Monkey and Barong. Photo via Asya Derya Aygun

Bali’s unique music, dance and ritual drama

Ubud is quiet at 6:00 am. You are standing in a hotel swimming pool, looking at ferns growing from frangipani tree trunks, and there is no one else in sight. Suddenly a fight erupts in the undergrowth. Three monkeys fight their way past a little shrine to the gods and up a tree, before two join in brief morning sex.

No surprises here. The hotel is situated on a former rice terrace between Monkey Forest Road and Hanoman Street, Hanoman being the monkey god. Monkeys came here all the time before the street sprouted its buildings.

“Monkeys are a nuisance,” the hotel manager says. “But without monkeys we would have no tourists!”

It’s true. Many come to Ubud to see the monkeys, quite a few come to practise yoga, but you can do those things in plenty of other places. This story is about what makes Ubud unique in the world – its art. Ubud is Bali’s artistic centre. Nowhere else on the island is it easier to experience Bali’s unique music, dance and ritual drama.

The ritual dramas of Bali!

Have you have never lost yourself in the sound of a hundred men, chattering like monkeys in perfect sync? Or a gamelan orchestra’s hypnotic jingle-jangle, as seven-year-old girls move like miniature Indian temple dancers? Have you really been to Bali?

If you are patient you can see and hear Bali’s unique music, dance and ritual drama all over the island, but Ubud makes it easy. A quick trip to the visitor centre next to the police station on Jalan Raya Ubud will get you an A4 schedule of traditional ritual dramas – about 10 to choose from, every night of the week. Nothing costs more than Rp 100,000.

While the Wayang Kulit (shadow puppets) might be a bit too hard core for a rookie, the Kecak dance is a crowd pleaser.

You don’t need to know the story to appreciate the sound of monkey men chattering in unison as the solo dancers make their moves, but why not learn a little beforehand?

The Kecak dance

The Kecak dance opens with a chorus of monkeys, who never leave the set. This is the Ramayana story, one of two great Hindu epics which make up much of Bali’s unique music, dance and ritual drama. The complete version of each epic is longer than the Bible, but the Kecak dance condenses the whole story down to an hour or less. Just for you, we will prune it down to 300 words.

In the first act, prince Rama of Ayodya and princess Dewi Sita have been exiled to a house in the forest. Dewi Sita sees a pretty golden deer, and persuades Rama to catch it for her. Reluctantly he agrees, but makes his younger brother promise to protect his sister-in-law and not let her out of his sight.

Of course this is just an elaborate ruse set up by the evil king Rahawna, king of Alengka (possibly modern-day Sri Lanka) who wants Dewi Sita for himself. The golden deer was his prime minister, a master shape shifter.

The evildoers now imitate Rama’s voice, and cry for help. Dewi Sita sends her brother-in-law to help him. He draws a magic circle around their house to protect her, and makes her promise not to step outside it.

Rahwana, also a shape-shifter, now disguises himself as a holy man. He persuades Dewi Sita to step outside the circle to give him alms, then spirits her away to his kingdom over the sea.

In the rest of the story, Rama takes steps to rescue his princess. He asks his friend Hanoman, the monkey god, to help him find her. He makes his way to Rahwana’s palace and overhears Dewi Sita telling another woman how cruel Rawanna is. Hanoman gives Rama’s ring to Dewi Sita to identify himself as her husband’s messenger, and Dewi Sita gives Hanoman her hairpin to take back to Rama.

Meanwhile Rama is in the forest looking for Dewi Sita with his brothers. Rahwana’s son finds them and attacks them with an arrow that turns into a dragon. Luckily the Garuda, king of the birds, flies down to rescue them.

They are then joined by the King of the Monkeys and all join in battle with the forces of evil. And the good guys win in the conclusion of this ancient Hindu epic.

This is often followed by another ritual, the fire dance. A dancer in a trance, wearing a horse costume, walks over burning coconut husks, kicking them around in the darkness. Don’t leave your handbag or shoes under the chair, you may catch a stray cinder.

Recommended: Pura Taman Sari, Hanoman Street, every Tuesday and Thursday at 7:30pm.

Barong dance

The Barong dance is another crowd pleaser that opens, once again, with a naughty monkey.

He forages for something to eat, and while he is eating his banana the Barong appears, snapping his teeth. The Barong is a mythical beast who is chief of all the good spirits – the costume covers two dancers, like a Chinese lion dance or a pantomime horse, and a distinctive mask that can snap its teeth. Barong is hungry, and the monkey teases it for a while, pretending to offer it a banana.

Then, Rangda appears. Rangda is queen of the witches and other bad spirits, and a protracted battle between the forces of good and evil starts. At one stage a group of men, infuriated by her evil, attempt to attack her with short swords (kris in Indonesian, curiga in Balinese). Her magic causes them to turn their weapons on themselves, rather like the suicide squad in the final act of Monty Python’s Life of Brian. The dancers, who are in a trance, are trying to drive their weapons into their chests but the Barong’s magic protects them, and they are not harmed.

The battle ends in a draw: neither good nor evil triumphs.

Unlike other well-known forms of Bali’s unique music, dance and ritual drama, this is not a Hindu story. It is part of the native Balinese religion that has been here perhaps for thousands of years and may be based partly on historic events. The dance is a ritual aimed at restoring balance and harmony, and once a year priests bless all of the masks used in this play, before they are paraded around the village to calm the bad spirits. More on this later.

