When the music dies in Bali so does the island. A lament, discordant at first, and then another harmonious outburst, the ensemble of 30 musicians offer fuel to the spirits who rejoice at the musical offerings. “Most of the musical instruments of the gamelan orchestra are made of bronze,” says David Attenborough, who is narrating a section in The Miracle of Bali, titled A Recital of Music from the Village of Pliantan , about an ensemble of musicians and dancers from Peliatan who toured the West in 1932 and 1969.
The BBC’s The Miracle of Bali (1969) explores the island’s recent history into dance and music and art. It’s like the narrator has found a rare species of humans, and his enthusiasm for their rich cultural roots isn’t hidden as he goes into the origins of Bali as an artistic island.
He’s astounded with the island. It seems to have it all, mountains, beaches, a bounty of food from both land and sea. “Bali is a small island, 100 miles long….” he says at the beginning of the documentary. “But It’s not enough for the peasants to work all day in the rice fields. After a long day tending their rice paddies, the Balinese feel compelled to go home and appease their many Hindu gods with fine art.”
Balinese music is linear and evolving, but maintains a strict adherence to the dancer’s cadence, who play out Hindu epics or courtship rituals. The Mad Hindu has graciously offered me to meet the original performers who were showcased in the David Attenborough documentary.
Peliatan village, about five kilometers from Ubud, is the cultural hub of Bali.
The Eat Love & Pray set would argue otherwise.
The Mad Hindu won’t have any of that nonsense from the tofu eating, yoga chanting, crystal stone wearing well heeled tourists. The Mad Hindu seems offended with the idea that his village has been relegated behind Ubud.
“Ubud not culture hub,” he says, trying to maintain his outward Hindu decorum. “Very wrong. The best dancers, musicians and wood carvers come from my village. Always have and always will.”
Some of dancers and musicians who appeared in The Miracle of Bali are still alive, informed the Mad Hindu. So I’m hoping to meet up with a few of them. First the Mad Hindu needs to dig deep into his network.
The Mad Hindu, known as Sana in Garuda’s Travels, is always trying to get me to see the dancing at the palace in Ubud. I’m not ready to pay the 100 000 Rupiah for some tourist titillation. That’s about US $10. But Sana has an idea. He’s thinking quick on his feet. He knows I’m interested in dancing if it’s free. “Only best dancers perform tonight at my neighbor’s house. They have a big family celebration.”
I voiced concern that it might be some watered down tourist version of dancing that they offer at the Palace. No, no, he said the dancers were from a famous group who performed at the Palace every Friday night in Ubud. “They put on better show cos for important family.” He added that some of the dancers and musicians were from the BBC documentary. “Gratis,” he added, clinching the deal. “You no need to pay entrance fee.”
I know what gratis means you farktard. Sana has a sense of humour and gives me that glazed look, which could mean either he wants to kill me or humour me. Probably a bit of both.
Sana is the best fixer in town and a great culture guide. He says trances are induced by music and young agile female dancers. “That’s how we have communion with our gods. If you don’t know music, then you don’t know Bali culture.” It has been one of my blind spots, I admit. He’s in an eloquent mood tonight.
The first night’s dancing was sedate, elegant and poised. The women dancers wove their magic with ornate hand movements, and delicate steps, as their hips sashay seductively. “She is the young dancer from the documentary,” he points. A lady in her late fifties, ageless, recalls her tour in the States and Australia. He’s talking about the young dancer in The Miracle of Bali. “They are same group but new generation,” says Sana. He says they mostly perform in Ubud on the weekends, when they aren’t hired around the island for ceremonies like the one we are visiting tonight.
The family house who were hosting the ceremony are the richest family in Ubud, he informed. “They had the first television in Peliatan. I use to watch Scooby Doo cartoons when I was ten years old.” The family is modest in their wealth and welcome this crusty old travel writer.
I tried out the new camera – it’s a Samsung Galaxy, not to be mistaken with their phone series. It likes it’s subject matter. So much so that we are back the next night.
The next day, it’s dentist time in Bangli. My teeth are the talk of the town in the remote villages of Bali. “He had 12 fillings and four teeth reconstructed.” The Mad Hindu sent word back to Ubud quickly. The news is spreading like wildfire, and I only paid local prices.
Comparing teeth, Sana recently had four of his teeth reconstructed. I’m not quite sold on my new identity, but I’m growing into my new smile. On the road back to Ubud, he takes off and passes a truck and just misses an oncoming car. I play it safe, and hang behind the truck. Fumes and dust are my best friend for the next ten minutes.
