Scared of the Sacred – Musical and Ritual Extinction Looms

Over the past month, Mekar Bhuana Centre and the BPNB (Bali Pelestarian Nilai Budaya) have been working on a documentary film about an extremely endangered gamelan tradition in Selat Village, Karangasem. It is an iron keyed gamelan called selonding that is perhaps more than 800 years old. The instruments are not “vulgarly” referred to simply as ‘selonding’ (also written and pronounced ‘salunding’ and ‘selunding’) but with a title “Betare Selonding” which means “God of Selonding”.

Betare Selonding’s presence and music is core to all rituals in Selat Village – without it, the rituals cannot take place, but there is a problem: there is only one person left who knows how to play this orchestra that should in fact be played by up to 10 people. His name is Jro Mangku Suji “Selonding” and he is the last in a line of musicians from a hereditary line who are permitted to play these ultra sacred instruments. This is an unwritten rule and so far the village has always abided by it. However, they are currently in a generational crisis. This is one of the reasons why I identified this tradition for the government to fund this mini-documentary.

Even though only his family is permitted to learn, almost all members are too afraid to because once you do you can’t go back: they believe that it is proven that this can cause sickness, economic problems and even death.

Another problem is that the village currently does not have a duplicate orchestra: a secular set that anyone could learn on. This would mean that even if other people from outside of Jro Mangku Suji’s family learned then they could still be a source of future musical knowledge and know-how. Even though they would still probably not be permitted or take the spiritual risk of playing the ancient, holy instruments, their presence would be integrally valuable to regeneration efforts.

The final aim of our documentary is to appeal to researchers and archives overseas (to our knowledge, in Switzerland and Japan) who have recorded and filmed the set decades back when there were more players. This documentation would greatly assist to inspire other    family members because they would eventually know what the orchestra sounds like in its entirety (it is currently dismantled due to decades of disuse and most of the wooden casings have been destroyed by termites). In my opinion, this archival material must be repatriated and the hereditary line of musicians in this village has a right to receive it in its entirety.  The film will be launched at the beginning of November – look out for it!

By Vaughan Hatch

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