Dancing and Music-making in Bali

Everything about Bali is different— the religion, the music, and its dances.  Its form of Hinduism–called Dharma Hinduism—is nothing like that found in India with its blend of pre-Hindu animist beliefs.  The stately gamelan music as found in the royal courts of Java take on a remarkably frenzied form.  If you’re saturated with all that  gamelan music in Java, hearing it in Bali suddenly makes it sound so fresh.   The gamelan in Bali takes on an almost devilish form whether it be as pure music for listening or as accompaniment to various dances. Imagine Liszt composing for and playing the gamelan.

But nothing quite prepared me for the jegog, an orchestra of huge bamboo xylophones which traces it origins in West Bali where it continues to flourish today.  







With so many more popular performances such as the Legong, Barong, and Ramayana taking place all at the same time at various venues around Ubud, it wasn’t surprising to see about less then twenty people in the audience at Pura Dalem where the Sekaa Jegog Yowana Shara ensemble of Ubud was scheduled to play.  The instruments stood by the side of the stage as the center was the dance area.  Monstrous bamboo tubes were placed horizontally on carved wooden frames.  I’ve never seen bamboo that big before.

Like thunder rolling on a stormy night, the sounds filled the hall cloaking us with its rhythms androars.  The musicians, all male,  round a pair of mallets pounded on the tubes, playing  as though  for an audience of a thousand.  Like rockstars drawn to the frenzy of their own making, they rocked the night away.  Incontrast to the macho sound of the jegog was the pendet dance featuring three young girls in gleaming golden costumes.  Their delicate movements be it in the flittering eye movements or wrist turn were lovely to behold.   

As I exited the audience area I chanced on one of the musicians taking a breather at the back row, “Bagus,” I told him.  He truly deserved it.

Kecak in Uluwatu

Uluwatu is a beautiful temple atop the cliffs overlooking the Indian Ocean.  Aside from its resident macaques who snatch at anything dangling from your body,  Uluwatu is also home to one of the best kecak (well, according to reviews) performances.  The open-air auditorium and the stunning sunset makes for a spectacular backdrop to this famous dance.  There were no instruments to accompany the dance, just pure human voice.  If anything, this dance proves that the most primal music instrument is the voice.

It was pure magic as the hypnotic “ca” of several dozens of shirtless men in sarong reverberated throughout the open-air auditorium while graceful dancers re-enacted the “Ramayana.”   These guys probably have the strongest lungs on this side of the planet as they heaved out “ca” over and over again, their chests and shoulders humping.   Occasssionly, this would be broken by melodic phrases while they swayed to the side. 

By now, we were familiar with the “Ramayana”, of the travails of Rama and Sita and the antics of Hanoman.  Unlilke the Javanese version which was more refined, the Balinese featured lots of quick movements and flicks of the wrists, neck, and feet.  Very exciting watch.  The highlight of the show was Hanoman kicking bales of burning hay.

Good vs. Evil

The classic good vs. evil theme was the heart of the  Barong dance which tells the story of the fight between the barong (a mythological animal) and the red-faced rangda (a mythological monster).  We were in a covered ampitheater in the stone-carving village of Batubulan, a 45-minute ride from Ubud.

The masks of both dancers were magnificent especially that of the rangda.  They actually looked like cousins of the Chinese lion.  I liked it so much, I bought my own barong mask at the art market in Sukawati for only Rp 300,000 which according to other vendors who saw it, was a very good price.  It’s now the first thing you see when you enter my house.

In our last night in Bali, we watched the graceful Legong dance performed by young girls at the pavilion beside the Ubud Palace.  It was classic Balinese—the one that you’ve always dreamed of watching— graceful arm gestures punctuated by foot movements, catchy eye and head clicks.  Even the minutest gesture such as fingers shaking contributed to the entire grace and charm of the dance.

Aside from the legong, the Panca Artha Group also featured other dances including a short narrative dance about Prince Bimaniu who is in search of Siti Sunari.  The most enigmatic of all however was the Kebyar Trompong which is a fairly new one having been choreographed (according to the program notes) in the 1930’s.  It featured a very graceful dancer showcasing a various dancing skills that seemed to require a high level of technique. I really couldn’t tell if it was a male dancer dressed in female clothes or a female dancer with male features.  I assumed she was female as it was a female dance.  She also played the trompong (a set of gongs) while swirling the sticks the way the Maranao women do.  It was fascinating and exciting to watch.

Bali, especially Ubud is one place I would love to go to if only to watch all those performances.  Forget about heavenly visions of dancing nymphs in gossamer gowns.  Paradise or Nirvana would probably feature colorfully-dressed Balinese dancers.

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