Words by Maria Bakkalapulo (Twitter @mbakkalapulo)
The gamelan traditions of the court and temples of Bali are well known throughout the world. But these have always existed side by side with the folk traditions of Bali, which are rarely heard outside the island. These are based on the ancient animist faiths of the area, where ceremonies to ward of evil spirits are performed to the sound of the gamelan. The story takes you to a funeral and other spirit ceremonies to encounter this hidden music of Bali.
TRANSCRIPT (The below is a transcript of the audio story. Be sure to click on the above link to hear the voices, music and sounds from on-location.)
MARIA: Mount Agung is the largest and most active volcano on the island of Bali. It towers more than 3000 meters over the surrounding villages. And these communities, towards the east of the island, seem fertile with magic, mysticism and ancient music … Balinese musician and dancer, Dr. I. Made Bandem, is the head of the Institute of Arts of Indonesia in Yogyakarta, and he talks about one of the oldest of these villages:
BANDEM: In the Bali Aga area, you will find selunding. The story of Iron music is one day in the village of Tenganan, there was a thunder and storm and lightening. You know, and then later on after the storm, they dropped 3 keys of the iron gamelan from the heaven. It Became a pattern of 40 keys instruments of selunding in eastern Bali, in Tenganan. This is only performed in sacred ceremonies. It is the most rare gamelan in Bali.
MARIA: The music of Tenganan is so sacred that this selunding set can never leave the village.
On the island, the eastern part is renowned as the area where one of Bali’s richest kingdoms, the kingdom of Klungkung, thrived up until the 14th century. And the royal court supported its own music. In the mountains, though, a tradition has survived which is much older than that. A pocket of inhabitants had withdrawn themselves from the rest of Bali. In seclusion, their ancient animistic traditions continued. The Bali Aga, or the “original Balinese,” as they are referred to, practice their own set of ceremonies, including this one, where single young men stand on a wooden platform, locking themselves in an arm-tangled embrace with hands full of thorny leaves. In the background, the gamelan selunding pounds away in a war-like beat as they attack each other until bloody. Here’s Dr Bandem again:
BANDEM: They have a ceremony to show the public that they are adults now. So to show adult-ness through fighting and competing with the others. Because later on they will compete to get the girls and so on. They have to be mature in different kinds of ways to protect the village. To test them, whether they are smart or skillful in handling this in fighting. Men showing their maturity. they have to be very smart to not get cut by other people. You are handling the weapon. The leaf. It shows mentally and physically that you are ready to be an adult.
MARIA: In present-day Bali, the two traditions – the ancient animistic traditions and the still pretty old court traditions dating from the Klungkung kingdom – exist side by side. Just down the road from the Bali Aga village, another sacred ceremony is also happening in a Hindu village – a ngaben, or cremation. A group of men carry the body on a bamboo frame as a gamelan angklung, an ensemble that includes bamboo shakers, leads the funeral procession. Desak Made Suarti Laksmi, is a professor of music at Institute of Arts of Indonesia in Bali.
LAKSMI: Once we hear the angklung song… It is like sorrow. If you hear the angklung, you will remember the loved ones. The emotion. It sounds like sorrow. The angklung is used for a sad situation. The mood of angklun is different than other ensembles. We just hear the angklung and we want to cry.
MARIA: The angklung comes to a stop once the dead body has turned to ash. The community then returns to the family’s home where there’s a feast of music to entertain and appease the gods and their ancestors. The funeral was led by the dead man’s nephew, Wayan. He had arranged for his uncle to leave this world with 5 different gamelan ensembles, taking up almost every corner of his family’s home. One gamelan in particular– the saron, that mixes bronze and bamboo keys – is an instrument of choice for ngabens in east Bali. Wayan feels it is the right choice of music to accompany his uncle on his journey to heaven.
WAYAN: We trust that our uncle is very happy and the god will see with the music and everything. And my uncle can join with my god. Always we play the saron. I must be following what my father and everyone is doing.
