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.


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