Rocking and Rolling with the Dead

I don’t have to tell anyone in the world that Balinese culture is unique. But there are some things that few foreignera experience even after living in Bali for many years. Today I had the honour of being asked by the family of my deceased gender wayang teachers from Banjar Dalem Pejaten to play gender on their cremation tower.

Not being from a wealthy family, both my teachers were cremated together even though their deaths were separated by around a year. To save on costs, both men were put in the same cremation tower that left from the family home to the graveyard around 500 meters away.

Even though I was stoked to be asked to play on the tower, I was also slightly apprehensive about how I was going to hang on as the tower rocked and rolled along the road. Not only was it going to sway as it was carried by 20 or so burly boys, but it would also be spun around three times at all intersections and then upon arrival at the graveyard.

I was going to be playing with family member, Bagus “Dolir” who was also a member of the group that I’ve being playing with for the past four or so years. He told me “No need to worry as the gender would be tied on” – I hope we will be too. I wondered nervously. We were given some white clothing to put on over the top of our udeng headdresses and sarongs: I presume, to kind of purify us as we were close to the dead on their cremation tower, therefore closer to the gods. Then it was time to “jump on for the ride”. Lucky for me, a tower holder chap even thoughtfully showed me how to hold onto the side of the bamboo float should I feel like falling in between busily bashing out melodies on the bronze xylophone.

Once the tower got moving it was a lot smoother than I expected. Only during more violent rotations did I need to lean inwards to balance myself and continue playing. Being separated by the tower in the middle, I couldn’t hear anything that Bagus was playing (or even if he was playing at all) and just in front of us was a lively baleganjur marching gamelan, so basically, we could play anything we wanted and it wouldn’t matter. It was the symbolism that was important as well as the fact that gender wayang music is one type of gamelan refined enough to transport the soul to a “good place”, so it is an optional extra to the cremation tower should the family wish to include it. One piece that all gender wayang players are supposed to play when on the tower is called Cangak Merangang, so I made sure I played at least the beginning of that number before the tower came to its final resting place to release the bodies for their final rituals and family viewing before being cremated.

As far as I know, few foreigners have ever had this experience: thank you to Kak Toni and Kak Dajo’s family for this rare and beautiful honour.

By Vaughan Hatch

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