Issue 23

Battle of the bands

By Eric Witt

We swam to shore carried by the unrelenting waves of the Indian Ocean against the southern shores of Bali. Our brows were worry-furrowed as each forceful wave broke and dragged us along, though we were smiling from our recent close encounter with coral and dolphins. Gung Suela, our friend and guide during our stay in Bali, stood and waved us up toward the rocky path back toward town. He said we were lucky we didn’t have to pay for a tour to see the dolphins as many others do. He mentioned that his son was participating in a gamelan battle of the bands between a neighbouring village and his own, and invited us along.

As the indigo skies of dusk rolled in, Gung rolled up the driveway of our guest house and handed over a sarong and a traditional hat to me. “It’s an udeng batik,” he explained. Every area in Bali has a specific trade that they’ve handed down for centuries and in the Batik area they have a traditional approach to decorative dying clothing. Wax is laid in intricate designs to separate different dyes and left behind are deep, beautiful stains. Udeng means ‘hat’ in Bahasa. With udeng batik upon head and sarong upon hip, we embarked on a night that, unbeknown to us, had been over a century in the making.



The Odalan festival is an anniversary celebration for Hindu temples, and it so happened that this temple was celebrating that 30 year mark for a ‘new world,’ so their festivities had been going for the last two weeks and were concluding at that night's ceremony. Odalan is observed in a series of consecrations of temple paraphernalia, non-fatal cock fights, a trip to the sea where a bindi is made from seawater and a pinch of rice upon one's forehead, and is completed by a ceremony of sacred dances and gamelan music.

The streets of Gung’s neighborhood were lined with drooping decorations and Balinese,all in white. We joined their procession and began working our way into the open-air temple. The white garb of the crowd blended into the temples’ white scaffolding that held up thatched bamboo ceilingsfrom which hung spiny fish skeleton decorations. Before the crowd was a red-silk stage lined with golden lace dividing two opposing sides and the fanged maws of dragons and lions glistened at the ends of all the instruments, frozen in the moment before battle.

Clouds of potpourri scents wafted from clove cigars sticking out of mouths and lollies stuck out of children's’ mouths. I took a swig of some home-made Balinese rose wine bought from a local woman and watched as costumed children ran around backstage preparing for the night. Gung pointed out his son who was wearing makeup that lined each feature and made him appear striking, older.

The band of the visiting village emerged from a doorway all ornate and golden with leaves fanning out behind a lion's head, and from which two muscled serpents dangled. Quiet hung in the air as they folded their legs before their gamelans, each with its own design and timbre. They broke that silence with a single phrase, letting forth an unrelenting and joyous wave of music in its wake that spiralled in on itself into a beautiful and quickening melody.

As they played, I noticed I could no longer nod my head on the first beat of the phrase. The melody was winding in circles and the crowd was swaying with it. Each pass of the melody came with a new fervour, and an accent peered through the swells in a novel way. I was lost in the flurry of ringing. The song slowly entered into a lullaby and eerie strings pierced it with dissonant semitones. It was a hundred bells chiming and suling flutes soaring, revealing the mystery and beauty of our cyclical nature.

Gamelan music, in its non-linear fashion, becomes a meditation. The hectic harmonies swirl and wane around one progression, exploring it to its ultimate degree like the fugue, which takes a melodic motif to its utmost degree. The music feels endless, and our night reflected this as the bands quickly switched and fired into the next song before the applause died.



Bali is a hub of Hinduism among the other islands of Indonesia, which are primarily Islamic. Bits of the story of Rama from the Vedas are often portrayed in fire dances and a variety of other traditional Balinese performances. The story of our night followed the conflict in the Bhagavadgita, and was played out by two sides of opposing genders.

Young women donning bright green costumes with golden trim hurriedly tip-toed onto the stage, with eyes shadowed like a sunset folding from gold, to maroon, to violet, to navy. Their arms reached out in hard angles and struck with the Jegog gamelan players hit, and then held still as their wide eyes ticked back and forth to the beat of the song.

The young men, still with facial features strikingly outlined, entered and formed concentric circles with the young women already on stage. The music would flip, the circles would reverse, and they’d take turns crossing each others’ lines and form anew.

Every movement was crisp and calculated. The band would dampen with instruments in mid-stream, and pick up the melody vocally while keeping beat with their twirling mallets. The crowd sang aloud together with the electric joy of familiarity, then would burst into dance as the band fired back into their frenzied song.

A young toddler bobbed on his mothers lap and his little arms spasmodically gesticulated like the gamelan players. His little beaming grin nearly closed his eyes and it moved contagiously over my face as the privilege of the night occurred to me. Gung had brought us away from bustling Ubud into his village to a sacred and age-old festival, dressed us with his sarongs and, beyond his duty as a “guide,” he treated us as friends.

His son’s band again took the stage and I shared in the uproar, which was the only way way I could give back aside from my incessant utterings of “terima kasih,” the Bahasan term for “thank you.”




On our ride home, Gung explained how he’d made an excuse to the local school so his son could stay out that night with his bandmates. He pulled his flip-phone out and started paging through his pictures and handed it over. It was a picture of him at the Eiffel Tower. He explained how he toured there playing the suling and plainly stated, “I am a master.”

The virtuosic musicianship of that night has deep history. Gung’s grandfather was the leader of their village in 1902 and, as a master of Balinese art, began the Suela families’ tradition of music, dancing and painting. The band we witnessed that night had been developing through four generations in the Suela family, right down to Gung’s son. It was in 1965 that Gung’s uncle gave the village's gamelan group the name Saba Sari.

In 1991, when Gung was rocking the suling for Saba Sari, he went to Frankfurt, Germany for a music festival, where the band combined their music with other groups and brought their tradition to the international limelight. This led to a greater popularity for Saba Sari and subsequent tours that brought them to twenty different countries with their highlight performances being in Paris in 1993 and the Netherlands in 1996. Their international acclaim reached from Germany to Japan and their accolades racked up countless awards and certificates from different international music organisations and governments. It still continues to grow to this day, with their most recent performance being at the Bali Arts Festival in Denpasar in June 2014.




The melodies of that night were stuck in my head for days. I caught myself whistling them as I sat in the airport on my way home to Sukhothai, Thailand. In the same way the gamelan music moves cyclically, the melody had taken course over generations cycling fractally through myriad heads across the globe in a strange loop and there it was existing within me. Gung and his village had given me hospitality, and they had also passed on a secret to me that is locked away in the serial tones of a Gamelan ceaselessly ringing on and on and on.


Eric Witt is a freelance journalist currently based in Thailand. After graduating with a journalism degree at Columbia College in Chicago in 2012, he kept busy writing about and making music, some of which can be found at www.ericnwitt.com.

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