What is Barong?

It is unclear where the barong originated, however it is generally accepted that a barong is a physical manifestation of a protective spirit which guards people from evil influences. In Bali, it dates back to ancient, pre-Hindu times when animism was the most popular form of belief. Continue reading

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What is Barong Berutuk?

In 2015, I went to Terunyan Village in the Batur region to check out a rare temple ceremony that is normally only held every 15 years.   My main motivation was not the ceremony itself but the fact that there was going to be a performance of rare gamelan selonding music by one of the oldest sets of this type in Bali. Continue reading

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What is the function and origin of Barong Berutuk?

According to an article in the Bali Post in 2010, the origins of the Barong Berutuk of Terunyan are said to be connected to a megalithic statue that is found in Terunyan’s Pancering Jagat Temple, called Bhatara Datonta. No one knows the origin of this massive statue which takes a naked human form with both male and female sex organs. It symbolizes both fertility and sexual dichotomy in Terunyan’s daily life. Continue reading

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What is Wayang Wong?

If you are interested in Balinese traditional art-forms, many of you would have heard of wayang kulit: the shadow puppet show; however, the human version of these puppets, called wayang wong, is probably less familiar. Continue reading

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The ‘Culture’ of the Bali Arts Festival

Every year, after the Bali Arts Festival I get questions from my readers about the way it is (mis)presented. Here are some of my answers:

There seems to be little information available about the performers or their art-forms, so I don’t know what I’m watching. Why is there no festival guide?

If you’ve lived in Indonesia for any extended period, you will quickly learn that this is not a culture of information or details. Since this is poorly organized government-sponsored event, don’t expect a comprehensive festival guide any time soon!

When I was looking to park my car, I was guided into somebody’s house! Here there charged me some seemingly random amount and there was no ticket – it all seemed like a joke – is this for real?

This parking system is organized by the local banjars and does little to provide a safe parking area or provide any tax revenue for the government. Locals tell me that behind the scenes at this festival is a ‘mafia’ that is in control, so this bizarre system that only seems to benefit a select few (families who opened up their houses to vehicles during this time can make up to 100 million rupiah!) is an integral part of the whole set-up it seems.
At all the performances I went to, the sound systems were awful. Are there good sound technicians in Bali?
Sadly, this ‘professional sound gear’ is not only the result of an ongoing corruption scandal but also operated by inexperienced, incompetent technicians. Like the third-world toilets that you have to pay to use at this event, festival sound wizardry has a long way to go!

There was a lot of noise during performances and some people eating and drinking, even yapping on their mobiles – is there no respect for the performers?

In Balinese society, people never sit deadly silent through a performance as we have been doing since the Victorian era. At temple ceremonies, people are used to flowing in and out rather than intensely watching – after all, most traditional art-forms in Bali were not created for the pleasure of us mere mortals!

© 2015 Vaughan Hatch

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Has the presentation of Balinese dance changed much over the last 100 years?

Balinese dances have always been a great source of fascination for visitors to Bali and were used to draw tourist to the island. In fact, in the earlier tourism promotion images right up until the 1970s, often young female dancers were portrayed as slim, exotic, innocent nymphs – girls of the South Seas: topless, tanned and tantalizing.   Continue reading

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How have things changed in the performance of Balinese Art-forms?

Whilst on the outset Balinese art-forms may look similar on a ‘stage’, much has changed: both in the performers and in the audience. Starting with a gamelan orchestra that you see in a tourist setting, say a gong kebyar – the performance position of these large orchestras has changed a lot. Formations were never split as we see at tourist performances at places like Ubud palace with the half the set to the left and half to the right of the gate where the dancers emerge. An orchestra actually works best when it is not separated, both for communication and for quality of sound: this is why perhaps the heart of a gamelan, the gong, was placed at the front, as one sees in the old photos.

Musicians never sat on stools as they do today, in keeping with the egalitarian concept of gamelan playing. Musicians dressed differently too. Most were topless for a start – at most, they brought their outer sarong (saput) up to chest level and tied it up with a sash. Head-cloths (udeng) were tied in an individualistic wayward way that is starting to becoming trendy now a century later.

Groups didn’t wear uniforms either: the ‘communist look’ perhaps came about when groups started to tour overseas or at least with the onset of intense competitions in North Bali. Trend-setters of the early 20th century, the ‘Buleleng boys’ were the ones who also started donning jackets with Shanghai –style collars.

Until the early 20th century, musicians played with little expression – movements of excitement again started in North Bali with a famous kebyar drummer called Gede Manik. Over the decades this developed into the exaggerated movements one sees today where even the gong player twirls his mallet before he belts out the final thunderous tone. Now to many older Balinese, these movements seem over the top and unnecessary – they bemoan that gamelan no longer ‘sing’ but seem to be just for outward show.

