Wayang Songs

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The Balinese puppet-master, or dalang, draws on many skills in the performance of a wayang. He selects a story, casts its characters, and manipulates them into a unique performance filled with music and humor. Reaching this point of mastery requires years of study, typically starting at a young age. Recently I had the chance to work with some high-school puppetry students on one of the wayang‘s most challenging aspects: the songs. These lengthy tunes drift on for minutes without repetition, usually with no clear rhythm or tempo. To make matters worse, they are sung in an archaic poetic language known only to scholars and puppet-masters.

To help the students memorize this music my teacher brought a famous dalang to the school to record the half-dozen songs that are essential in performing a wayang. I came along to accompany the dalang, Made Juanda, and manage the actual recording. I set up my microphones in a small classroom, and after much fussing over which set of gender instruments was the least broken and out of tune, we started working our way through the wayang repertoire.

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The wayang starts with a long instrumental overture, in which the dalang lays out his complete set of puppets and decides which characters and story he will use for the performance. Once the casting is complete and the tree of life puppet has danced across the screen, the dalang opens the show with “Alas Harum.” Alas means forest, which is where every wayang story begins. The piece sets the scene for the whole show, introducing the first characters and setting the plot in motion. Many of the wayang songs we recorded are optional, used at the discretion of the dalang to match a certain mood or scene, but “Alas Harum” opens every show.

In wayang songs, the relationship between the vocal melody and the music provided by the four gender players is often difficult to discern. The voice seems to float on top of the accompaniment, only occasionally joining with the instruments in a clear way. In fact, many of these songs can be performed as instrumental pieces without any singing. One exception to this style is the “Pengalang Ratu,” in which the voice and gender move in almost perfect unison. For this piece the musicians and dalang must be very attentive. Neither is the clear leader; the whole ensemble must feel their way through the tune.

Rebong is music for a love scene, and the most commonly used of the ‘optional’ wayang songs. I included this recording mostly because of the vocal introduction, which perfectly showcases the range and power of Juanda’s voice. Traditionally, the wayang was performed without any amplification, so the puppeteers have developed an incredibly loud vocal technique. The piercing tone and intense vibrato are typical of Balinese singing; they also help the dalang’s voice cut through the loud instruments (and the shadow screen that hides him from the audience). For the recording session I gave Juanda his own microphone but he really didn’t need it; he could easily hold his own against a quartet of musicians pounding bronze keys.

Just keeping the microphone close to Juanda was a challenge. With a box of puppets in the room he soon found his way to the shadow screen and staged a comical scene for the students. When the musicians couldn’t keep up he came over to the gender instruments to demonstrate what he wanted. New songs seemed to start spontaneously as the musicians and dalang settled into their practiced routine. After three hours we had recorded the basic repertoire requested by the school, as well as a handful of other pieces that just came up along the way. Now the students can receive this ancient tradition in a slightly new way, by loading their cell phones with audio clips and pressing their ears to the tinny little speakers.

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