Now that I have a record player (see previous post), I have picked up my old habit of stopping in every used record store I pass. This is one of the few kinds of shopping I enjoy, and my very first spree proved fruitful. After giving up on the 2 for $5 bin and flipping through some Paul Simon solo albums, I decided to give the “World Music” box a chance. Front of the stack: Music of Bali, Gamelan Gender Wayang. The first track: Pemungkah, a piece I labored over for months with my teacher in Bali. What are the chances? Not just gamelan, or even Balinese gamelan, but the exact style and composition I was studying. For that year in Bali this music was my business—my crack of dawn practice and before bed listen—and here it was staring me in the face at “Cheapo Records” in Central Square.
As time passes, those lives I led in Indonesia and Japan feel less and less real. My memories have come unmoored from my reality, like they’re just stand-alone episodes of a sitcom with no running story, no thread that ties them to me here now. I know that somewhere, sometime, a skinny guy like me wore funny costumes, spent his nights in tarp-covered foodstalls, and rode packed subways in a suit; always speaking in tongues and bowing and eating rice. But I don’t do those things. Occasionally a phrase, flavor, or facebook post will remind me that the skinny man is me and the tongue is mine. The gamelan record was one of those links, a point that managed to exist in two separate planes at once. I usually only buy records under ten dollars, but I had to have this one.
Back at home on my turntable, the record was well worth the price. Their rendition of the Pemungkah is faster than anything I heard while in Bali, and yet also longer. The reason is that this piece, which serves as the opening overture in shadow puppet plays, is constantly being shortened to hold people’s attention or meet time constraints. There are sections I learned, but never heard performed, other parts my teacher had mentioned but never taught, and still more that I heard for the first time on this record.
This recording is only 35 years old, but that is a long time in Bali, where tastes change as fast as the music and fads come and go like the tourists. In that time, shadow puppetry has certainly lost ground to television, and the music that accompanies it has become increasingly obscure. I don’t think I met anyone under 30 who could even play the whole Pemungkah, just the snippets that are still used for ceremonial performances and student pieces. In a way, my feeling of a distant connection in the record store was misplaced, because it is rare to hear such a complete performance in Bali, and you would never find this record at one of the island’s many night markets. In that case the record is just like my own unmoored memories: separated from the time and place in which its meaning was created, yet still meaningful to me.