TRANCE GAMELAN IN BALI
Bali is well known for its many thousands of temples, and the Balinese temple festivals (odalans) take place on the anniversary of each temple’s completion. That means every 210 days, for that is the length of the Balinese year (Uku) and thus there will be many festivals occurring concurrently across the island at any one time. These events are complex and concentrated cultural affairs, lasting anything from a day to a week or longer, and consisting of incredible, shimmering music played on the tuned percussion instruments which make up the gamelan, with bright and beautiful costumes, elaborate decorations and colourful offerings, artwork, traditional cuisine, sophisticated dances and other entertainment forms of profound meaning and significance. Almost every village has its own gamelan set, and the role of the music in the festivities is considerable. When in progress, these spectacular religious and social events are carried out more-or-less 24 hours a day, and are of huge significance to the community. For the Balinese, it is the time when the gods descend to give the people advice.
Centuries of unpleasant colonial assaults on the island culminated when the Dutch invaded Bali in 1906. Not long after this time of great upheaval a period of great musical innovation on the island began, encouraged by the end of ancient feudalism. A new style of playing known as gamelan gong kebyar transformed the music of the island. ‘Kebyar’ literally means to flower, or to burst into flames, and accurately describes the often ferocious percussion and melodic ornamentations, featuring sudden shifts in mood and tempo. It is now, and has been for several decades, by far the most popular musical form on the island, and has influenced all but the most defiantly archaic styles. To young men, the playing of its explosive passages and complex musical architecture can often get highly competitive. When it first took hold, many gamelan sets were melted down and reforged for use in this new exciting style. It was nothing short of a musical revolution sweeping across the island, overshadowing the stately gamelan gong gede style.
Originally the gamelan sets were funded and maintained by princes and rich patrons, but now most communities owned one between themselves and the music was becoming very much a folk art. Young composers of great genius, such as Lotring (1898-1983) were able to form village ‘clubs’ and compose new music in kebyar style. Of course, after centuries of evolution, much of the traditional repertoire remained, yet few performances from this point onwards did not involve elements of the new style in some way. So, whilst the music captured on these recordings is traditional, it is also heavily influenced by the new musical developments on the island that came into being in the early twentieth century. Just as the shape of an island’s coastline changes over time, so too does the music of its people. Culture is never static, and tradition is an ever-evolving phenomenon.
One of the most striking things about this fieriest of traditional Balinese music is the remarkable combination of the precision of the playing, requiring astounding levels of discipline, sensitivity and dexterity, and the truly Dionysian resultant atmosphere. Dance and drama have seemingly always played an important role in Bali, and gamelan music is the perfect soundtrack. The compositions are rarely notated, instead being passed on organically across the generations and through the communities. Interestingly, there can only be very limited room for improvisation as otherwise players could easily lose sight of their own positions within a given performance.
The hypnotic, polyrhythmic music is at its most powerful at occasions such as those recorded here, where, instead of the perfect sound quality and often clinical environment of a proper studio, we have vibrant audio documents of actual events that would proceed quite regardless of whether or not anybody was making a recording of them. Indeed, it would be insulting to think of these ceremonial occasions as nothing more than bedazzling spectacles for curious tourists. Not surprisingly, during previous decades the music would have been regarded as too sacred to even be recorded.
“Trance gamelan” is primarily a Western concept of this ornate and kaleidoscopic music as having particular trance-inducing powers, although in Bali itself certain ritual dances, including the Sanghyang and Barong, are connected to the idea of altered mental states because the participants act as vessels for positive and negative spirits. For the Balinese, every object, whether animate or inanimate, has the potential to embody good or evil spirits.
This release contains examples of some of the most formidable and exhilarating traditional music to be found anywhere on our planet. Meticulously mapped-out and rehearsed, it is as refined and elaborate as Western classical music - gamelan is quite rightly regarded as an orchestra. Compared to stultifyingly rigid Western norms, the tuning system is different, the predominantly cyclical structure is different, and the very instruments themselves are different. Arguably it is the eventful rhythmic aspect of this music that most endears it to the easily bewildered Western ear more than other, more placid, Indonesian music. That said, it is probably only a matter of time before we see more visible mainstream evidence of the musical cross-pollination that inevitably occurs in a world of such advanced global technology and communication. Musically, progressively, that can only be a wonderful thing. However, one hopes to see these events continued for a long time to come, not just in diluted form for the benefit of the tourist economy but far more importantly as an embodiment of immense mythic and symbolic meaning to the Balinese.