MARIA: The process of the ceremony would not be complete without it. Dr. Bandem:
BANDEM: This music, actually, is meant to bring the soul to heaven. To take it quickly to heaven and make sure it has a status. A good place in heaven, like selunding. Always communicating and communicating the soul with the god. This is very slow kind of music. Different from the performance music. Really bringing the spirit with the god. Always having a connection. Communicating music with the god and with the ancestors.
PRIEST: “God, watch over me. Everything I do, you can see. Everything I think in my mind, you know. That is why my prayer is just for you, my god.”
MARIA: And in other villages, the Hindu traditions and the ancient animist rituals blend together to make something different again. Here, the spirits are summoned to a temple ceremony.
The village is preparing for an ancient cleansing ceremony that they hope will rid the area of evil spirits. The sanghyang jaran uses the most sacred of instruments – the human voice. Dr. Bandem:
BANDEM: Everybody can participate in the kecak trance dance called sanghyang. This is the most sacred of Balinese music, in terms of vocal music, for example. In the sanghyang, vocal music known is kidung, or ritual sacred kidung makes people go into a trance accompanied by the kecak chorus. You know, singing only the word “chak chack chak” This means nothing to the Balinese. Only very sacred syllables. To have a convulsive sort of voice, staccato voice. Sacred music in sacred context in sacred time, performing in sacred places.
MARIA: The sanghyang jaran begins once everyone starts reciting the sacred text in unison. Inspired by the chanting, the dancers go into a trance and then they begin to stamp on hot coals. Dr. I Made Bandem explains that this is a way for the community to flex its mystical muscles against evil:
BANDEM: They want to show the power. So the village has power against all disease and enemies. Showing by people dancing around with the hobbyhorse – representing the spirit of a horse. Very convulsive movements. Very energetic. Not only are the dancers going into trance, but the people who sing and even see the performance are also involved in the trance itself. That means a very successful ceremony. To protect the village.
MARIA: The dancers frantically run out of the temple, still in a in trance, with all the villagers following behind them. Stopping traffic on a busy road, more than 50 men squat down and chant these ancient syllables. In the middle is an older man lit by a bright torch carrying what looks like a long wooden hobbyhorse with streaming long hair of straw.
MARIA: Weary from the long event, the women return first to the temple asking the goddess to let the ceremony finish so that they can go home. And they hope that through this ceremony, peace and harmony can be restored to their village.
I’m taking the short boat ride trip across the Bali Straits to the small island called Nusa Penida. The Balinese see Nusa Penida as the source of black magic. The island was once used as a place where criminals and undesirables were banished from the kingdom of Klungkung. Thousands travel yearly to the source of the power at the island’s temple of Dalem Ped, the legendary home to the demon, Ratu Gede Macaling. It is believe that if you pray and give offerings to appease him, he won’t come over the Straits and disturb Bali. Dalang Made, or puppeteer, performs a traditional wayang kulit shadow puppet theater at Dalem Ped. He has been dedicating himself here for the last 30 years to serve Ratu Gede Macaling. One way is through performance:
DALANG: I come here because Ratu Gede Macaling gave me the power to be a dalang. I come here to dedicate myself. The power of both good and evil is here, because Ratu Gede lives here and he is controlling black magic. Protecting Bali and keeping everything in balance. Good and evil.
MARIA: On the last day of the ceremony, many fall spontaneously into trance as the mask of Ratu Gede is carried around the temple and back into its shrine. The music’s repetition picks up speed adding to the hypnotic element of the moment. Dr. I. Made Bandem:
BANDEM: Music, like ostinato pieces. Very fast. Very simple pieces. Four or eight beats are repeated over and over again. Very quickly will catch the minds of the people. Your mind. And when you feel, you can transform with a great feeling towards the music. Repetition like that really help strike the head. Strike the mind. Making people in trance. They can communicate themselves to the god. You know, speaking to the community. That the ceremony is done. You are protected. The god come down and protect you.
MARIA: So next time you’re listening to a concert of gamelan music, remember that, for the people at the source of this music, it’s much more than an entertainment. It has a real power – it can bring prosperity or poverty, and it can bring life or death.