Bali’s unique music, dance and ritual drama
One of Ubud’s Barongs begins the parade of masks. Photo via Geoff Vivian

Recommended: Wantilan, Hanoman Street every Monday at 7:00pm. The music comes from a really tight gamelan group of teenaged boys.

Legong dance

The Legong dance is traditionally performed by little girls as young as seven years old – they start training at five. If you have seen classical Indian temple dancing, you will see a resemblance. Legong performers, in a trance, make an intricate series of hand gestures, foot movements and facial expressions to tell a story. We can’t tell you the story here because there are several, some from the great Hindu epics and some from Balinese history. If you go to see a Legong performance you can expect to see an excerpt from one of these, only shortened for the enjoyment of tourists.

Recommended: Ubud Royal Palace every Monday, Wednesday and Saturday at 7.30pm.

Wayang Kulit – the shadow play

If you have seen the Kecak, Barong and Legong and still want more, it is time to see the Wayang Kulit.

The Wayang Kulit is a performance by one master puppeteer, the Dalang, who sits under a kerosene lamp behind a white screen, telling a story by manipulating dozens of leather puppets that make shadows for the audience on the other side of the screen. He has to supply all of the characters’ voices, and direct the music by tapping on a box with a wooden hammer held between his toes.

Each performance is an excerpt from one of the great Hindu epics. If you have seen the Kecak you will already know a little about the Ramayana, the story of Rama rescuing his princess Sita. The other great epic is the Mahabarata, a long story about two rival groups of cousins fighting over a kingdom. The good guys are the five Pendawa brothers, and the best known characters in the West are prince Arjuna and his wise advisor, Kresna (Krishna).

Many people say the Wayang is the soul of Balinese and Javanese culture. People in Bali tune in to cheap transistor radios to hear Wayang perfomances adapted for the airwaves, and Indonesian politicians since Sukarno’s time have referred to Wayang characters and sayings to make political points.

While most of the characters are princes and gods, the clowns are an important part of any performance. They are rather like the clowns in Shakespeare’s comedies (think: Bottom the Weaver in Midsummer Night’s Dream). The most important and loved clown is Twalen, known for his fat belly, farting and jokes. The audience know him to be the most important of the gods, Shiva’s big brother in fact, who chooses to live on earth because he likes eating and drinking so much.

In Java a Wayang Kulit can go all night, and an epic performance over three consecutive nights is not unknown. In Ubud they happily condense it down to one hour for tourists.

Recommended: Under the temple at Kerta Accommodation, Monkey Forest Road, near the soccer ground. Tuesdays and Saturdays at 8:00pm. Puppet master I Ketut Pasak makes plenty of jokes in English.

Walking back to the hotel on Saturday there are several bars with local bands on Monkey Forest Road. A five piece outfit is playing BB King covers, another band plays Latin salsa music and a duo croons 70s American folk music in close harmony, all to a high standard. As this is a story about what you can only see and hear in Bali, we move on.

Balawan’s Batuan Ethnic Fusion band

Balawan is a world-class Balinese musician. He performs a unique blend of Gamelan-inspired music and smooth jazz, tapping with both hands on his double necked electric guitar while fronting his band Batuan Ethnic Fusion.

While he has performed at festivals on several continents, you can only catch him in Bali at his regular Friday night Ubud gig – if he is not performing overseas. This is at Petani, in Hanoman Street south of the Monkey Forest Road corner. The drinks are a bit pricey but worth it for the music. Although a very contemporary artist, Balawan makes his own unique contribution to Bali’s musical tradition.

Parade of the masks

All of these attractions are an easy walk from the Brata Inn, a new 11-room boutique hotel on Monkey Forest Road. The rooms are fully tiled with a TV, spa bath and breakfast every morning. The Bratayadnya family opened it in January 2013 after many years’ experience running Brata 1 homestay on Hanoman Street.

They trace their family lineage back one of Ubud’s original seven founders, and are keen to preserve Ubud’s cultural heritage. Their staff are extremely knowledgeable about this part of Bali and are happy to organise tickets to performances if you don’t want to buy them directly.

Bali’s unique music, dance and ritual drama
At the entrance to Ubud’s sacred Monkey Forest. Photo via Geoff Vivian

It is an afternoon in mid December, and the owner, Agus Brata, is busy getting ready for the annual parade of the masks. The monkeys, inspiration for so much of Bali’s unique music, dance and ritual drama, hang around the gates waiting for something to happen.

Ubud men waiting for to join parade of masks. Photo via Geoff Vivian
Ubud men waiting for to join parade of masks. Photo via Geoff Vivian

Agus joins a group of men, sitting at the entrance to the sacred Monkey Forest. All of Ubud’s founding families have to participate. They are waiting for the community’s Rangda and Barong masks to be blessed in the temple below, before they parade them through the streets to the sound of Balinese flutes, drums and small portable gongs.

The masks are more than finely-crafted dance costumes. Ubudians will spend several hours carrying them through the town, to spread their magical aura of good luck and protection over every home and business.

Bali’s unique music, dance and ritual drama
Ubud men playing flutes in the parade of masks. Photo via Geoff Vivian
Bali’s unique music, dance and ritual drama
One of Ubud’s two Barongs begins the long Parade of Masks. Photo via Geoff Vivian

The featured image (monkey with Barong) is by Asya Derya Aygun.