30 years ago I left America for the first time as a young man and on my own traveled to a foreign country in the other side of the world. I did this because of a gesture I saw in a documentary on PBS about the Ring of Volcanoes that encircle the planet. It showed a healer from Java who could bring heat to his hands and make paper catch fire. There was a dancer in the documentary who moved with a curious grace and ferocity as well. I’d never seen anything like it before.
Inspired by these feats I began researching about Bali and what I learned amazed me. For instance, each neighborhood is called a Banjar, and each Banjar is completely its own community government. When a Balinese Hindu dies, their life’s worth in money goes to the surrounding Banjars to carve statues from wood paint them and they burn them to allow the spirit of the person who lived a life to transcend their existence. The connected local communities are brought into the cycle of life and death through ceremony. It seemed like such a wise system.
I was a young performer who fancied himself an adventurer and I saw that there was a dance that had a Monkey Hero surrounded by flames. It seemed familiar and magical so I decided to pursue it. I left with my savings and without anyone to guide me in my search for hidden art and wisdom within the Island that became my spiritual home.
Photo by Kyer Wiltshire
I went straight to Peliatan which I had read was a good center for dance and language, with the goal to immerse myself in the cultural wealth of the country.
When I arrived there, I found that there were a thousand pieces of wisdom embedded into the culture as practices, as rituals, as offerings and as ceremonies.
After finding my teacher and completing several weeks of studying the Baris, a warrior’s dance that most young boys learn, my teacher Pak Tutor took me to a Kecak performance as a kind of graduation. He threw me into the middle of it and told me to do as he did and it was the first time I was to perform this ancient practice. It was strangely beautiful and spiritually fulfilling. I left Bali with a deep sense of completion but also with a thirst to experience the ritual again. I knew I would eventually return.
Photo Courtesy of Paradox Pollack
I did, but not for another 15 years with a troupe that was centered around that same practice. The group One People Voice to one day be known as Gamelan X toured in June of 2005 with forty performers and a show we had rehearsed for six months, I returned to Bali with a feeling of victory. But it wasn’t just my own, It felt like a victory for the ancient masters who created this form.
“I come to you with this offering and honor your history.” I spoke softly to myself hoping that they heard.
Since that day, I’ve been carrying this tradition as my own best practice in the realm of performance and ceremony bringing it hundreds of times to diverse groups ranging from five people to one thousand. Each time I am astounded by its capacity to, when used as a connective tool, bring people to an immediate sense of belonging and collective power. This year when I returned to Bali for the 3rd time I received, through an NGO named Wow Bali, a world premiere diploma described as a “transfer of knowledge certificate” and performed the Kecak for the highest priests in Bali.
From my research, I’ve learned that the original purpose of the Kecak was to initiate the Sanghyang trance, a practice that was most popular before Bali’s history in colonization. The Sanghyang trance was a group ritual to address the invisible aspects of the forest villages.
If there was a problem such as trouble in childbirth, disputes that could not be managed, a drought or deaths from disease that people could not find the cure to, then the people of a particular community would all come together and enact these rituals. The purpose was to have the whole of the community centered around the transformation of this invisible problem and expel it through playful powerful collective sound making and energy accumulation.
Photo Courtesy of Paradox Pollack
Human energy is a resource. Often this resource is going in a thousand directions with no common hub for the intention or attention of the people who are present. The Kecak is a focusing lens of attention which brings people together in groups of all sizes to hold a common frequency and work with other groups in the same circle holding different patterns but ultimately fitting into the music as one indistinguishable whole.
I have found over the years that the Kecak is also a practice which is Part Village council and part Mosh Pit. This art form and ritual practice is a tantra of togetherness which can be used for artistic expression, healing through group harmonization and to synchronize intention. My current research is to understand the ways in which Kecak enables decision making in large groups through the opening of the voice, the body and the heart.
I am excited to bring it this year to the Envision community.
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