Bang a Gong

We love our slow breakfasts out on the terrace. Thick fruit juices, homemade jam, toast and eggs, and sandy coffee that I’m getting used to. Wayan is sweet and easy going. Like so many Balinese women, she looks 19, but is in her thirties. She is one of the 2 full time employees who work for Birgit and Made, who run this B and B. She’s originally from Austria and he is Balinese. They’ve been married 10 years and have a daughter. A skinny mother cat and several kittlings hang out near the communal kitchen terrace in the front of their  house. The mom cat catches lizards all day.

There’s a nice red hammock in the middle of our terrace, and long cushions to relax on. Our cottage is next door to a major cultural center, which presents quality Legong performances nightly (and practice sessions during the day), which we love. The gamelan is a traditional Indonesian music ensemble that features a variety of instruments, including xylophones, drums, and string instruments. Its a unique Asian sound, with complex syncopations and rhythms. The sound of it wafting through the tree tops at night is sublime.

One night, while listening from our terrace, we decided to get up and actually go watch the show. 5 minutes later we’re sitting at the outdoor stage, tucked into a tall grove of banana and palm trees, in front of a stunning, orange temple-like backdrop. The orchestra members are all men, usually from the same village. They are dressed in blue and maroon, and split into 2 sections on either side of the stage. Its fascinating to watch them play and to try to decipher the sounds. The most prominent instruments are beautiful xylophone-like contraptions that use gongs and mallets. They’re set in ornately carved casings, painted golden yellow.

From behind the opening in the back of the stage, emerge solo dance performers, who work in concert with the musicians, to tell stories. Their costumes are elaborate and colorful. Their eyes are furtive and command attention. Their heads dart and tilt and shift and pause. Their hands and fingers are long and elastic and expressive. The dancers swoop and spin and fan themselves while the music crashes around them. I can’t tell if they are men or women, except for the large ogre. But even then I’m guessing because he wears a grotesque mask with bulging eyes.

I’d seen bits and pieces of these sorts of Balinese performances before on television, and I’d heard the gamelan too. None of it had ever interested me much. But now in person, I was enthralled -we both were. When the performance ended, the dancers and musicians reciprocated the applause right back to us. Then they came forward to shake hands and drift through the 2 rows of chairs, found their motorbikes, and drove home, still in costume.

-matt

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