Zack Cain arrived at Richmond as a skilled guitarist with a love for music. He never anticipated that within 2 years he’d be spending his summer halfway around the world, immersed in an ancient musical tradition with a storied history, studying a complicated and unfamiliar instrument. 

Cain spent his summer in Bali, Indonesia, researching the musical traditions of gamelan, a style of ensemble music indigenous to the island. He learned to play the lanang, a drum that is essential to the performance of gamelan music. “The drummer in a gamelan ensemble plays a similar role to the conductor of a Western orchestra,” Cain said. “The drummer offers rhythmic cues, sets tempo, and lays the musical foundation that the other players in the ensemble build upon.”

Growing up, Cain played piano and guitar, but had never really heard music from outside of the Western tradition. He soon was immersed in a whole new world of music, so to speak. “When I first got to Richmond, I saw that they offered sitar lessons, and I thought that would be cool to learn, so I started taking lessons.” When he gave his first performance on sitar as part of the Global Sounds concert at the end of his first year, Cain heard Gamelan Raga Kusama, the University’s gamelan ensemble, for the first time. “It was so different from anything I had ever heard, and I knew immediately that I wanted to be involved,” he said. 

Cain spent the next year performing in the gamelan ensemble while also taking courses in drumming traditions from Japan, Bali, and West Africa, and being mentored by ethnomusicology professor Andy McGraw, whose area of expertise is Balinese gamelan. “The music of Bali really drew me in, and fascinated me; Dr. McGraw encouraged me to apply for a summer fellowship so I could learn technique from the source,” he said. 

Cain spent 8 weeks living in Ubud, a cultural center in Bali, and taking daily lessons in lanang drumming, with the goal of being able to return to Richmond to take on a larger role in the Gamelan Raga Kusama. He practiced several hours a day and honed his technique by sitting in with community gamelan ensembles in Indonesia, while also fully immersing himself in Balinese culture through attending performances at the Bali Arts Festival. In addition to drumming, he took lessons in gender wayang, a xylophone-like instrument, which is used to accompany performances of Balinese shadow puppetry. 

Cain’s biggest challenge came when McGraw asked him to learn all of the parts to a gamelan song, so that he could teach the song to the Richmond ensemble when he returned. A gamelan song can have as many as 15 different parts, and as Cain soon discovered, the traditional Western ways of learning music don’t apply. “They don’t use any notation or write down their music, they learn everything by ear,” Cain said. “It was frustrating at times, because I wanted to get it and I had to keep hearing it over and over again to memorize it.” 

This fall, Cain took on a larger role in the Gamelan Raga Kusama, teaching the piece he learned to his fellow ensemble members, and playing lanang drum alongside McGraw. He also had the opportunity to accompany Balinese shadow puppetry performances at the Smithsonian and Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. 

Cain, who plans to become a music teacher, feels that having the opportunity to travel to Bali to learn will help him teach others. “In my education classes, I’ve been studying how to be accommodating to different ways that people learn,” he said. “Trying to go into a tradition that is so virtuosic, but that is so removed from anything I was familiar with, it put me in the shoes of an outsider, which was an important feeling. I realized that there’s not one right way of learning or teaching, there are many right ways.”

“Music has given me a voice that I don’t have when I’m speaking; sometimes I can express how I feel better with music than I can with words,” Cain said. “I want to become a music teacher because if I can help a student gain that voice within them, there’s no better feeling than that.”