The Kecak Dance and the Artifice of Tourism

Bali is a very “touristy” place, and it’s easy to see why people love coming here. There’s something for everyone: mountain hiking, diving, beaches, beautiful stone temples and a vibrant arts and crafts industry. But if you scratch just below the surface it’s an interesting case study of what happens when a place molds itself to the desires of tourists.

For example, I had the opportunity to attend a performance of a kecak dance the other night.

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Sorry for the poor photo quality, the main lighting is a fire in the center.

The kecak involves a chorus of 100 men who sit in three concentric circles accompanying a performance of portions of the classic Ramayana story.Through their voices, body and arm movements, the kecak gives an immediacy and intimacy to the Ramayana that is absent from the more classic performances with a gamelan accompaniment.

Here is a brief video of a daytime kecak performance to give you a better idea:

The Ramayana dancers would then perform in the center of the circle.

Attending a kecak performance is a common activity here, but it’s far from the “traditional” art form that most people think.

In fact, kecak was invented by a German by the name of Walter Spies in the 1930s specifically for performance in front of Western audiences.

And if it seems vaguely familiar to you, it could be because the kecak dance was the basis of the Na’vi dance in the movie Avatar. I found this great video mashup on YouTube of the movie with the real life dancers:

Remember the cool photos of the Nyepi statues I showed you a couple of weeks ago?

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These weren’t even part of the celebrations of Nyepi until the 1980s, and now are featured prominently in tourism advertisements for Bali as an enduring and traditional part of the celebrations.

A lot of people come to a place like Bali seeking an “authentic” or “traditional” experience, forgetting that people are not timeless, and that cultures are constantly changing and adapting. There is a performance element to what is presented to us, the tourists. I’m not saying not to come to Bali, or not to enjoy these performances. I really liked the kecak performance and would recommend it to anyone who asked, and would definitely recommend that anyone coming to Indonesia should at least spend a little time in Bali.

But I also think it’s important to examine our own expectations of what we are seeking through travel and how we can have meaningful intercultural experiences through a more nuanced understanding of both the places we are visiting and our own roles as tourists.

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Ubud Wanderings

Most people who come to Ubud just stay a few days before moving on, but since we’ve got two weeks to fill I think I’ve explored every nook and cranny of town with Hugo, twice.

A visit to Ubud isn’t complete without a visit to the Monkey Forest.

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Look! Macaques everywhere!

Although I don’t think you can actually see any in that picture, trust me, the Monkey Forest is full of them. They also bite and will steal your stuff, so visitors beware. But, if you would like to experience a monkey jumping on your head, this is the place for you!

We’ve been to the market and touched everything.

If anybody wants anything from Bali, let me know! This is the place to get it. And no, I will not bring you a coffee table.

If anybody wants anything from Bali, let me know! This is the place to get it. And no, I will not bring you a coffee table.

We’ve had some street treats to eat.

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We’ve had some tropical fruits to drink.

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We’ve stuck a few straws into a few coconuts.

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We found hidden fish ponds.

If there is a fish pond anywhere, Hugo will find it.

If there is a fish pond anywhere, Hugo will find it.

We found the Pondok Pekak Library & Learning Center, where you can check out books or take language and art classes.

Seems plausible.

Seems plausible.

And they don’t mind if you just sit in the shady courtyard reading for hours at a time.

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Hugo has also discovered a love of swimming pools, so we’re spending a lot of time in the water these days. In fact, the other night he jumped in, fully clothed, during a birthday party for two of the students. Luckily, it wasn’t the deep end. I guess it will be time for some serious swimming lessons when we get back to Tacoma!

Happy New Year (Again!): Nyepi, The Balinese Day of Silence

The day we arrived in Ubud was the eve of Nyepi, a Balinese Hindu festival known as the Day of Silence. It is a full day where everyone stays home: no work, no travel, no special entertainment, just a day of fasting and reflection. The streets are empty of locals and tourists alike, and all shops and businesses are closed. Exceptions are made for life threatening emergencies, but the otherwise the only people on the street during the day are the traditional security men called Pecalang.

The silence of Nyepi is a stark contrast to the night before. Everyone takes to the streets for the parade of ogoh-ogoh, statutes of malicious mythological beings which are marched around town and eventually burned  as a purification symbol.

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Did I mention they are malicious? Because they really, really are.

They ogoh-ogoh are made of paper and Styrofoam, so they are relatively lightweight for their size. They are mounted on a bamboo frame and carried by hand during the parade.

Some young boys waiting to carry a small ogah-ogah in the parade.

Some young boys waiting to carry a small ogoh-ogoh in the parade.

After driving across the island from our beach hideaway in the north, it was disorienting to be thrust into the crowds preparing for the parade. Ubud is a major tourist center in Bali, and throngs of people come out to see this once a year event.

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People getting a closer look before the parade

The ogoh-ogoh are put on display in an open area before the parade, so we were able to get a very close look.

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Some of them are very detailed and expressive.

We walked around the holding area, but had to leave before the parade really got started. That’s the down side to traveling with a small child who zonks out by 8pm. After the chaos of the parade preparations and street performances, the Day of Silence was a welcome respite.

I think this one was my favorite, especially the facial expression on the rat hiding between his feet.

I think this one was my favorite, especially the facial expression on the rat hiding between his feet.