He’s long gone. Alone, and with limited Bahasa, I say Ubud ,and point. Up there, turn right. Down there turn left. Straight ahead. I’m really lost. Up a steep hill. Past rice paddies. It’s very dark, no streetlights here.
As I reach another windy road, that weaves through rice paddies, I know I’m now in familiar territory. Ubud isn’t far. I know because I just passed the cold springs where we bathe often.
But before I lose the fear of being lost, I ride slowly down a steep hill. A bike in front of me slips off the road and the rider and passenger are pinned down by the bike. Stones are strewn on the narrow steep road. I look to the right. A truck has fallen into the embankment. It’s cabin looking sky bound.
Another motorist stops and helps the man pick up his bike. His son, about 12, has a few gravel abrasions and his father is in shock. I quickly manoeuvre between the bike on the ground and the parked bike on the road. “Ubud,” I say. I don’t want to stick around. I don’t want to be blamed for the accident and have to pay out. It could easily be misconstrued that way.
Back on familiar turf, I beep my horn at a shrine on a bridge for a safe passage.
Sana is waiting for me at his neighbor’s house. “Tonight is barong time.” Things are just getting interesting. They always do when the Barong’s enter the stage. The primary Hindu god, a hairy monster on four legs, the mystical barong can always bring on trances. Snap snap, it uses its mouth to snap people out of trances. It’s unconventional but works most times.
The Mad Hindu is smiling, that demonic smile. He’s taught me a lesson in being self-sufficient. The only way to get around Bali alone is through trial and error. I’ve got my new teeth, so I’m in a surprisingly good mood. “Just look behind you every five minutes,” I told him. “I’m still a novice on the motorbike.”
He points out a maestro. He’s a drummer, now in his sixties. He says that the drummer was one of the 30 musicians who toured around Europe in 1969.
Now the barongs come out to play. A hairy monster, ogre like with four feet, it parades around the floor while the family of the house look on. The crescendo soon. I’m told to move. The barong, a Hindu god, needs to escape from the stage. A group of young men, about ten, wield their lead knives that bend when in contact with flesh. I’ve felt them before, they aren’t plasticine knives, and are quite strong and sturdy and can easily penetrate skin.
The barong is continually stabbed. He makes guttural noises as a challenge. The young boys continue striking. They aren’t making much headway. The barong has won so the warriors commit hari-kari, each one continually stabbing himself in their bare chests. No blood drawn, but only bruises, says Sana. “They are under the power of trance, they are superhuman and nothing can hurt them.”
I’m always curious how much padding is under the barong’s costume. One slip through his protection clothing, a knife could actually make contact. “We don’t worry about that,” he said. “It’s the holy domain. Earthly principles don’t exist on this plain.” It’s a certain Hindu arrogance I’d expect. But he has a point. On the two occasions I’ve witnessed these hari-kari spectacles, I’ve not seen any blood spilt.
David Attenborough narrates a section about trances. The Balinese are finely tuned to the spiritual world. One scene shows a man who becomes a pig. He runs into the forest, and is found hours later, digging for truffles. Another man has become a kettle and takes on its characteristics.
The performance tonight isn’t over. The boys are lying on the floor, moaning and disoriented, in different positions of the living dead. The high priest blesses them with holy water. The barong tries to snap them out of their spell with the snapping of his hairy mask and foul breath. The priest cuts off a chicken’s head and throws it’s still squawking decapitated head on the floor in front of him. The priest administers his last ablution to those under the influence with chicken blood mixed with a raw egg. It’s the scent of the chicken blood which snaps them out their stupor. The barong at this stage had long gone back to his lair.
Though a very good performance, I have a healthy scepticism. Was this all just a big act? “No, only act at tourist events.” Haha, so they do act. I got him now. I had seen a similar performance at another tourist event. And it was with Sana. The warriors trying to kill themselves could well have been the same performers here tonight. I suppose the more impressive their performance the more chance they have of being hired by wealthy families. “This performance real. Real trance.” The Mad Hindu had spoken. “Ok,” I said, teasingly. “I’ll believe you just this one time.”
The night’s entertainment has ended. The Miracle of Bali is still working it’s magic. And yes, Peliatan still is the cultural hub of Bali. Sana was absolutely right on that one. I never doubted the veracity of it either. As to the trancing, I’m convinced it was real too.