Many years ago, when I lived in Yellowknife, I attended a screening of a film that would go on to affect me in ways I’m still coming to grips with.*
One scene in particular has remained with me; it’s a dance, and a chorale of sorts, a performance called the Kecak. It was set in Bali (I didn’t know that at the time), but wherever it was, I wanted to go there some day. If you’ve seen this movie, then you know just by my scant description exactly what I’m talking about. It’s a haunting sequence of chanting and choral response, a hundred men in a rhythmic, dream-like state of trance. It seems ancient, tribal, organic.
And now, after having experienced a few of these performances in Bali and Java, it has me questioning my ideas of authenticity of culture, and what it means to be a traveller of this world.
This dance that feels so ancient and important, isn’t, it turns out, so ancient after all. It was created by a German anthropologist by the name of Walter Spies, in the 1930s. It certainly has elements of history and connections to culture (the Kecak is often paired with an abridged version of the Ramayana, which is one of the truly ancient Hindu epics), but it was created in a fit of imperialist, cultural meddling.
Well intentioned meddling, mind you – as a tourist attraction, to help create an industry for Bali – but meddling still, in a sense.
It gives pause, and reason, to consider the nature of what an authenticity culture really is.
We attended several performances of the Kecak (and the Ramayana, for that matter), all presented and performed by professional actors, who are paid (what amounts to) a great wage (for the region) to do a job. Is that authentic? Now, I’m no anthropologist, but this sounds kind of phony to me. Don’t it?
In that ongoing battle between the ethos of the traveller and tourist, the latter would say “nope”. The tourist would likely say “hells, yeah! That was fun!”.
I guess I’m a tourist, then.
I mean, what were you expecting? A bunch of locals coming out of their huts to spontaneously perform for you, like some Adam Sandler movie? (You know which one I’m talking about.)
The fact is, these are highly trained, professional performers. Think of western ballet or opera, or symphony. How is this any less authentic than other forms of cultural entertainment we consume?
It’s not. And it took a trip to Uluwatu to experience my first Kecak performance to get me thinking about these big issues. I’m still thinking about them today.
A year ago today, we were in Uluwatu, consumed by the beauty of this performance.
* The movie I’m talking about is, of course (if you haven’t guessed it) Baraka. Here’s a link to the sequence I referred to above.
We have so far travelled…
- 14 094 km Air (674km YYC-YVR, 9610km YVR-TPE, 3820km TPE-DPS)
- 69.6 km driving
- 22.5 km walking
This is a 163 part Blog series, chronicling my family’s Le Grand Voyage II – a six month, round the world trip through Indonesia, Malaysia, Japan, Hong Kong, Jordan, Cyprus, and Greece. It’s a 163 part reflection on the trip, highlighting some touristy and distinctly no-touristy photography (just a sampling of the 20 000 photos I snapped on three cameras) and the stories behind them.
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