Indonesia: On a new wavelength in Bali

By Graham Reid

Beyond the beaches, a world of sound awaits, writes Graham Reid.

Dance and gamelan performances are a cultural highlight of Bali. Photo / Thinkstock
Dance and gamelan performances are a cultural highlight of Bali. Photo / Thinkstock

Music seems inescapable in Bali. In the more discreet bars and restaurants, around the hotel pool or in shops and village temples, somewhere in the background is a low and unobtrusive sound which sits between the hypnotic sound of the traditional Indonesian gamelan and the vacuous ambient trickle of New Age music. It almost requires you to slow your metabolism and relax.

Of course, if you want pounding Indonesian rock - bands like metalheads Jamrud; J-Rocks, who recorded in Abbey Road; and punk trio Superman is Dead from Kuta - you can certainly find it in local CD stores.

But for the more relaxed listener, this small island offers fascinating music and the beguiling dance which often accompanies it.

In the town of Ubud, for instance, we had a choice of several gamelan orchestras presenting music and dance programmes. Balinese gamelans - ensembles using gongs, bells, percussion and what might be called exotic equivalents of vibraphones - pre-date the influence of Islam in other parts of Indonesia.

As Michael Tenzer says in Balinese Music, when the Hindu courts fled to the island in the 16th century, they "laid the foundation for the flowering of all Balinese arts. From that time until the arrival of the Dutch colonists some 400 years later, Balinese music blossomed in splendid isolation, producing a variety of forms, ensembles and styles remarkable in their diversity."

Today there are ensembles which deliver a fiery contemporary style and others much more sedate and courtly. Prominent in Ubud is the Sadha Budaya Troupe, whose high-profile performances are in an open-sided hall opposite the Ubud Palace. This troupe - dancers, some as mythical figures and characters from the Ramayana and Mahabharata - perform to the clanging sound of metal gamelan, which can be as strident as it is seductive. A more pleasant and relaxing sound comes from tuned bamboo.

Just 10 minutes outside Ubud is the village of Bentunyung, where the Jegog Group performs.

Their enormous bamboo pipes (massive stalks cut to different lengths and hit with large hammers) produce rounded low tones which can sound like deep electronic music. If it weren't for the entrancing dancers - every finger movement and roll of the wide eyes as enchanting as the costumes and makeup - you might be inclined to close your eyes and sink into the sound.

Dance and gamelan performances - yes, designed for tourists, but you can stumble on them with only locals in attendance - are a cultural highlight of this extraordinary island, if you drag yourself from the bar, beach or pool.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Air New Zealand has daily services via Sydney to Denpasar in conjunction with Garuda Airlines and will begin direct flights later this year.

Further information: See balitourismboard.org.

Graham Reid paid for his own trip to Bali.

- NZ Herald

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