Perhaps my first introduction to the remarkable culture of Bali was the song “Bali Hai” in the movie South Pacific (which was filmed in Hawaii and had nothing to do with Bali). I probably saw Bob Hope and Bing Crosby with Dorothy Lamour clad in a sarong in The Road to Bali, yet another Hollywood version of cross-cultural mis-understanding, filled with all the insulting portrayals when one’s assumptions go unquestioned.
But the first real introduction was in college when I discovered the Nonesuch Records Explorer Series and listened to Balinese Kecak Monkey Chant for the first time. It was like nothing I had ever heard and my reaction was to put the speakers at the door across the hall of my college housemates and blast it at 2 am to thoroughly freak them out and awaken them from their drunken stupor. Culture as a college prank. The respect meter still had a way to travel.
Finally, things took a turn toward the authentic as I went to a concert by the newly-formed Sekar Jaya Gamelan in San Francisco (a group I would later join) in 1978. It was the kick-off to a remarkable year of travel around the world with my soon-to-be wife that went from Europe to India to Nepal/Thailand/ Singapore to Java. After two months of lying in bed with hepatitis in Solo, Java (me, that is), we crossed the waters to Bali and spent 10 memorable days on that remarkable island.
In 1979, people were already telling us, “Ah, you missed the real Bali.” Despite a few restaurants experimenting with pancakes and burritos, it seemed like a place living its own cultural life without overly trying to please tourists. I arrived back then as a young man (27) in search of a vision and Bali seemed the place that brought it to life. That emerging vision had to do with a community life where music, dance, drama and ritual was at the center rather than the edge (or off the screen entirely), where the health of the community was not measured by historical monuments or building size or economic power, but by a cycle of ceremony honoring both the seen world and the unseen world and bringing them into balance and harmony. The attention to beauty, from the palm leaf temporal offerings to the architecture to the fruit piled on the women’s heads to the exquisitely landscaped terraced rice fields and water systems, made sense when I read something to the effect of “Balinese believe that heaven is exactly like Bali, only everything is reversed (what is left in one place is right in the other). Therefore, the very cosmology encourages caretaking so that heaven on earth and heaven in heaven are equally preserved.” That fit my intuition more than earth as a vale of constant suffering and heaven as angels with harps and the result was magnificent— nice to walk amongst beauty, hear music everywhere played by just folks everywhere. In short, Bali had it goin’ on!
In 1987, I returned with my family for seven weeks to study a bamboo xylophone. The tourism had increased (doubled?) and now I could say to young tourists “Ah, you missed the real Bali.” But the ceremonial life was intact, tourists still needed to wear sarongs and appropriate headgear to attend performances held in the temples and you could still walk on the street without getting hit by one of the 100,000 motorbikes. My 7-year old daughter Kerala caught the spirit of the place—one morning in San Francisco after we had returned, she was crying on the couch because “she missed all the happy people in Bali.” My almost-3 year old daughter Talia was toilet trained in Ubud with the help of M &M’s and was taken around each day by the staff to learn how to give offerings. And dressed up and played with relentlessly.
So now it is 2015 and I will meet Talia tomorrow and see how much of the “real Bali” is left. I’ve heard the stories and am a bit nervous, but at all times, “the real Bali” is always changing, always a work in progress, always having to deal with what we all have to deal with— how technology changes culture, how tourism changes culture, how time changes culture. The very notion of the “real Bali” is a tourist fantasy wanting a place to be like it is in our storybook imagination for our enjoyment. But that’s Disneyland, that’s cultural colonialism, that’s irony— we come to overrun the island and then say “Don’t change!”
But of course, I do hope that the spirit of attention to beauty, of all participating in music and dance, of honoring the ancestors, of ceremony trumping business, has lived on, even if the performers gather afterwards for a Starbuck’s coffee. We’ll see tomorrow.