Bali: Beats of Paradise spotlights pioneering Indonesian composer, Nyoman Wenten, who spent most of his life spreading the beauty and mystery of Balinese music and dance across America. Shot mostly in Bali by director-producer Livi Zheng, the film encapsulates the brilliant scenery of the island as well as the authenticity of Balinese culture and Gamelan music. Known as the music of Indonesia, Gamelan (pronounced Gah-Meh-Lahn) typically uses bronze, iron, bamboo or wooden bars, as well as bronze and iron gongs, gong chimes, cymbals, bells, and two-headed drums to create a unique shimmering sound.
After 40 years of teaching Gamelan throughout America, and giving thousands of performances all over the world, Wenten wanted to leave something special behind before retiring to Bali. Coincidentally, Grammy Award-winning singer Judith Hill was looking for a distinctive sound for a new piece of music she was composing. She was intrigued by Gamelan music and approached Wenten to discuss the blending of musical styles.
As Hill and Wenten worked in the studio on “Queen of the Hill,” a song blending funk and Gamelan music, they wanted to take their collaboration one step further – a music video. As with the fusion of two musical styles, Hill and Wenten wanted the stark background of the desert with the beautifully colored traditional Balinese costumes. Shot in Southern California’s Joshua Tree Desert, the music video is a kaleidoscope of funk and traditional Balinese dance and costumes showcasing Hill’s ethereal vocals.
I was recently invited to join in on a phone interview with Director Livi Zheng and singer Judith Hill. I have to begin by saying that these two women are total rock stars within their fields- their talents are so strong, as they continue to kick down doors and open them for future women in the arts, film and music.
Livi Zheng – Director // Livi Zheng is a critically-acclaimed director and producer. Zheng made her film production debut in 2014 with BRUSH WITH DANGER, a thriller about the complex world of martial arts. The film was distributed theatrically in the US and internationally and garnered international acclaim and Zheng was prestigiously recognized by the Los Angeles Times for her work. Zheng earned her M.F.A in Film Production at the University of Southern California; previously having earned her B.A. in Economics from the University of Washington- Seattle. Zheng has been a guest speaker on topics spanning film, culture and international business. To date, she has lectured at over 30 universities worldwide including Yale University, University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts, University of California-Los Angeles, New York Film Academy, and Communication University of China.
Judith Hill – Singer (NBC’s “The Voice,” Michael Jackson’s This is it) // Judith Hill has been praised by Rolling Stone for her “stellar powerhouse vocals.” In addition to penning and performing her own material, Judith – who wrote her first song at the age of four – has backed such artists as Stevie Wonder and the late Michael Jackson. Hers is one of the stories told in director Morgan Neville’s acclaimed 20 Feet From Stardom, a film that shines the spotlight on the untold true story of the backup singers behind some of the greatest musical legends of the 21st century. The film has won the Film Critics Award for Best Documentary and an Academy Award for Best Documentary. The film also won the 2015 Grammy for Best Music Film. Hill, who was also featured on the film’s soundtrack, was a contestant on season four of “The Voice.” Judith has garnered much praise for her live performance as an opener for Josh Groban, John Legend and Prince.
I am so impressed by both of these women, and suspect we will being seeing a lot more from them in the future. Below are some of the highlights from our call.
How did the project come to you, was it the music video first or the documentary first?
Livi Zheng: Last year, the Indonesian Consulate asked me to film a Balinese Gamelan concert. So, I said yes because I love filming, I love filmmaking, film is my first love. And when I arrived at the concert, it was a full house and I saw how the audience reacted to the music. And it really inspired me to make this a feature film and make it something bigger. And then, so basically after the concert, I edited it. And then once the concert coverage on YouTube and it got really good feedback, we got press from all over. Internationally, as well. And it got quite a lot of views in a short amount of time and I really felt like, at the time, I have to make this a feature film. So, then I started the documentary, we went to Bali, filmed in Bali and then after that, along the way, I met Judith. So, do you want to talk a little bit about that?
Judith Hill: I met Livi for interesting reasons. I was also putting together this big show called The Golden Child. It’s a musical that basically brings culture together. I’ve always been such a fan of Balinese Gamelan music and dance and so I was looking for unique collaborations where I can infuse different cultures and style. And I was introduced to Livi by a mutual friend and we just clicked immediately. And she told me about her documentary and how she’s doing this documentary on Balinese music and was also interested in collaboration of different styles of music so that’s kind of how we came together.