© 2015 Vaughan Hatch

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I went to see a Balinese dance performance and it was on a stage – how were Balinese art-forms presented before the advent of tourism?

The way Balinese present their art-forms has changed dramatically over the last half a century or so. The western concept of a stage – let alone a theatre or a concert hall – never existed in Bali before tourism started to slowly develop in the 60s. It was at this time that, as always in Bali, tourism operators started that it was necessary to change Bali to suit the market, not the other way around. They created an artificial stage setting that they thought tourists would be more accustomed to, and this is what you see at those awful, low quality barong and kris or hotel/restaurant ‘legong’, ‘run-through-the-motions’ dance performances that seem to be everywhere in Bali these days.

So what was the setting like before tourism reared its ugly head? Balinese never sat on chairs before a some raja adopted a few as a ‘wonder import’ of the colonialists, and either sat on the ground or stood up to watch. If the performance involved sacred masks such as barong or rangda, villagers would customarily sit down out of respect for the manifestation that was believed to inhabit the mask.

Performances that were solely for entertainment, such as Legong, gandrung, gambuh, or the early 20th century gong kebyar play-offs in Buleleng, were informal events where the audience would come and go, chat freely, buy food and generally socialize.

Due to poor lighting, most performances would have been held during the day – normally in the cooler late afternoon – in the courtyard of a temple or palace, quite often under a banyan tree. Sometimes, I see hotels or individuals trying to recreate an ‘old Bali’ feel by setting it in a garden or by the beach, but it’s highly unlikely that performances would have been held anywhere but in a courtyard or perhaps in the middle of a road. The ground would have been dusty and un-manicured, with no grass or paving, and certainly no concrete or the luxurious materials we see today.

© 2014 Vaughan Hatch

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Tell me about Balinese traditional singing – Part IV

The final and most serious category of Balinese singing is called kekawin. Also known as Sekar Agung (big flower) or wirama, these are long songs used to accompany many Hindu rituals such as weddings, tooth filings and death rites. Kekawin are taken from a number of Hindu literary sources such as the Ramayana and Mahabharata epics etc.

Kekawin is a very important art-form for the Balinese because they don’t only represent a direct connection to their Hindu roots in India, but the songs also carry a moral and often religious message. However, kekawin is sung in ancient Javanese (Kawi) which few people understand; this is why there the lyrics are translated by another person.

Kekawin is normally sung solo accompanied by one translator and the duo sit cross legged at a large, wide tray called a dulang that in this context is used as a low table.

As with other forms of Balinese singing and gamelan music, the notation is in Balinese script (aksara Bali). However, from one form of singing to another the notation differs slightly. This art-form doesn’t accompany gamelan music melodies like kidung or pupuh; nor is it sung in syllabic form. It’s composed based on the number of words in each stanza.

Kekawin songs are more like stories and they are read either directly from a palm leaf manuscript or from a transcription in regular book form. People who want to be able to master this art-form have to be able to read Balinese script very well which involves complicated rules.

Due to the serious nature of the art-form as well as the difficultly in reading the manuscripts, these days there are few young Balinese who are interested in learning kekawin. However, the government has tried to attract youth by holding regular competitions that involve schools and banjar, as well as a yearly island-wide competition at the prestigious Bali Arts Festival.

© 2014 Vaughan Hatch

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Tell me about Balinese traditional singing – Part III

The third category of traditional Balinese singing is more serious ritual singing called kidung, also known as Sekar Madya (Javanese), and do not follow syllabic rules like pupuh that I talked about in the last article. Also, unlike pupuh, there is no translator who interprets the ancient Javanese language into Balinese.
The type of kidung sung is chosen based on the ceremony it accompanies. There are specific kidung for rites associated with temple ceremonies, death, marriage, tooth filings, exorcisms, priest inaugurations and even inauguration of officials. Popular kidung have titles such as Malat, Wargasari, Tunjung Biru and Rarawangi. Singers need to be experienced enough to be able to choose the correct kidung for the ceremony or part of the ritual it is accompanying.
Whilst kidung can be sung solo, they are more commonly sung in a choir by either males or females (or mixed). Kidung can be sung with or without also accompanied by musical accompaniment, which is commonly gender, selonding or gambang. It is crucial that this orchestra is not played too loudly as to drown out the singers, as the lyrics are connected to the ceremony it is accompanying. To combat this, singers today use microphones which should also be adjusted appropriately to be softer than the sound of the ringing of the priest’s bell (bajra).
It is believed by some researchers that kidung forms the basis for gambang and most selonding music, and that their melodic lines are kidung based. Interestingly enough, kidung accompanied by these ensembles is still a dying art despite efforts by some ethnomusicologists and researchers to revive the tradition.
From my observation, few young Balinese are interested in learning or performing kidung. To help renew interest in this ancient art-form, the government has started to hold kidung singing competitions and private organizations have released CDs of kidung music.

© 2014 Vaughan Hatch

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