Track 1 - Temple ceremony near Ubud (23:28)
The recording starts with the sounds of the beleganjur, the gamelan marching band. The word literally means gamelan of walking warriors, and such ensembles were formerly associated with leading armies into battle during times of warfare rather than the contemporary purpose in ceremonial celebrations. The rapid percussive syncopations of the ceng-ceng, small hand cymbals, are especially noticeable. Like many Indonesian instruments, the name is onomatopoeic, pronounced “cheng cheng”. After one minute, it becomes clear that the procession is within the temple since we hear the dramatic mantra of the priest. It is night-time.
Over the next few minutes we hear an astonishing array of gamelan ensembles, their sounds intermingling as they play in close proximity to one another. This happens alongside various different ceremonial activities also taking place within the temple, including the world-famous wayang kulit (shadow puppet play). We hear the congregation chattering excitedly, their voices rising at particularly charged points of the ceremony. The intoxicating combination of all these sonic ingredients alters according to where one is standing. Essentially we have several different performances all at once, but heard together they compliment each other and create an astounding and intense aural experience of melodic lines and patterns. This overall ‘odalan texture’ is an incredible holistic religious environment: dense, mesmeric, dance-inducing and heady.
Towards the end of the track, dancers with the magic white masks make their appearances for the vital part of the event, the connection to the spirits of the unseen world.
Track 2 - Temple ceremony (preparations for) at Tenganan (13:23)
On the hilly eastern side of the island, the ancient walled village of Tenganan is home to the independent and isolated original people of Bali – the Aga. Apparently they retreated into the mountains centuries ago to avoid imperialistic invaders, and have remained separate ever since. Therefore it is no surprise that many of the oldest, pre-Hindu traditions are still maintained here. The Aga are tall, slim and pale, and originally they filed and blackened their teeth. Their community does not recognize individual personal ownership – everything is common property. Only recently was it made permissible for newcomers from outside to spend any length of time in the village, and strict rules concerning conduct still apply. The layout of the village is symmetrical and all houses look identical. The village is also known for its high quality fabrics and is surrounded by unusually fertile land.
This track opens with the sound of children playing in the afternoon on the gamelan instruments for a short while before an adult interrupts to reprimand one or more of them, after which the remainder of the adult musicians leisurely take their positions and the proper rehearsal slowly begins to coalesce in a more structured way. It is not unusual for children to play. They are actively encouraged from an early age to take part in rehearsals and learn about the various instruments and their roles in the ensemble.
As the form of the piece becomes more clearly defined, some people in the temple begin dancing informally for their own enjoyment. Six minutes in, and the music intensifies as an old woman begins her solo dance. At approximately eleven minutes into the recording the rhythm changes and something happens to stir the crowd into a climactic frenzy of excitement, though the producer was unable to identify quite what this was!
Everything about the temple environment can be seen as a microcosm of the wider spiritual beliefs – the most sacred inner courtyard (jeroan) in the temple being closest to the holy volcanic mountain Mount Agung, its highest slopes being home to the gods, and furthest away from the sea where the evil spirits reside.
Track 3 - Jauk and Barong dance contest at STSI Denpasar (10:45)
This piece was recorded late one evening at Bali’s Conservatory of Music, and captures an excellent performance of the music for the Barong dance during a contest between various different dance groups. The Barong dance narrates a story about the fight between good and evil and is essentially an exorcism and rebalancing of negative and positive forces. Suling (bamboo flutes) are particularly noticeable on this recording - here they have a see-saw ostinato melody, and it is rather tempting to think of them as evoking the precarious balance of power between Barong and Rangda.
Barong is king of the favourable spirits, associated with order, and protector of the community. Rangda, ruler of the evil spirits and chaos, is the enemy. At one point in the play, Barong calls on his followers, the keris dancers, for help. Evil Rangda casts a spell on them and, in trance, they begin to turn their wavy daggers on themselves. They eventually manage to escape death and are woken from their trance by a priest with holy water.
There is a continual need in Balinese spiritual life to maintain equilibrium, restore the balance between the two forces and keep them under control. Neither force ever ultimately wins, for good cannot exist without bad, nor bad without good.
Daniel Patrick Quinn
Field recordings (1994), mastering, and photos: John Noise Manis