Between chanting and fire: in search of unusual experience

by Sondra Kim (China)

I didn't expect to find Indonesia


There’s a sound I bet you’ve never heard anywhere before. As the circle of bare-chested Indonesian men sitting on the ground chant, interrupted by the rhythmic shouts, I’m so dissolved in the rhythm, that it’s actually hard to remember how it all started. If you ignore the flashing cameras, the commotion caused by more late appearances in the audience, the outside noises, it feels as if this chanting just flows, bathed in sunset colors of Uluwatu temple, without the beginning or end. Even the most vivid descriptions don’t do Bali’s famous kecak dance justice. You can read off the one-page introduction handed to every guest before the show, that what unfolds in this circle of sound is the story of Ramayana. Amidst dozens of chanting men, dancers in elaborate costumes artistically reenact the tale, taking the audience through a complicated plot, which finishes with the villain of the story in a circle of orange flames. Any attempt to put kecak into words or take a piece of it in a photograph, though, can’t quite capture the subtle something which makes it so powerful. It’s almost as if carried away by the sound, the dance, the drama, you can feel for a moment the centuries falling away, discover a distant time echoing in every ‘Chark-a’ sound. Rephrasing Colin McPhee, I too wonder, how was it possible, that in this late day, for such music and dance to have been able to survive? Only McPhee, whose life took a U-turn with the first sound of Balinese music on a lent gramophone record, asked this in 1947. He also predicted sadly that “It was only too clear such music could not survive much longer”. Maybe what we get today, fascinated with the island’s authentic vibe, is the mere faded memory of what traditional Balinese music and dance used to be. Fast forward 70 years, and I’d be more than happy to tell McPhee, that he was wrong. But it’s not entirely true. Even in a short span of 2 years since I’ve first seen it, I am full of nagging premonition of an unwelcome change. “That’s it?” my friends ask surprised when kecak finishes too abruptly. They’d come prepared to sit through a lengthy performance, with an equal chance of being fascinated and bored. This time, it seems short. Perhaps it’s because of the intrusions, all that coquetting with the audience, throwing questions to the crowd. Or maybe it really got shorter, as more and more people kept leaving in the middle over the years. As if the performers, who seemed too absorbed in the intensity of the act to mind the audience reaction, finally gave in. Let the audience dictate the rules, and package kecak within the neat definition of pleasantly exotic. I remember kecak so surprisingly raw, so unapologetically foreign, that it stroke me as an authentic experience, you come to believe only happens to you after a deliberate search. Maybe after three days on the road into the deepest corners of the island. Maybe, in the location which is tucked away from the attention of mainstream travel guides, and is only passed on in the tight circle of locals with the promise to never tell anyone. You don’t expect to find this kind of experience in such a touristic hotspot as Uluwatu temple. It was still good this time around, but I left the temple contemplating this: as tourists and outsiders, we can’t claim a contribution to cultural preservation. Yet, to contradict the cruelty of our short attention span shrinking every year among the abundance of information and things to do, maybe we can make a little extra effort. Stay a bit longer, give yourself and kecak or any other local performance, a bit more time if you don’t come to like it at once. And maybe, just maybe, there’s a surprising discovery for you and a chance to a little more authenticity unchanged by the demands of the crowd every time we do so.