A Musical Legend in the Making

Not too long ago, while driving past Opera Warung in Ubud, I overhead music that was contagious and provoking. Hence, I dropped in, ordered a whisky sour and sat down to see and hear a truly gifted Balinese musician, I Wayan Balawan, in a melodic frenzy with fingers racing across the fret boards of two guitars.

“I compose and play music not for audiences but for my God,” Balawan said when he had finished playing.

Balawan is from Batuan village, about 10 kilometers south of Ubud. His brother owns the Opera Warung, where he performs weekly to an ever-growing number of expats, people from Jakarta and locals.

For the last 25 years, Balawan has been perfecting his art of playing two guitars (electric and keyboard) at the same time, backed by a drummer, bassist, rhythm guitarist and gamelan. He has been attempting to bridge the gap between Western music and the gamelan.

At age 11 he performed for the first time, in Denpasar, to an appreciative audience. A self-taught musician, he believes that the root of all music stems from religious encounters with the Almighty that sows the seeds of enlightenment for the artist through the music that is being played.

Musicians who have influenced Balawan’s style are John McLaughlin, Paco de Lucia and Charlie Parker. They infused in him a sense of being in touch with a spiritual force that magnified his perception of a bridge that exists in the music of Eastern and Western cultures. From there he began experimenting with his own compositions and came up with recordings – Balawan Globalism, Balawan Solo and the latest album, Balawan Magic Fingers.

He has toured cities in Australia, Germany, Holland, Norway, Belgium, Japan and Canada, playing his own compositions punctuated by the gamelan.

Balawan’s band, Batuan Ethnic Fusion, was formed in mid-1997 with the purpose of exploring existing elements in ethnic Balinese music by using a combination of Western and traditional instruments (gamelan) and to preserve for posterity traditional Balinese songs.

“Walking through the paddy field

While catching some fish

So you can eat it with rice

It’s a simple life for the Balinese” is a stanza from one of his compositions.

“I am a Balinese Hindu. Life is hard enough, so why will I leave my religion? It’s my life, my culture. If I wasn’t a Hindu, who will carry my body to the city?” said Balawan, adding, “I want to tell people not to sell their land and to keep the ricefields. For if the ricefields are sold off, Balinese culture and what it stands for will also slowly disappear. We have to be careful. The only way to preserve Bali is to educate the people. For without education there can be no enlightenment.”

Come to Ubud and listen to Balawan’s music, and when you do, you will believe what some have been saying – that Ubud is the cultural capital of Indonesia. (MU/BT)

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