Livi Zheng: Judith became a part of the documentary because… So, I introduced Judith to Wenten because Wenten is a Balinese dancer all over the U.S. He’s performed in Walt Disney Hall and he’s collaborated with a lot of artists and he also teaches in several universities, including UCLA and Harvard. Judith and Wenten met and Wenten has been in the U.S. for 40 years and he’s going to retire. And he wanted to leave a legacy. So then he had an idea to do a music video with Judith and have me direct it and that’s Queen of the Hill. He wanted a fusion between pop music and Balinese Gamelan with Balinese costumes and it’s very colorful and everything. The music video is already launched, it’s now on YouTube. It has over a million views and the music video Queen of the Hill is also featured in the documentary Bali: Beats of Paradise.
Did you have to do any explaining? Was there any assumption that you were actually talking about Bollywood or anything like that? Like, Bali, the people. Was there any confusion? Was there a lot of educating involved?
Livi Zheng: Actually, Gamelan is Indonesian traditional music but Gamelan has influenced a lot of the pop culture. For example, do you know the film Avatar by James Cameron? It uses Gamelan. The Los Angeles Times wrote about this. And also, the TV show Star Trek used Gamelan, as well. The Nintendo game Mario Brothers also uses Gamelan. So, actually, you probably have heard Gamelan but you just haven’t seen it. A lot of composers… Actually, Judith went to college here and she actually learned about Gamelan. Right, Judith?
Judith Hill: Yeah.
Livi Zheng: I wanted to learn it. And they teach it at MIT, they teach it in Harvard, they teach it in UCLA. A lot of schools have it and 49 out of the 50 states have a Gamelan program. But I think if you’re not a composer, maybe you’ve heard it but you don’t know it’s Gamelan. But actually, it’s in a lot of films and everything that uses Gamelan. That’s why I feel like I should tell the story just because it’s a treasure of Indonesia and I want to share this.
What inspired you from music when you were a child?
Judith Hill: A lot of soul, classic soul, and funk. I grew up around people like Sly and the Family Stone, Billy Preston. I listened to a lot of Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin but I also listened to a lot of classical. I listened to Bach and Chopin and of course, world music. I’ve always been inspired by different forms of world music, choirs, Bali music, traditional Japanese. So, I’ve always just loved a diverse group of musical styles but my first and foremost is always going to be funk and soul.
And Livi, what about you? What did you grow up with?
Livi Zheng: So, for me, I grew up in Indonesia and actually, in Indonesia we have a lot of influence from the U.S. pop culture. So, I grew up watching Hollywood movies and also listening to American pop songs. So, yeah, probably what you hear on the radio here is probably what I heard growing up. The music here is never foreign to me, it’s what we grew up with.
Judith, you just mentioned your love of funk and soul. Remind everybody where the idea to fuse your genre of music, which is in itself so different, with the Gamelan music came from. Was it something you and Livi collaborated on ?
Judith Hill: I was personally seeking out a collaboration because I’m doing this musical called Golden Child which is going to be premiering next month in L.A. But it’s about bringing the world together through song and music in different cultures of people. People and groups coming together through music. I was looking for a collaboration with Bali music and this was the perfect kind of stars colliding because Livi was also looking for a collaboration for her documentary. So, while she was looking for that, I was looking for a collaboration for my show. And it just kind of worked out so that this particular project, and Queen of the Hill, served both worlds. It allowed my audience to get a taste of a different form of music, that people who listen to my music would never really know about. And also vice-versa for Livi’s audience. And so I think it really brought people together.
How long did it actually take you? I know you were in Joshua Tree for a while. But from the point of conception to the point of finishing the music video, how long was that process?
Livi Zheng: Actually, it wasn’t really that long. It was two weeks. It was two weeks because Wenten had to go to Bali and Judith had to go to… You were going to New York? Judith was touring. So, we basically had two weeks to make this happen. So, we recorded the Gamelan and the music and everything. And then we had to come up with a concept, put together the costumes, rehearse the dance. It all happened in two weeks. And then we basically only had one whole day in Joshua Tree. And then the next day, both Judith and Wenten left L.A. So, I basically only had one shot and one day to direct the music video.
Wow. So, other than a tight timeline, what were some of the other challenges in making the video?
Livi Zheng: The whole process was pretty fun but we did shoot in the summer. So, you can imagine Joshua Tree in the summer and we filmed there the whole day. It gets very, very hot. And the Gamelan, if you put it under the sun too long, it may crack and there’s only one of these Gamelan that we have. When we transported it, it took three hours to transport it here, it’s like a whole… Gamelan is an ensemble so you cannot just use one and so you have to bring the whole ensemble that consists of a whole bunch of instruments. So, we transported with a truck and it took three hours. And we… It can be broken but there’s only one of them. Then when we started rehearsal, we kind of wanted to make sure that the Gamelan doesn’t crack so we have to put it in the shade and keep moving it back to the sun when we need it. And then otherwise, we have to move it back to the shade. So, there was the worry that the weather could cause the Gamelan to crack and it was hard for people to be out that long. So, we had a lot of water and everything. But otherwise, it went pretty well and it was really fun and it turned out really good. We have over a million views so we’re really happy about that. Yeah.
