the New Testament). Considered together, the words evoked a sacred cosmology: Star of Vision. Second, the name formed a clever play on words by containing within itself a reference to its new home: BI-ntang WAH-YU. B-Y-U.

Opposite the panels bearing the ensemble’s name, facing towards the players and away from the audience, another figure had been carved into the instrument casings. This one was entirely unique among all Balinese instruments anywhere in the world. It had occurred to me, as we were placing the order with the builder, that in order to create a community around this ensemble it would help to have something unusual, something of our very own to connect us with the instruments. We would need, right from the start, some lore. It seemed appropriate and resonant with the cross-cultural nature of the instruments’ acquisition to conceal some small symbol of Mormonism somewhere among the Hindu and Balinese figures (just as the instruments themselves represented a small island of Hindu- Bali culture within the Mormon sea of Provo). These two panels bore our curious logo: a stylized, Balinese version of the iconic “sunstone.” This emblem had adorned the temple in Nauvoo, Illinois, which the Mormons had barely erected before being driven out by mobs in 1846. The Balinese carver replicated this unique Mormon symbol closely, except in one important respect: the hands descending from the corners above the smiling sun no longer held trumpets, as they had in Nauvoo. Trumpets, after all, are nowhere to be found in Balinese ensembles; instead, the angelic hands bore the mallets and hammers used in Balinese music.

I relished the beautiful incongruity of it all: the drab basement rehearsal space filled with these glimmering instruments, the jumbled religious iconography, and this roomful of students eagerly waiting to make music from the other side of the world. We cleared away the lumber and packing foam and arranged the instruments in order to take in the sight of them all at once. Together, this elaborate percussion orchestra, the first of its kind in Utah, constituted a single collective entity known as a gamelan.


I like to think that when we opened those twenty-one crates and removed the gamelan instruments, the spirits that had inhabited them in Bali decided to stick around. And I like to think that they felt rather at home in their new surroundings–in fact, I suspect these musical spirits might have even been fooled into thinking they had arrived back home. After all, upon venturing out of the Fine Arts building onto the quad, they would have gotten their bearings by looking north to the two-mile-high Mount Timpanogos. This they very well may have mistaken for the two-mile-high Gunung Agung, Bali’s highest peak and the island’s spiritual center. They would have looked around to see a valley dotted with steeples, different in design but nearly as numerous as the shrines in which the Balinese worship. They may have heard the temple-goers in Provo, like those in Bali, whispering reverently, and lovingly, and with absolute surety, of ancestors beyond the veil. Then, after surveying their surroundings, the spirits must have wandered back to the rehearsal room and settled back into their hiding places–that one straightening like a rod and slipping into a shaft of tuned bamboo, this one curling into the curve of the great gong. Then they waited for the first day of school, when the villagers–whoever they were–would arrive and begin to play them.

This book is my tale of how I wooed these spirits here, and how I hope to convince them to stay.

2 thoughts on “An excerpt from The Island of Bali is Littered with Prayers”

  1. Hi Th. There is not a CD included with the book, but there are lots of ways to get your hands on some great gamelan music. I write at length in the book about a particular group, Çudamani, who hosted a workshop I attended. Videos and recordings are available on their website: The BYU School of Music is currently renovating their website, so our ensemble at BYU should have a web presence soon.

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