Within some countries music is seen as an expression of self, an artistic form of expression that is designed to show the thoughts and feelings of those who perform such enlightening pieces. Bali is little different from these locations, though in addition to the more aesthetic notion of a musical culture, those of the island of Bali also use their musical and dramatic skills to recall their history, legends, and their sense of identity. Having experienced a great deal of turmoil within the history of the island and its people, the Balinese have emerged into the present day as a rich and treasured culture that draws tourists from all over the world, the music and dramatic performances it accompanies only a fraction of what attracts so many.
Believed to have been inhabited as early as 2000 B.C., Bali is the smallest province of Indonesia and includes itself as well a few small neighboring islands. Inhabited at first by Austronesian peoples, Bali soon enough became host to nine different Hindu sects, which all revered a different god as their selected deity. Throughout their history the inhabitants of Bali have been influenced by Chinese, Indian, and Hindu cultures, each one adding a rich note to their already budding culture and to their performing arts.
A dark note in Balinese history occurred when the Dutch arrived in 1602 and would nearly two and half centuries later claim control of the island and its smaller regions, establishing the Dutch East India Company and further subjugating the native peoples. From there the Dutch began to pit different realms upon the island against one another, playing upon the distrust that already existed between different regions. This gained the Dutch a much tighter control over the political and economical aspects of the island, which they held onto for a great deal of time.
Matters only escalated when pressures in the southern portion of the island grew intense enough that the warring regions declared open battle against one another, a situation that the Dutch readily exploited to their benefit. Throughout the struggle some 200 members of the royal family of Bali were massacred when they made the decision to face down the invaders rather than surrender. The Dutch retained control over Bali following these events, but never enjoyed the type of dominion over Bali’s neighboring islands.
It wasn’t until the 1930’s that Bali was established as a tourist spot for western travelers. A group of anthropologists, musicians, and artists described Bali as “an enchanted land of aesthetes at peace with themselves and nature” (Wikipedia). While Bali has suffered a great deal throughout its history, as is to still be described, their culture and peoples have continued to record and keep their history alive in song and dance, persevering to keep their indigenous culture the same as it has been since ancient times.
During World War II Bali was invaded and eventually taken over by the Japanese, who in the beginning appeared to be concerned with returning the island to its native inhabitants. Eventually however they became far worse than the Dutch in regards to how the natives were dealt with, and how the quality of life was to be changed. Bali was not originally slated for a Japanese takeover, but as their weather patterns were far more compatible with the needs of the Imperial Japanese Army, their island became a prime location for invasion and occupation. When the war ended however and Japan surrendered, the island of Bali was overtaken once again by the Dutch, but not without a great deal of effort. Balinese freedom fighters would fight valiantly for their home, but in the end, after suffering a complete loss of their military battalion at the Battle of Marga in central Bali, the native peoples were forced to concede to Dutch rule once again.
As though to add to the uncertain tumult of their lives the island of Bali suffered a very natural tragedy in 1963 when Mount Agung exploded, killing thousands and forcing many more to transmigrate to other parts of Indonesia. Bali would later suffer other conflicts as well, and even fall prey to Islamic attacks in 2002 and 2005, causing their successful tourism trade to suffer. This island has gone through a great many growing pains during its long and storied history, and no doubt will continue to experience as much throughout the many generations to come, though never has it lost its unique culture and heritage, finding themselves through their many different daily practices and living on through their cultural sense of history expressed in music and dance.
The musical culture of Bali is diverse and does take its cues from different cultures such as those of China, India, and even its neighbor to the west, Java. Their traditional trance dance, known as sanghyang, is an adaptation to the Ramayana, a traditional tale that pits the forces of good and evil against one another in the epic tale of balance that is derived from an original Javanese piece. The Balinese adaptation, accompanied by the Kecak, a male chorus that sings rhythmic patterns over and over, adding to the tale as it is told, is a favorite among locals and tourists alike, and conveys the resounding history and culture of the island and its beginnings, taken from myth and legend as it has grown into a tourist attraction that draws many interested parties from the world over. The Kecak, also known as the “monkey chant” imitates the sounds of primates found upon Bali as an accompaniment to the sanghyang and offers a bit more insight to the Balinese adaption of the Ramayana.
The Balinese gamelan consists of three movements: Ostinato’s, Nocturne, and Finale. This style of music is known to be quite vibrant and extremely complex, serving to convey religious beliefs and accompany their traditional dances. The gamelan will often feature a variety of instruments such as metallophones, xylophones, kendang (drums) and gongs; bamboo flutes, bowed and plucked strings. Vocalists may also be included within these performances, but it is not mandatory. For most Indonesians, gamelan music is an integral part of Indonesian culture.
As Hinduism is the primary religion upon Bali, their concept of dance, art, and music is greatly influenced by their religion, and has been for generations the means by which to convey their culture to the world and to keep their own histories. There is little to distinguish between one’s life and their religion upon the island of Bali, as the practice is ingrained into their people at a young age. It has been said that the children of Bali are taught to dance within the womb as they are subjected to Balinese music during their development. Balinese girls are taught the art of dance as early as age 7, and are expected to carry on the traditions as they grow. While there have been those that have turned away from tradition and made their lives upon other shores, the culturally sound practice of Balinese dance and music has lived on throughout generations and is seen today as a valued piece of their history, present, and as a means to draw tourists to their shores.
For many generations Bali has been a place of tumult, of opportunity, and of hardship, though through it all the people have kept to their culture, their way of life, and have persevered through it all. The island has seen occupation, natural disaster, and now the westernization of its indigenous culture as tourists flock to the peaceful island to partake of its particular brand of almost euphoric tranquility and its vibrant, unique culture.
Like many such locations, Bali has already become a tourist trap for those who are seeking a means to “get away” from their normal life and experience a more exotic taste of something different, leaving their mark on an otherwise peaceful and unassuming populace that is already well aware of how much their home has gone through. Yet through it all Bali is still a haven for its people, who more often than not desire to live there and die there, as it to them the ideal of what heaven is like. It is an inspiration to many and an oddity to others, though those who call Bali home are without a doubt quite aware, and very proud of, their cultural heritage from their beginnings to the present day.