Saturday, March 31, 2012

Last ceremonies in Bali

My enjoyment of my last two ceremonies in Bali were marred by a thankfully painless but bothersome stomach bug and computer troubles.

A family temple in the village had its birthday odalan complete with gong kebyar. In the morning priests and the women who help them set out low spirit offerings and prayed before them. At about noon the cengceng section of the gamelan trapsed out and back in with one of the frequent circumambulations to invite the gods to arrive. Times of day are believed to be ruled by different spirits: morning for low spirits and afternoon for gods.

I ate white rice with salt and was passing out from faintness and fever by the time the dances started. Playing tenor suling was a mistake -- it requires much more air than the soprano. Three variously trained young girls performed a welcome dance followed by the bird courtship kebyar Cendrawasih. Then half-mask comic bondres started and I was trapped behind attentive audience members. I'm starting to get that there are words of wisdom as well as slapstick comedy in there.

When the sacred mask came out for final offerings around 6pm I managed to slip out.

The next day was a little better: I filled up on coconut water right from the fruit before helping set up instruments in a family compound. This funeral was odd in that it culminated in a burial at the cremation grounds. It was also a little odd because the appropriate offerings hadn't arrived so the seka waited almost two hours before we could play. At this point I decided I was ready for a course of Immodium and maybe Cipro and wished there were time for someone to run an errand to town.

In the afternoon the seka went home to be replaced by the Banjar Pasut angklung and four laid-back men from Padang Bulia playing rare gambang with my teacher. I'd never seen my teacher's instruments before: he crafted the keys from thick bamboo instead of traditional wood but the sound is unmistakably gambang. I spent hours studying the parts and composition as they played and I am still puzzled.

One man doubled on the bronze sarong melody instruments. Two on one side played the extremely asymmetrical gambang kotekan, interlocking pattern while two on the other side played a kotekan more like the kind of ornamentation reyong does, on soprano kantil instruments. As for the septatonic scale for pieces in pentatonic modes, the keys are laid out three in the left hand and four in the right. If you haven't seen gambang before, you'd notice first the mallets branched much like four-mallet vibraphone playing. The 3 + 4 key groupings are octavated 3 3' 4 4' so each player plays octaves with each stroke. But the octaves aren't tuned consistently -- I'll have to ask Pak Terip.

Photos may come, but after a long time -- I asked an attentive European photographer to send some when she gets home.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Mic broken

I noticed while recording angklung at yesterday's ceremony the recording levels were displaying super low to zero. To my horror this morning I found nothing was recorded because my mic is only registering a quite hum, like a bad electrical connection.

Goodbye, 6-year-old SONY mic. But it could be weeks before I get to a store to buy another. Wish me luck. Maybe this is the Muse's message to me that I'd better shift focus to that cremation composition (see previous post) rather than recording others' works.

Ngaben: your thoughts on death and grieving

I woke up and immediately noticed the LEDs were out on my laptop. Damn, I'd fallen asleep during a lightening storm and left the machine unplugged. It was still dark but a glance at my indiglo watchface  warned me just before it squeaked to life. As I reluctantly roused myself I was afraid I'd have to wake the neighbor to drive me, but as dawn softly lit the usual haze it felt warm and I headed down to the village alone, on foot.

Today we honored Pak Putu Sumarjaya in his Bali Hindu cremation ceremony (ngaben). He was Made Terip's first cousin and a respected and liked musician. They traveled abroad together to teach and headed the village gamelan together until 2002. He supported my teacher through last year's grievous times but succumbed rapidly in a struggle with stomach cancer. He was one of a few experienced musicians to volunteer to teach the women's gamelan -- one of my memories of him was watching him, great eyeglasses glinting, carry on the cengceng part in Pak Terip's new composition just a couple months ago. He was not much over 60.

His wife Ibu Laheni was run ragged with grief, supported by son and daughter, through the ceremony. I gave her my meager gift of 54,000 Indonesian Rupiah in a small envelope I'd bought the day before for the occasion -- six times nine, the yin and yang numbers. My teacher had advised me to dispense with the usual gift of two kilos of sugar for cash to help with hospital and cremation expenses. She said only that Pak Putu was dead, thanked me, and directed me to the refreshments.

