Beyond the Tourist Trap: Following the Music in Bali

Beyond the Tourist Trap: Following the Music in Bali

The music seeped under the doorway and through the window.

I muted the TV, as I strained to hear it. It was gamelan, I realized, a particular instrumental Indonesian traditional music. It sounded close, so I got out of bed and went out the front door of the Balinese guesthouse I was staying in. Nothing. I was greeted only by nighttime quiet, a peaceful garden staffed only with faintly buzzing insects, the cluck of the family chickens. All the members of the family running this guesthouse in their beautiful traditional family compound in Ubud were neatly tucked away in their rooms for the evening.

I went back inside and lay in bed, still hearing the music, which was neither loud nor disruptive, but was present enough to make me wonder. It played in the background as I watched a terrible English-language action movie, the only thing I could understand on the TV, before it finally faded away in the wee hours of the night.

The next night was my last in Ubud, so I had taken it easy. I had spent the late afternoon in a spa recommended by the guesthouse owner before having dinner. The owner had kindly waited for me while I ate and then dropped me off at the front door of the guesthouse.

Having thought it was only a neighbor, I had no thought that this adventure would be far enough to require a trip on the motorbike. Startled though I was, I acquiesced, wanting to follow this thread to the end.

I paused, though, because the music had started up again. “Where is that music coming from?” I asked casually, thinking it was a practicing neighbor.

Beyond the Tourist Trap: Following the Music in Bali

Beyond the Tourist Trap: Following the Music in Bali
Asking one question brought me here.

Beyond the Tourist Trap: Following the Music in Bali

He lit up, though, and erupted in a string of semi-comprehensible Bahasa Indonesia before asking, “Do you want to watch?”

Unsure of what I was agreeing to but still curious, I nodded before confusedly following him to his motorbike outside the family compound’s walls. He motioned at me to get on.

Having thought it was only a neighbor, I had no thought that this adventure would be far enough to require a trip on the motorbike. Startled though I was, I acquiesced, wanting to follow this thread to the end.

We zoomed away in the night as he prattled directions at me. He told me I could walk back to the guesthouse easily, pointing to the “utara,” north, among giving me other directions. I nodded, still unsure of where precisely we were going.

We got on the main road before stopping at the front door of another traditional compound, and there it was.

Balinese gamelan.

I bounded excitedly through the door. On a stage were not just a few people banging upon instruments but a full set of gamelan instruments and a full set of players.

I had not expected this.

This, though, had the vibrancy and expressiveness of jazz. The musicians were smiling, throwing themselves into the music.

Menonton?” I asked brightly. “Can I watch?” I babbled what I am sure was not a completely comprehensible series of questions before my guesthouse’s owner, coming up behind me, cleared that up, and a few other observers motioned at me to sit on a flat platform covered with a plastic tablecloth.

It was a normal practice night, I discovered. The gamelan leader, the conductor, with a lit cigarette perpetually in hand, would start the piece they were playing, periodically stop to give notes and then motion again for them to continue. My grasp of technical musical terms in Indonesian being shaky, at best, I instead observed the members of the group during these times.

Beyond the Tourist Trap: Following the Music in Bali

There were a lot of young women, something I hadn’t seen in other gamelan groups; I guessed they were mostly high school and university students. The instruments were different. A friend of mine, who had studied gamelan in Bali and Jogjakarta had mentioned there were two different types of gamelan, Javanese and Balinese, but I had not really registered the difference before now. I now, finally, understood I had only really heard Javanese gamelan up until this point.

Two drum players would make faces at each other periodically. When some thought the director wasn’t looking, they tapped on their cellphones. A family dog would periodically wander past me, tongue lolling, and I’d coo at it.

Finally, they were ready to practice the whole thing.

I was messing with my phone, arranging some photos, but I slowly found myself being drawn in. At this point, I mostly associated gamelan with stateliness, a steady beat. This, though, had the vibrancy and expressiveness of jazz. The musicians were smiling, throwing themselves into the music. I bounced my head in time.

Beyond the Tourist Trap: Following the Music in Bali

Beyond the Tourist Trap: Following the Music in Bali
A normal practice night

With that one little question, I breached, if ever so briefly, the wall that exists between me, an American expat on vacation in one of the world’s top tropical destinations, and the Balinese people who live their lives beneath, behind, and around the tourists who flood the island every year.

When they finished, with a flourish, I erupted in applause. “Bravo!” I shouted.

We took a photo together, and then the director answered my questions. He, clearly proud, told me they were practicing for a competition that was a few days away, and I was disappointed that I needed to return to work by then.

Berbeda dari gamelan Jawa,” I added. Different from Javanese gamelan. I motioned, to indicate that it was slower and more regular. Like a beating heart, as my friend once put it.

He nodded enthusiastically. “Javanese is inside. Deep inside,” he said, pointing to his chest. “Balinese is expressive.”

Sedikit seperti jazz,” I said, beaming. A little like jazz.

I made my goodbyes and started the walk back to the guesthouse, my head awash with what I just heard, still bobbing gently with the remembered beat in the quiet, deepening darkness of the night.

I have said before that Bali hasn’t impressed me much: that it has too many tourists, that the rawness and grit I love about Indonesia has been stripped away to make way for foreign visitors and their First-World expectations, that, too often, I feel as if the activities there I engage in separate me from how people in Bali, native Balinese people, actually live.

And I know that if I keep being curious, keep asking questions, keep being interested in the quieter, private spaces outsize the glitz and glamor of the world’s tourist traps, I will always find them, I will always find these pockets of real, raw, vibrant life.

But that night, one little question — “Where is that music coming from?” — showed me that this viewpoint could be just as limited. Life, the Balinese way of life, was still happening around me, a way of life that wasn’t just to be put on display for tourists. With that one little question, I breached, if ever so briefly, the wall that exists between me, an American expat on vacation in one of the world’s top tropical destinations, and the Balinese people who live their lives beneath, behind, and around the tourists who flood the island every year.

It was that one little question, a niggling little itch, that led me here, that night, to be absorbed by and to share the pulsing beat, the ferocious energy, the joy the people here have in their culture, their art, their music. And I know that if I keep being curious, keep asking questions, keep being interested in the quieter, private spaces outsize the glitz and glamor of the world’s tourist traps, I will always find them, I will always find these pockets of real, raw, vibrant life.

You just have to follow the music.

 

 

Beyond the Tourist Trap: Following the Music in Bali 

About Anna Cabe

Anna CabeAnna Cabe is currently working as an English teacher in Palembang, Indonesia. Originally from Memphis, Tennessee, she has visited family in the Philippines, studied abroad in Spain and Scotland, and explored several other countries besides, including Thailand, Ireland, Italy, France, the Netherlands, and Malaysia. In addition to constant globe-trotting, she loves cooking, films, reading, museums, trivia, lively discussions, and writing. Follow her Indonesian adventures at Sojourner in Sumatra and @annablabs on Twitter.

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