One of the most striking elements of Kena: Bridge of Spirits is its soundtrack, which features the music of traditional Balinese musicians in new compositions. It’s the result of a collaboration between composer Jason Gallaty and the ensemble group Gamelan Çudamani. We talked to Jason, as well as Gamelan Çudamani founding director Dewa Putu Berata and associate director Emiko Saraswati to learn how this musical partnership came to be.
Gallaty says that he was listening to Çudamani’s music for inspiration, so he decided to see if they would be interested in working together on Kena’s soundtrack. “I felt like with something that the music comes originally from Bali and Indonesia and all these instruments come from Bali and Indonesia, I wanted to approach it respectfully and asked to work with them.” He sent them an email, and hoped for the best.
“I’ll be totally honest, I told the guys this, but my first reaction was like, ‘No,’” Saraswati recalls. “No Gamelan in video games. Dewa and I are traditional artists, right, so this gets into more complex problems, but sometimes there’s a sense from traditional artists that things like video games are things that we’re working against all the time.” She says that Gallaty’s email was persuasive, however, so she agreed to talk to him on the phone and hear him out.
“I was like, ‘Oh wait, this kind of sounds cool.’ I very, very quickly realized that I had my own prejudice that I was working with, and that I needed to allow this team to explain what they were doing,” Saraswati says. “The themes are so beautiful and so resonant with our culture and our values and philosophy. And you know, it’s exciting to see that.”
After a fruitful recording session in California, Gallaty and Ember Lab’s chief creative officer Mike Grier went to Bali for a more in-depth series of sessions. The bamboo instruments are too large to easily transport internationally, and that’s where the bulk of the musicians are located, so it made sense to make the trip. “It was my inspiration, but I wanted to make sure that people were aware that this was cultural music at its heart that I was being inspired by, and I wanted that platform to be shared,” Gallaty says. “Things developed from there.”
Berata was able to create original compositions based on footage of the game in action or from descriptions of the moments or feelings that Gallaty wanted conveyed musically. After his musicians created new songs, Gallaty would then take those and use them for his own compositions. Working closely with the traditional musicians allowed the team at Ember Lab to avoid pitfalls that other game developers have fallen into, such as when The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time inadvertently incorporated Islamic prayers into one of its songs.
“Jason had samples of beautiful music that was sacred music, and we were like, ‘Uh, we can’t use that piece,’ so then Dewa would make a piece that had the same feeling to it but it wasn’t the sacred piece that would be really inappropriate for a video game,” Saraswati says. “It was really cool to see that kind of thing happen, where it’s actually something that’s very new that was composed last year, but it has that same sense of spiritual power and mystery.”
“It’s a pretty common thing in Western music, where they go in and think, ‘Oh, this is a really cool sound from this culture,’ but to them it’s just a sound,” Gallaty adds. “I’ve learned so much from this collaboration. It’s really not just a sound at all. It’s instrumental to the spiritual nature of the Gamelan music. The way that Gamelan is treated, these instruments are treated like people. They’re respected like people; you do not step over an instrument. It’s like if you were having a play date with another parent and you stepped over their child. You wouldn’t do that. You would never step over a child. That’s the way the instruments are treated.”
Gallaty says the experience of collaborating with Berata and the rest of the musicians was incredibly rewarding. Even though she wasn’t initially hot on the idea, Saraswati ended up being just as passionate and happy with the results. “So many things in the media or culture that we see today have so little to do with what our own family values are or what our cultural values are or what our parents have taught us,” she says. “It was exciting to see a project, and to be honest, we didn’t realize that it was going to be this big. Now my kids are super excited, and everyone in Çudamani is really excited.”
“It was really a life-changing experience,” Grier says, reflecting on the collaboration. “I don’t want to just throw that around, but I think it was for me. It really opened my eyes to how other people around the world are doing stuff that’s similar to what we’re trying to do, in their own way.”