I had been playing Indonesian music for a few years, not with any great degree of dedication. My interest had been growing since I had moved to CalArts for graduate school. One Saturday, I drove about an hour and a half up to Oak View to play some music with my bandmates from high school. We set up in the drummer’s driveway and played some of our old death metal for a bit, then proceeded to playing stinky stupid funk, then the worst trash we could think of because that’s how it goes and that’s what we like to do when the “real” music is finished. Somewhere in the trash section of the music making, I started trying to play Balinese interlocking patterns with myself on guitar using a loop pedal. Having never done this before, I was struggling to make it happen (struggling through a decently loud amplifier). I’m sure some part of my mind still thought I was quite the cultured, knowledgeable, talented, young man; though this particular exercise undoubtedly sounded horrendous.
This continued until a neighbor from up the hill walked into the driveway and boldly declared, “Man, you guys just get worse and worse. At first, it was ok, but this… this is fucking horrible.” At this point, he gestures toward me and says, “You, tell me what… do you go to CalArts? What are you… Mister Gamelan?” My bandmates begin howling in hysterics, knowing that this gentleman in his sixties has completely hit the nail on the head, calling me out as magnificently as he possibly could have. With this one statement, he makes it perfectly clear that he has seen my type before: the young, white, college-educated man who plays around with “world music.” As he does this, I realize that I have seen this type before too, and I don’t usually enjoy it much either. For many artists, especially in LA, to be told you are the same as someone else is to be told that you are no one at all. So it didn’t feel great. Funny, but not great. This story seemed to amuse quite a few people, and no small number of my friends began to refer to me as “Mr. Gamelan.”
Fast forward three years. I’ve been living in Indonesia now for seven months. I live in Solo. It is not a tourist city and as a white person, you are very much out of the ordinary. As a white person in Indonesia, you are “bule.” This word once referred to people afflicted with albinism, but now is used to refer to anyone with white skin. It used to carry mostly negative connotations, and now carries all sides of the coin (the same coin you carry by just being white). As you walk around in Solo, it is very common that people, especially children, will yell “Hello Mister!”. They will yell it repeatedly regardless of your reaction as it is the only thing they know how to say in English. The word “mister” is essentially considered to be the usual nomenclature for any bule (it is often mistakenly used for women as well). The association of the word “mister” with Western culture is so strong that the leading hamburger chain in the city is called “Mister Burger.” This word is what you use to get a bule’s attention; if you yell “Hello Mister!” at a bule, they will look at you, and you can laugh and laugh and laugh, because… they are white. And that’s funny apparently. Or maybe if they say “hello” back, you can even ask them to take a photo with you.
I go to university playing Javanese music with Javanese students. There are two other bule in my class. Fortunately, the Indonesian students have more or less become accustomed to us and are generally friendly, but a few strong reminders of our whiteness still persist. It is assumed that we will be worse at the material, regardless of our abilities. Professors will make jokes at the expense of the bule-bule, using local Javanese language (as newcomers we can only understand the more mainstream Indonesian language). Sometimes, we do understand when they don’t expect it. I remember a favorite moment when a senior instructor mentioned in Javanese, “Only women and bules need notation to learn this.” If we can occasionally play something better than an Indonesian student (and it does happen), our classmates will make fun of them for it. Though they welcome our presence and are happy to have us in the class, our whiteness, our bule-ness, our mister-ness is apparent. No matter what you do, no matter how far you go, no matter how well you can play this music, it will be perceived through the lens of your whiteness. If you learn the music well enough, you might even get the highest possible compliment of sounding “Javanese.” And if your sound is even passable as such, you are virtually guaranteed some degree of renown and respect.
This brings to light the important fact that one’s status as a bule brings enormous advantages along with it. You are by default considered to be more attractive. People will offer you jobs teaching English, modeling, acting. Interactions with a single member of the opposite sex won’t make it far before your marital status is questioned. The average Indonesian person will treat you better if you are white because they want you to feel welcome in their country, they want you to like Indonesia, and in many cases, they may want to take a photo with you. It is nice for a while, but it does get old. I imagine it is much like being a really low-level celebrity. No one really cares who you are, but they think it’s interesting and strange because you’re from somewhere else, and that’s noteworthy enough for a photo. They want to say, “Hey, check out this photo I took. It’s that one guy from that one episode of Law and Order: SVU.” “Hey check out this photo I took. It’s me with a white person.” Just like that guy from SVU, it is a constant reminder that everyone is seeing you through a veil pre-existing associations. No matter who you are or what you do, the most interesting thing about you is that you are not from Indonesia. So, I used to be seen as a “metalhead.” Then I was just an obnoxious “world-music CalArts guy”. Now, I’m a “bule,” or as I hear every single day from the countless, lawless gangs of bicycle-equipped Indonesian children, I am a “mister.” “Mister” is my name. Right now, gamelan is what I do. So fuck it, I’ve given in. I’m well on my way to really becoming “Mister Gamelan.” For some reason, I’m still a little embarrassed about all of it. I wish I wasn’t.