Music in the Air

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Sometimes life gives little reminders that the world is (still) a delightful place. I got one today when a gamelan orchestra started playing music beneath my balcony. No, this wasn’t some suitor’s serenade; my neighbors were hosting a ceremony to bless their new home. They have actually been living there for a little while, at least since I arrived, but as with all occasions they had to wait for an appropriately auspicious day.

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For the ceremony my neighbors hired a gamelan angklung from West Bali. This ensemble is most notable for its small size: the instruments have only four keys. For this reason, the angklung is often used for ceremonies and for children’s groups.
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The angklung is one of the few ensembles in Bali that uses a four-note scale, most having five or seven tones. Its tuning presents an interesting example of the way musical perception is shaped by culture. To the western ear angklung melodies sound pleasantly ‘major,’ even childish in the way they circle around the limited range of the instruments. But to the Balinese ear the angklung‘s sound is bittersweet or even somber, because the music is strongly associated with funeral ceremonies.
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The house-warming ceremony was another reminder of the incessant building boom in my neighborhood. Their family moved in earlier this year, a new house was just finished next door, and two more are currently under construction on the same street. But at least for one day the sound of construction was drowned out by music.
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Two Days in Tabanan

Once I took out my recorder the musicians insisted on doing an interview. Apparently there is an Indonesian pop star whose name sounds a lot like mine, that is why they introduce themselves as ‘Jan Casela.’

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Just after I took this photo, the two musicians on the left had to leave and I found myself sitting in. Because the bottom part is derived from the main melody I could just follow along, with Balot calling out Balinese solfege syllables and gesturing with his head. We played for about an hour, until the ceremony in the family temple finished. After getting five hours of sleep and feasting on spicy meats all day that was about all I could do. Balot and I spent the rest of the afternoon lounging in his ‘living room,’ sipping from coconuts with straws and sampling the fruits that grow in his backyard. After dinner they sent me home with a bag full of fruit, exhausted and stuffed from my two days in Tabanan.

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Bali Eats pt.2: A Feast

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There is a stark contrast between everyday Balinese food and the meals prepared for special occasions. Daily fare is simple: rice with a little meat and vegetables, prepared by the women of the house and eaten in private. Ritual feasts consist of elaborate meat-based dishes cooked mostly by the men and eaten as a group. This week my gamelan club celebrated a recent temple performance by preparing such a feast here in my own home. The meal was a true group effort, with labor divided mostly by gender. Men handled the meat and prepared the spices. The women helped by peeling and chopping fruits, tending the stew pot, and tearing up banana leafs for serving food.

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We started around 4pm by chopping vegetables for the various spice mixtures. The main condiment for Balinese food is an uncooked chili sauce called sambal. The basic ingredients are chili peppers, garlic, shallots, ginger, lime, and shrimp paste that has been grilled to a crumbly texture. These are all minced and mixed together with plenty of coconut oil and salt. All men in Bali seem to possess immaculate mincing technique. The first time I watched my friend Cadet prepare sambal, I was sure he would take off a finger. Here he is absent-mindedly dicing up chile peppers while carrying on a conversation.

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One of the dishes for this feast was a kind of meatball soup called garang asam. This called for a separate spice blend that was less chili based and also included turmeric and peppercorns. The soup’s main ingredient was unripe papaya, which when stewed reminded me of turnips. It is common here for ‘young’ fruits, as they call them, to be used as vegetables. While the papaya was softening in the broth, chicken was diced up and run through a food processor. The ground meat was then mixed by hand with fresh grated coconut and the spice blend. We rolled this mixture into small meatballs, which were added to the stew pot.

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Despite the amount of time and number of ingredients that went into the garang asam, it was really only a side dish. The main course was grilled chicken, slathered with butter and burnt to a crisp on a charcoal grill. Their version of barbeque sauce is a sweet soy sauce with a strong molasses flavor. By sundown the last of the chicken came off the grill and all the food was laid out on a small pavilion.

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Before we ate, small servings of rice and chicken were piled on banana leaves and placed around the compound as offerings. Then woven baskets were lined with banana leaves and piled with food. The children were served first. They crowded around their trays and ate quickly so they could get back to running around and banging on gamelan instruments. Once the kids finished, the adults put out a second round of food and had their own more leisurely meal. We sat around our communal plates until well after dark, or in my case, until I had to go to my next rehearsal…

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I promise the next post won’t (just) be about food.