Afternoon Melodies of Ubud, Bali

There are nights, there are days, there are afternoons. That brief period of time when the city bustle with people rushing home, when day stress melts to evening melancholies, and when reunions with the loved ones take place.

Far out from the bustling city life, afternoon in Ubud is a wide range of tropical sounds that make triumphant thank you noise to the setting sun. After a day of full sun bath; chlorophyll busy breaking water and combining sunlight, animals enjoying the worms and insects, and the insects enjoying their naps, finally comes a chance for them to rest and reenergize. And for all these, there’s a long orchestral finale before the main star hides behind the

I’d sit on the terrace, listening to nature’s songs, wondering if this is orchestrated by sun’s light, they orchestrate it themselves, or it’s just pure randomness — though randomness is an absurdity to the organized nature.

Anyways, a more pressing question to me is, what does it feel like to grow up and live among an abyss of sounds whose vibrations roll over the earth, affecting every single beings it encounters. What does it feel like when you’re not tyrannized by the clock, but ordered by mere light and sound? What does it feel like to listen to the call and response initiated by frogs, to the waves of sounds by kocet, every single day?

Most people, even Balinese themselves, might take these sounds for granted, unassuming to its peaceful and cleansing impact. But one of the most prominent gamelan composers in Bali, the legendary I Wayan Lotring (1898–1968) of Kuta, was so inspired by the grinding noise of frogs that he made various compositions out of it.

Largely considered a maestro, Lotring was a gender wayang player and a gamelan palegongan leader for Kuta. Palegongan compositions were his masterpiece, a piece that accompanies the intricately complex legong dance. Under his lead, Palegongan was reimagined to be lighter and entertaining, perfect to set the atmosphere at a kingdom’s balcony in the afternoon.

Among the plethora of Palegongan is Genggong — a genre that is inspired by the call and response of frogs and also an instrument made from sugarpalm tree, still considered to be part of jew’s harp family. Candetan is another name for it, which sounds like this. Despite genggong’s seemingly simple instrument (and also deceptively simple enough to be mastered), its sound has this unique wobbly character and distinguished flexibility that oddly familiar to sounds sampled in early electronic music. (Talking about origins!)

As a small mouthpiece triggered by the tongue’s movement, genggong sounds were designed to mimic various frogs sounds. Enggung (Kaloula baleata) makes a ung-ing-ung-ing sound, Dongkang toads (Duttaphrynus {Bufo} melanostictus) has a high rapid continuous call like keruk-keruk-keruk, another type of Dongkang (Ingerophrynus {Bufo} biporcatus) has a ‘stacatto’ like sounds with specific cycles. Aside from the frogs are also the crickets, cicadas, and lizards that fill in the melodies and of course, the gushing water and the rattling leaves that inspire the ambience. All these animals are orchestra players in the Lotring’s worlds. And they buzz loud in his world as he responded to it enthusiastically, proven by how much genggong was Lotring’s creative base.

Interestingly, these instruments that mirror the sounds of real animals subtly resemble the onomatopoeia (or the naming of an object based on the sound it produces) of Balinese in naming their notes. Instead of C, D, E, F (or do, re, mi, fa), Balinese name their notes: ding, dung, deng, dong. Or ning, neng, nong, nung. For drums, they say, dig, dag, dig, which are really simple design thinkings in the field of name-ology but mockingly full with question ‘why not’! In fact, perhaps these names resonate better to how our brain interprets sounds. (As someone who loves to listen, this fact satisfies a big part of me.)

But generally, Balinese do seem to rely on their listening skill very much. Practicing music solely by mimicking is not something unusual in Bali, which is contrary to Javanese rehearsal that allows experimentation. In Bali, it is common that the players need to strictly follow where the conductor is leading. This is especially true in the past when music is considered a gift to the gods; a serious business. Teachers could be found hitting the students and Lotring was even said to throw sandal to players who missed a note or a beat (pg. 76, Bali 1923 Vol III).

The sense of liberation, instead of coming from exploration and expression, comes from rasa, ‘feeling’. Essential in genggong, this rasa expands to the intuitive collaboration between players that is “unusually intimate, spontaneous, and inter-connected”. An ocean of sounds. Just like the afternoon melodies, they don’t stand solitary. Each vibration fluidly permeates one another, making ways for each players’ inner nature to come out and dance.

In conclusion, it’s impossible to not notice the distinct and earthy quietness belongs only to mother nature. Where in big cities, the mechanic and digital sounds isolate the users, the sounds in nature were out and open naked, allowing vibrations to go far beyond the source, reverberating across the island, across the space and time. Overtime, someone like I Wayan Lotring unlocked nature’s sonic code and paved the way for new sounds to flourish, streaming through the unconscious minds, watering the dry souls along the way. The point here isn’t just about mirroring nature, but channeling its energy that comes through us every second so that it lasts beyond our time.

To complement, watch Colin McPhee’s silent film of I Wayan Lotring performing gender wayang and a collage of his later performances in life. All undoubtedly depicting the rasa that emerge from within. Lastly, do check out Bali 1928, an incredible labor of love that showcases Bali in the past.

Illustration Etwined by Helen Wells


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