Everyone looks so beautiful in the video. You’d never know it was hot out. Nobody looks glistening or anything like that. It looks beautiful. Judith, and for all the other women in the video, I thought the makeup was stunning. You guys all looked amazing. What was it like for you guys to be working on the documentary and the music video at the same time?
Livi Zheng: I think both the documentary and the music video kind of goes together. It also goes with Judith’s show The Golden Child that’s actually launching in December. It was just great because it started from one thing, just a casual introduction, to something bigger. And also now the film is officially competing for the Academy Awards.
What surprised you the most about Wenten as you got to know him?
Judith Hill: I think what I loved about him is just how genuinely sweet he was and just such a kind heart and spirit. But also his real depth of knowledge in the history of Gamelan music and Balinese music. I was just intrigued and I learned so much from him and his wife, just hanging out with them and realizing that there are so many nuances and intricacies to the art form. There was a moment where we were in the studio and he was teaching me how to play it and it was definitely difficult and I learned so much from just that. That there’s just so much depth and skill to the art form. And then what was really fun was him teaching me some of the dance moves and that was really cool, too.
What was something for each of you that you discovered about yourself during the filming process?
Livi Zheng: I’m from Indonesia so I know Gamelan but I’ve never learned it and I never had a formal education about Gamelan or anything like that. I just know we use Gamelan for a lot of things. But I never really knew the backstory of Gamelan, the important, and how it’s being used in Avatar and Star Trek. And for me, it makes me closer, I feel closer, to my roots and I’m actually now learning Gamelan. I grew up learning martial arts, I never learned music. I don’t know how to read music notes. But now I’m learning Gamelan. Since I kind of learned a lot about the history and the backstory of Gamelan, it’s so great to be able to learn it. And I’m learning, actually, directly from Nyoman Wenten. And now I want to share Gamelan to even more people. And because now, I have a deeper understanding about it.
Judith Hill: I think for me, I was just greatly inspired by it because there’s so much power, especially as a woman, that you can have in just subtlety of movement. And I think that Gamelan is such a powerful form of dance and music and just learning how the different women would move their bodies, their eyes, and hold command and power in such a subtle way. It’s just so captivating and it inspired me as a woman and as an artist to explore different parts of myself. And me being half Asian, as well, I was really inspired by Eastern art form and really diving into that more. I was born and raised in North Hollywood, L.A. So, me tapping deeper into my Asian roots was really special and I think that this project allowed me to do that.
Livi Zheng: You know, in Bali, Gamelan is part of daily life. Even if you’re driving down the street, you’ll see a procession. When you’re born, when you become an adult, when you get married, even when you die, Gamelan is being played. So, it’s a big part of Balinese life and you can’t separate Gamelan from a Balinese life, actually. That was really cool to be able to, when I was doing the film, I was part of a wedding and we were part of a lot of ceremonies. And it was just like you know that if you’re Balinese, you can’t separate Gamelan in your life.
What was your favorite memory from all your times in Bali?
Livi Zheng: Oh, there’s so many. My favorite memory … Okay. So, we drove down and we saw a procession, people playing Gamelan and everything in the procession. Then we stopped the car and we were like, “Okay. What’s happening?” And then they were saying, “Oh, there’s a wedding.” And then we went there and we were like, “Hey, can we shoot your wedding?” And the people were like, “Yeah.” And then they, actually… They let us shoot the wedding. Also they showed us where all the food is, so they’re showing us everything, they’re giving us a tour of how the food is cooked, there’s, certain foods that they cook and they cook in a big… What is it called? Like in a big pan, in a big wok. And they invited me and the crew from the U.S. to sit down and have a meal with them and chat with them. Then we were like, “Oh, thank you so much for letting us shoot,” they didn’t even let us leave. They were, “Oh, stay for another ceremony.” So, that was very memorable to me that they just treat you basically like their family. That was really memorable. Definitely one of the most memorable that happened during the shoot.
When you’re in Bali, they do dance or procession. You know, sometimes you go to places and they only show it for tourists or something like that? In Bali, actually, it’s not for tourists, it’s part of their life. And every morning they do offerings and the offerings are so beautiful. And everything is so colorful in Bali and that’s just a part of life. It’s not for tourists or anything like that. It’s for themself, for their life.
You (Zheng) have an amazing resume, with screenwriting, directing, producing, ect. What advice would you share to encourage more future women in film ?
