Tumpek Wayang


As usual, I have no idea what is going on until it happens. I had been told that there was an upacara (ceremony) and a wayang (shadow-puppet play) this weekend, what I didn’t know was that they both marked a special day for gamelan music: Tumpek Wayang. This I found out on Saturday morning when my teacher, Subandi, asked me to help him move his box of shadow-puppets into the gamelan studio. We placed them on a bamboo mat with the instruments so they could be presented with offerings of food and woven palm leaves. A religious specialist came to help conduct the brief ceremony.


Once the essence of the food was delivered through the burning of incense, we enjoyed what was left. This was followed by a true feast: grilled meat skewers called sate;¬†chicken coated in cloves and chilies; and lawar, shredded pork mixed with fresh fruit and who knows what else. This was all around 10:30am, and since I was not warned of this mini-festival, I had just eaten my breakfast a couple hours earlier…oh well.


After rehearsing all afternoon for Sunday’s upacara, which I then realized was also part of Tumpek Wayang, Subandi and I rushed into the city for the wayang. Shadow plays in Bali are accompanied by a special ensemble called gamelan gender wayang. This performance was not entirely typical because the traditional gender quartet (which opens the recording) was accompanied by drums, flutes, and gong. The instruments used an unusual tuning for wayang music and much of the music was newly composed, some of it by Subandi.

Here is the opening of the shadow play. In the beginning the puppeteer, or dalang, is arranging his puppets and deciding which ones to use. He then starts the drama by dancing the ‘tree of life’ puppet around the screen. The banging sound you here is the dalang using his feet to pound the puppet box with a horn. He uses the sound both to direct the musicians and for dramatic effect.

Here characters begin to enter, first with singing and then dialogue.

Much of the play was in an ancient language most audience members don’t understand. A special group of characters provide commentary in Balinese. Of course, I couldn’t understand them either. Luckily there was enough slapstick comedy and fighting to keep me entertained. I gather that the story comes from the Mahabharata, a Hindu epic. This version was told largely with animal characters (including some dinosaurs) and commented on the role of the caste system in contemporary Bali.

The next day the gamelan group that rehearses in my house was providing entertainment for a temple ceremony, or upacara, down the street. Since my arrival in September they have been rehearsing for this evening, which included music, dance and a comedic play.. The performance involved over 40 people, from little kids to high school students, so the rehearsals liven up my weekends. I usually sit-in when I they practice, so I was invited along to play flute. The general attitude here is the more the merrier, whether you know all the music or not. Some of the more experienced players just showed up for the performance to play flute and hang out for the evening.


In typical fashion, the upacara was a three-ring circus, with people praying and presenting offerings to the beat of multiple gamelan groups (one of them an all female group based in the temple). We closed out the evening with almost of three hours of music, dance and drama. Apparently the play was very funny…Subandi is in the frog costume playing the steel-pan drum.


Today Tumpek Wayang officially comes to a close but I think it will come one more time while I am here. I have gotten varying accounts of how often it comes…as usual, I have no idea what is going on until it happens.


A Wedding and a Funeral

This week I played music at both a wedding party and a traditional cremation ceremony. I was surprised to find that the wedding was the more sedate occasion. Family and friends gathered for a few hours to eat and swap stories about the newly-weds (the actual ceremony was earlier in the day). We provided background music: mostly traditional folk melodies arranged for Balinese flute (suling) and guitar. We took the east-west fusion a step further with the addition of electric bass and tablas.  The flute player, Gus Bajra, and the drummer, Balot, both perform and teach gamelan at the music studio where I live.


Here is one of the songs we played; the melody is in the 5-tone pelog scale used in many gamelan ensembles. It meshes pretty well with our diatonic tuning system, but you might notice some off-sounding notes. My companions didn’t seem bothered by tuning discrepancies, nor did the audience.


Here I am with the newly-weds in full traditional costume. My dress is typical Balinese formal wear for performances or ceremonies. The groom was a friend of Gus Bajra so our compensation for the evening was free food and a jug of palm wine, a pungent fermented drink that reminds me of Kombucha.

A few days later I took part in a Balinese cremation ceremony, called Ngaben. What I witnessed is just one small part of a months-long process required to transition the soul from life to the afterlife. I played gender wayang with my teacher in the procession from the temple to the cemetery. We rode along with our instruments and the deceased, on a bamboo platform carried by over a dozen men. They moved at close to a run, shouting and spinning us around to disorient the soul of the dead so it doesn’t wander off. Needless to say these were not ideal performance conditions. I soon understood why Subandi was so unconcerned about rehearsing for the ceremony (he announced to me the day before that we would be in the parade, playing a piece we had just finished learning). Up on the funeral platform we couldn’t see or hear each other, and I doubt anyone else heard us over the yelling, shuffling, and marching gamelan that led the parade.

Once we reached the cemetery, the platform and tower housing the body were immediately hacked apart and burned along with painted signs and cloth associated with the ceremony. After a final rite, the body too was burned in a wooden sarcophagus shaped like a bull. All of this took place in the middle of the day, so once the cremation got underway most people left to find food or shade.

You would think that my participation, as both a foreigner and non-Hindu, would be inappropriate, but I sensed no disapproval from the people around me. Religion here seems to be a public affair. Notions of privacy are very different…which could explain why there are kids looking over my shoulder as I type this.

Loose Change


These are songs that almost slipped through the cracks. Some were written in my last year of school and some over the past summer. I started recording in August at my parent’s home and finished last week here in Bali. So these songs cover a lot of transitions. For whatever reason they refused to be forgotten and I kept chipping away. Stream or download the music here

The Jegog


These six-foot bamboo tubes are the heart of the Jegog. The ensemble has a mellow sound next to the shrill intensity of Bali’s more common bronze instruments. Traditionally a Jegog has only four tones but my teacher, I Made Subandi, had this seven-tone set built to match the tuning of his main ensemble: the Semar Pegulingan. All the music they perfrom is written by Subandi (Made is a common first name signifying that he is the second born child, so he goes simply by Subandi). The group made a stuio recording earlier this year but never made a final mix. This week I assembled the audio files and produced a final master for them. Here’s my personal favorite:

Here is the group, called “Ceraken” performing at a fancy restaurant in the resort town of Sanur. The musicians are all around my age; most of them are alumni or students at the arts university here in Denpasar.


In other news:

-I have finally assembled all the fixings for a proper American breakfast, oatmeal and real butter were especially hard to come by.

-I played guitar with Subandi at a writers conference in Ubud, Bali. We performed a composition of his for a mixture of Balinese, Javanese, and western instruments

-My room is a menagerie home to spiders, lizards, birds, mice, rabbits, and many ants. Every time I come home I hear animals scurrying out of sight.

-There are lots of ceremonies this week because of the full moon…I am playing with Subandi’s Semar Pugulingan group at a ceremony on thursday

-I managed to chip one of my teeth gnawing on a coconut…won’t make that mistake again.