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…

Africa, Indonesia, India…New Orleans

When I jump on a new instrument for the first time, it feels how you’d expect: alien, not quite comfortable – maybe like I’d imagine a hip or knee replacement would feel at first. It’s my third week in African ensemble after a several year hiatus of playing (and building) African drums, and I’ve settled on the dunun as my axe for the semester – specifically, the samba. My spirit loves playing it. This past Monday, a “click” happened somewhere in the land of ambidexterity (left hand on bell, right hand on the head) and instead of following the instrument, I was leading it – (yes, I mean in a spiritual-hippie-granola-crunchy- kind of way). It felt natural and no longer alien – more of an extension of any inherent rhythm I might possess (I know it’s in there somewhere!). I felt its dance.

Along those same lines, in gamelan, we’re performing Baris – I chose an instrument that acts as an intermediary between the colotomic structure and the interlocking parts that exist at the highest densities. I wanted something technically “simple” this time so that I could actively listen to other parts and put it all together like a puzzle – you know, like you’re supposed to. I’ve been playing the gangsa polos part on other pieces which is too fast for me to think realistically about the multiple stratifications happening around me. Yesterday’s rehearsal (and my repetative 4-note cycle) became a meditative exercise for an hour or so – I found myself, after having the part on auto-pilot, paying close attention to the height of my hammer, my grip, the exact placement of the hammer strike on each slabbed key, the space my arm occupied in the air after each strike and whether I was in rhythm with the air itself, and how my body alignment felt in relation to the instrument – as if it were my spine.

In short, it was lovely. Afterwards, we switched to Puspanjali and I tested my spatial knowledge of the gangsa by trying to play sections with my eyes closed or glued to my professor’s hands on the kendang (drum). I had no trouble at all with the phrases that moved step-wise. Once it skipped two or more keys, I found myself striking the air between the slabs – it’s probably best for the ensemble’s sake that I stop intentionally trying to screw myself up. I do enough of that with my eyes open.

(Skyping w/ Viji)

Regarding India, I’m at a standstill in my sitar purchase, or potential purchase. It scares me too much to spend $900+ on an instrument I’ve never touched without having its quality backed by a friend and not a salesman. Speaking of India, an hour ago I sat in a world music room with my “Music of India” class as we skyped with a Karnatik vocalist in Chennai – she taught us a song text and its corresponding tala, a few easier ragas, and workshopped ornamentation. I love technology.

In four hours or so I’m driving to New Orleans for the first time since I started this program and I’ll be there all weekend. I’m looking forward to seeing friends, eating, seeing some of my old students, and doing a bit of fieldwork. Saturday night I’m heading to see Sissy Bounce artist Big Freedia. I can’t wait to get home – some ethnographic notes to come! 🙂