The family compound was compact in the middle of the village such that the angklung was packed onto a stoop like sardines. A few of us squatted or sat on filthy concrete steps and the alleyway. The weather stayed perfect, though, clearing at noon just enough to dry the rain-soaked road, but not to burn the pallbearers.

Every time, the hours-long ceremonies afford me plenty of time to reflect on death and mourning. This time was more personal -- the widow had been especially kind to me in rehearsal, in casual meetings on the road, and at last month's birthday ceremony for her grandson. As I waited with over a hundred others for the bulk of mourners to proceed from the family compound to the street, as I gazed on the bamboo platform on which Pak Putu's coffin would be carried, and as I watched his remains and offerings go up in smoke at the cremation grounds, I felt the familiar fear weigh down my body. Every Balinese knows with a certainty I can only imagine that their death will be honored this way. While I live, I will mourn every Balinese I love, when they pass away, in a ceremony much like this. And that will, more likely than not, include my teacher.

The dead require nothing, but the grief of the living requires this much labor from this many people. Examining my teacher's collection of beautifully copied lelambatan melodies yesterday, I hovered in uncertainty that all these pieces were in living memory. Pak Terip, paging through them in their broken stitching,  admitted here was a tricky one he hadn't gotten yet. Are the dead to be remembered like this, lovingly collected records with an organic syntax known only to a diminishing number who knew them well?

In the comments please honor someone you loved or respected who has passed away, or for whose future passing you are already emotionally preparing yourself. You don't have to include a name. What I'm looking for is your piece of the truth.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The gerantang recording becomes a saga

After sinking a couple hundred US dollars on CD production and mailing materials, I dragged my goodies through Singapore airport security. My bold new acquaintance, writer Nick Krieger, followed along on the detour to Aneka Records in Tabanan and helped me up the trail to the little house in the orchard. And he witnessed the musicians' collective dissatisfaction with the quality of the products.

Let's have a listen (embedded for a limited time below): The Aneka sample is a couple clips from what they made, the Qian one is from my collection.

[EDIT 7/29/12: you can sample these contrasting qualities directly on our Bandcamp page; the unmastered is the final track]

I would expect a professional recording to show the crispness of kendang drums, vibrato of suling flute, hum of bass undurundur, all through distinct layers of polos and sangsi pemade (alto) and kantil (soprano) gerantang. Indeed, the playback at sound check sounded like a good balance. But then they added a dollop of reverb that smeared much of the precision and nuance of fine performance and tuning.

Crisp, clear, unadulterated 
As I await the sponsor's followup, I continue to assemble my collection of field recordings and my teacher looks into options for an unpaid recording session with just me and the big group. I do have enough small-group recordings to make a CD, so you early birds will surely get some treats in the mail. Although they are not laboratory-clean studio recordings, they bring the power of music in its social context. I'll keep y'all posted.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Joged: the sacred drag dance for babies' birthdays

In the past two weeks I finally got to see joged dances in family compounds. I say finally because Pak Terip is not only a bamboo specialist but the son of I Putu Togog, the inventor of the genre.

At the first joged, packed between rehearsals and performances at Undiksa for graduation and the fancy hotel, I was surprised how many men and women refused to dance when chosen. The first drag joged kept picking female partners. The cisfemale joged all got humped and nuzzled in inappropriate places by most of their choices, midst hilarious uproar. At the end of the night, the temple sash worn by each partner while dancing is tied around the father's waist and concluding blessings are given his three-month-old baby.

At the second, the dancing was marginally less offensive. Most of the young men, packed like sardines in the audience area, were morbidly afraid to partner when picked, running away, and some even refused to dance once onstage. At one special moment the head of the family danced and Putu signaled the group to play the Garuda-beating scene from Legong Keraton. Someone immediately threw leafy branches down from the road, which the dancers picked up to make great drama of beating each other's behinds and even the partner's groin. I continued to be impressed by evidence of how deeply ingrained the classical repertoire is in the Balinese public.

As a sex worker, I found it educational and thought-provoking. I struggled to balance the significance of sex workers and Western strippers against the overtly social, even sacred role of joged. Certainly the men seemed extremely entitled to the joged's bodies whereas the MTF drag bodies were unanimously shunned as undesirable. Yet there was no per-interaction cash exchange as there is with dancers in bars and clubs. The dancers were paid for performing by the host family.

Sanggar Seni Tripittaka during a recording session with Aneka Records last month.