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.

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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.

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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.

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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.
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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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