Q&A with Sonja Lynn Downing, author of Gamelan Girls

Sonja Lynn Downing is an an associate professor of ethnomusicology at Lawrence University. She recently answered some questions about her book, Gamelan Girls: Gender, Childhood, and Politics in Balinese Music Ensembles.

Q: Why did you decide to write this book?

I wanted to highlight the groundbreaking work girls and their music teachers are doing in Bali by expanding notions of who is allowed and encouraged to learn and play in the realm of music performance. I wanted to try to do them justice by telling their stories to a readership beyond the island of Bali.

Q: Who were your biggest influences?

Ellen Koskoff, for sure. The second time I went to Bali, I took her introduction to Women and Music in Cross-Cultural Perspective and devoured it as well as other chapters from that book. They helped me to put into words the unsettled and nagging thoughts and questions I had about the intersections and contradictions between gender and gamelan performance in Bali. I was deeply inspired by Deborah Wong’s ability to articulate the power and importance of women playing a percussive, loud, and kinesthetically intense form of music. Julia Suryakusuma’s writing also opened my eyes to the historical injustices women have faced in Indonesia, especially through the 20th century.

Q: What is the most interesting discovery you made while researching and writing your book?

That contradictions abound! For example, I had written up what I had been hearing of the history of women’s and girls’ gamelan ensembles in Bali. Many people (in and outside of Bali) were attributing the development of girls’ and especially women’s gamelans largely to government impetus, international influence, and media. Then a year later, I found out about a girls’ gamelan group on a tiny island just off the coast that had been doing the same sort of thing years earlier and without much of any of those factors. It blew apart the logic that many people, including myself, had come to assume as true.

Q: What myths do you hope your book will dispel or what do you hope your book will help readers unlearn?

That children need excessively simplistic music in order to learn and participate musically at a young age.

That children are passive and are not important contributors to their societies.

That girls and women do not matter in artistic, cultural, or political change.

Q: What is the most important idea you hope readers will take away from your book?

I hope that readers will see the value in the work (and play!) that girls and young women are doing in the realm of instrumental music in Bali, especially given the history of political suppression of powerful women, and the current obstacles and challenges female musicians face. I also hope readers will see that listening to people is crucial to understanding their lives and that ethnography is such an important method for learning about the world in which we live.

Q: What do you like to read/watch/or listen to for fun? 

Right now I am really interested in sci-fi written by and/or featuring women and/or people of color. I love learning about experiences beyond my own, as well as imaging other worlds. Along these lines, the series Dark Matter is one of my current favorites. I also enjoy the series Pine Gap and especially for unwinding, The Good Place. Meanwhile, I can’t wait for my daughter to become interested in the Harry Potter books, but it hasn’t happened quite yet.

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