Livi Zheng: I think if you have a dream, just go for it. Let’s say, you want to make a film and the budget wouldn’t be big. Don’t let budget be the obstacle. When I first did my first feature film that I ever directed, I was going to shoot it with three crew members and $10,000, basically. Because my brother is in film and I have a friend who’s in film that has a DSLR. So, we were going to shoot it, just the three of us, with $10,000 and we were going to make it happen. And we didn’t let the fact that, oh, we don’t have a million dollars or two million dollars to do the film, stop us. If you decide to do something, people around you will see your passion and they will help.
So, eventually, we got even more budget, better than we imagined. We filmed with Red Camera, they used Red Camera to film Jurassic World, Pirates of the Caribbean. And we have Oscar-nominated crew and we were renting crew. And that all started with basically an idea I wanted to film with three people. And then we ended up having a big crew and a big cast, pretty big for a first feature film, we had probably around 100 in total, camera and crew. So, I think it’s very important to not let budget or anyone stop you. Actually now, everything’s big, you can just do it. And actually, my first script got rejected 32 times. So, don’t let rejection bring you down. Just kind of like, you know what? You’re a step closer to getting it funded. Just think of it that way. I know it’s heartbreaking when you spend months and months to make a script and then people just reject it without even a reason. Sometime they don’t even reply to you. And I know it’s very heartbreaking but you just have to keep going because, whatever film you’re on, it’s going to be difficult to do something. But if you just keep going, it will happen. Maybe it will take longer but it will happen. I I did my first feature film when I was 23. So, it’s doable, it took me a couple years but it’s very doable, to kind of pursue your dream. I think until now it’s like when I want to do something, I just make it happen whether I have a big budget or I have a small budget. Just do it and people will start helping you along the way.
Judith, what advice would you give to upcoming artists and women in entertainment?
Judith Hill: Well, same as with Livi. Just follow your passion and give it 120% every single day. I was lucky to work with a lot of different people and inspired by a lot of different people. But in my journey, every chapter I’ve learned that when you’re really true to yourself and you follow what your heart is telling you and you give it all, the stars will align and the doors will open up. I think that it’s important also to be proficient and know how to do a lot of things and not rely upon other people to make things happen for you. Like, with my album this time, I learned how to mix my own record, I produced my own record, I composed and arranged and did everything. And it’s just really important to be in control and be able to know how to do everything so you can fully realize your dream and not have to rely on anybody to do it. It takes a lot more work but at the end of the day, it’s rewarding because you’re in control of it and you’re following your dream.
And then later on, you get a bigger team, you can tell them how you want things. But as long as you know how to do it and you know exactly what you want because you have that experience and you’re able to do it, it will be the way you want it to be. And so just keep pushing through no matter what happens. Rejection is another step to success, just as Livi was saying. I was inspired by what you were talking about. But I think the same thing. Every season there’s always a lot of rejection but you just keep going. And the most important thing is to do it because you have a message of love and you have something to give to the world and that stands the test of time.
What do you hope people take away with them after they see this film?
Judith Hill: I really hope that people are inspired by the film and are curious to learn more about Balinese and also just other cultures. And I think that for me, personally, my passion is to bring the world together and open people’s minds to each other and to different cultures. And so I really hope that that was expressed in the film as an example of what is possible when we step outside of our world and celebrate someone else’s culture. And I hope to see more of that in the world.
Livi Zheng: For me, when I made this film, I just want to share the story of Balinese Gamelan which has influenced the biggest films like Avatar, Star Trek. So that people not only hear Gamelan but they see Gamelan. I just want to share it because it’s actually already been used in a lot of things but a lot of people still don’t know about it. And as an Indonesian, I want to share this, to share this music. Yeah.
I just want to thank Judith Hill and Livi Zheng for participating in our interview and being so generous with their time. I’ve seen the film. It is a well-made documentary that feels much more like a message of love to a beautiful culture. I look forward to one day adding to our home collection. Indonesia has a special place in the hearts of my family. Our daughter actually spent a month traveling in Indonesia over the summer. She returned a changed person with a very different perspective of life, kindness and culture. I know that she is looking forward to the day she can go back and possibly visit more islands, such as Bali.
I hope that everyone will see Bali:Beats of Paradise, it opens on November 16th in Los Angeles and New York. There will also be one-night only screenings in select cities across the country. Please do yourself a favor and check your local listings.
If you haven’t heard as of yet, give a listen to Judith Hill’s music and be prepared to fall in-love with the Queen of The Hill.
Catch Judith’s project The Golden Child (a play) when it premieres December 5th in L.A.
Also, keep an eye out for Livi Zheng’s next feature film, “Insight” to open next year.