balinese gamelan

Kecak in Pop Culture

We’re getting ready to perform a kecak “piece” complete with a costumed cast of characters from the Ramayana along with the monkey army. Kecak is an odd animal.  Created in the 20th century with the help of a gay German painter living in Indonesia (Walter Spies), Kecak is a vocal gamelan that mimics the colotomic structure of a typical instrumental gamelan. Basically, it was used to enhance tourism, however it does have roots in an exorcist ritual.

Here’s a tourist-laden clip complete with a background of instrumental gamelan while depicting a “typical” Balinese culture show (i.e. what you’d see as a visitor in Bali):

In an article published in 2009, M. Bakan coins the phrase “schizophonic transmogrification” in relation to Balinese Kecak. In essence, this is a process wherein a ritual is recreated or reinvented in a completely different context than the original, and most importantly, that the event is used “to evoke the strange, and often the grotesque and sinister as well.” (Bakan 85)  He discusses the use of Kecak in two films: Fellini’s Satyricon and Blood Simple.

Here are two clips of kecak in these films. Notably, Satyricon is set in ancient Rome.

In the trailer for Blood Simple, we see kecak used in a violent scene where a woman is struggling for her life:

These are exactly what Bakan refers to with his coining of the term schizophonic transmogrification in reference to Balinese kecak.  Besides the two movies above, we can also see kecak in a scene from Baraka that doesn’t fall into the above category (the scene in fact takes place outside of a temple in Bali):

Aside from films, kecak can be seen in other forms of pop culture such as popular music and  video games. Listen to the video game intro below from the early 90’s. Even in the description of the clip, they call it “terrifying”:

Finally, in the cartoon below, kecak is used in the soundtrack at the beginning of the closing credits:

As stated, kecak is an interesting animal. Although it’s not an ancient ritual, it’s become woven into the fabric of Balinese culture over time.  Someone mentioned to me the other day that it seems as though only men perform kecak, and it does seem that way. Rare female gamelans have started to emerge in the past twenty years or so in Bali, so I wonder if we’ll see this same adjustment with kecak. Notably however, perhaps it simply has to do with the “ripe” timbre of the male voice for this type of “performance”.

I just wanted to highlight a few examples of how it has infiltrated Western popular culture. After our show in March, I’ll post a clip…