Bali, some time in the 1700s—it’s evening and shadows flicker in the dim light of oil lamps hanging from the pavilions that enshroud a courtyard dotted with manicured shrubs, statues and caged birds. Most of the royal family have retired for the night, but the palace is still alive with musical fervour.
On the performance pavilion a bare-chested gamelan musician lightly taps out a tune on the kettles of the terompong. Setting the mood for the evening, this seemingly improvised melody gradually evolves into a charming melodic line, finishing on the stroke of the kempur gong. The terompong then starts up once more, joined by a pair of kendang drums and the rest of the instruments join together ceremoniously on one note. The orchestra shimmers, beating in vibrant waves and ringing out like tiny bells. The melody is clear, yet layered by instruments of different pitches and timbres, creating a sound-scape like no other music in the world. Upon hearing this old court music, many say that the sound is ethereal, heavenly, of almost indescribable beauty.
These are the rare sounds of the semara pagulingan, the “gamelan of the love god”. In feudal times, most courts in Bali possessed a semara pagulingan orchestra that served to lull the royal family to sleep, as well as accompany sacred pendet dances in the temples. Today, due to the palaces’ loss of authority, as well as many other complex factors including tourism, globalisation and a generally faster pace of life, the remaining semara pagulingan sets left in Bali can be counted on one hand.
Mekar Bhuana Conservatory in Sanur was established in 2000 with the aim of reviving, preserving and conserving these rich and wonderful, yet undervalued art-forms. They work closely with senior guru from the villages, as well as professional musicians and dancers, to reconstruct, revitalise and re-popularise a near-extinct tradition. In Balinese, Mekar means ‘to blossom’ and Bhuana means ‘the world’. Their founders’ vision is these old art-forms will one day blossom again not only in Bali, but also around the world.
At the moment, Mekar Bhuana’s focus is on mediaeval court music and dance, and their groups learn compositions from guru, or old recordings that are often sourced overseas. The musicians then play the music on the antique orchestras at the conservatory. Their concept of faithful preservation is analogous to creating a living museum—like playing Mozart on baroque instruments.
This year Mekar Bhuana has been invited to bring their complete semara pagulingan, played by 26 musicians, to perform at the Esplanade in Singapore as part of an international festival called Shanti – a Tapestry of Sacred Music. It’s not every day that an old semara pagulingan has the opportunity to perform overseas and present this seriously classical music to an international audience. In fact, this is the first time several different court art-forms will be performed outside of Bali by one group.
The troupe will present court repertoire, and also some pelegongan and angklung pieces from a number of different villages in Bali. This will be in the strictest classical style, with no modern innovations, based on more than a decade of research by ethnomusicologist Vaughan Hatch in villages across Bali.
Mekar Bhuana will not only be ambassadors for traditional Balinese music, but also for Balinese and Indonesian tourism in general. At the Esplanade, a huge international events centre, they will present five non-ticketed performances at the open-air stage over nights of May 2nd and 3rd.
Anyone interested in supporting Mekar Bhuana by becoming a sponsor, or even a permanent patron, can contact their founder and director Putu Evie Suyadnyani on firstname.lastname@example.org or (0361) 464201 / 081999191104. The conservatory and its members greatly appreciate your support and generosity.