Ubud, Truly the World’s Melting Pot

By Mark Ulyseas
For The Bali Times

The rains have come and are like a soothing balm freshening the verdant countryside, while the blossoming Gul Mohur trees have added a touch of vermilion with their flowers (called the Flame of the Forest) cascading across pathways and adding a festive color to the sometimes-gray mornings.

The last days of 07 saw Ubud play host to a new generation of Indonesian divas that mesmerized the audiences with their passionate rendition of songs – from James Brown and Aretha Franklin to spiritual Balinese folk songs.

I walked into a restaurant-cum-gallery to witness a truly inspiring performance by Elizabeth Ruing – shades of Tina Turner, Aretha Franklin and Eva Cassidy.

Liz, as she is affectionately called, was born in Flores “about” 33 years ago to a family of musicians (four brothers and two sisters) who play various instruments, including the traditional guitar called the Gambus for important religious ceremonies. As a catholic, she joined the local choir and soon became the lead gospel singer for all church functions.

Her claim to fame was being the headliner for Kimzera, an international band with whom she toured from 2000 to 2005 that took her to Singapore, Dubai, China, Muscat, Oman, Diego Garcia and Jakarta. She left the band after five years because she says she was paid less than the other members.

“I want to explore what I feel about life through my singing. I want my music to bring people together. Music can change everything,” says Liz.

“God has given me a voice so that I can help people. I have adopted five children in Flores and every month I send money from my earnings for these children. I am waiting for a sign from God to tell me when I should record my own music.

“I feel 2008 is going to be a lucky year for me. And I love performing in Ubud. The people here are cultured and educated – the bules (foreigners) as well as the Balinese,” she said.

A few days later I returned to the same place only to encounter another diva – I Gusti Ayu Laksmiyani (better known as Ayu Laksmi), a pretty Balinese girl dressed in the island’s famous white lace garments. The well-known group that she was performing with that day was Tropical Transit. After singing a soul-stirring version of Tina Turner’s What’s Love Got to Do with It, Ayu sat with me for a hot lemon tea and a quick chat before going back on stage.

“I’ve been working off and on with Tropical Transit since 1995. I got married a year ago to Stephen, who’s from Belgium. I sing, compose and produce songs. My first song was included in a compilation album, Nyanyian Dharma. The title of my song is Tri Kaya Parisudha, which means thinking good, saying good, doing good,” she said.

Ayu is from Singaraja in north Bali. Her father is an English teacher, her mother a dentist. “My parents have instilled in me a love for music, arts and crafts. Probably that’s why I feel I should now give up singing Western songs to compose, sing and produce spiritual songs in English and Kawi (old Javanese),” she said.

Ayu has sung in Brisbane and Perth at concerts organized by Indonesian expats as part of Indonesia’s Independence Day celebrations in Australia. She has also toured with Tropical Transit aboard a cruise ship, for three months, on the Mexico-Panama-Costa Rica-Honduras circuit.

“Ubud has a special aura,” she says. “The vibrations I feel here whenever I come to sing in the hills is like electricity. My life batteries are recharged in Ubud. That’s why I keep returning to perform at different places. As a Balinese, I feel that Ubud must maintain its distinct identity and not become like Seminyak. My New Year’s message is from my spiritual song – as long as we think good, say good and do good, we will always have peace in Bali.”

Do we have friends brought over from preceding years and carried forward to 2008 like liabilities and assets on a balance sheet?

Arriving in Ubud nearly a year ago, I made friends with a John Hurt look-alike – Graham Coward. Regretfully he’s not a relative of Noel but is someone who shuttles between Ubud, Ibiza and his hometown Chester in the UK. Many moons ago, Graham worked for British Airways as a purser in first class. He set up home in a cave on a beach in Mojim, Goa, from 1975 to 1995. The cave was like a rock alcove, he says, so part of the area that was exposed to the elements was covered with bamboo with a palm tree placed in the centre. The cave was furnished with a four-poster bed, rattan chairs, fridge, fans and a dining table and chairs. He lived there while holding down his job as purser and running a lucrative fleet of Royal Enfield motorbikes that were used to ferry tourists along the western coast of India down to Kerala. His cave home had been photographed and featured in a number of books on interiors, including a coffee table book – Interiors of India – written by Sunil Sethi with photography by Deidi Von Shaffin.

So what brings him to Ubud so often, I wondered.

“As I have retired, I want to travel and stay in places that have a certain placidness that maintains a harmonious flow of life without the grating sounds and ugly sights of urbanization and concrete jungles,” came the answer.

“I go to Ibiza as it’s very close to England. But I find the people there to be a bit snobbish, though there are many artists and writers floating around. That’s why I come more often to Ubud, because the wining and dining is unsurpassable for a village of this size in Asia. The freshness, quality and presentation of the local cuisine is fantastic. Added to this are the rather reasonable rents for first-class living quarters. What more can I ask for?

“Yes, I know there is a danger that too many people will get the same idea. However, I am confident that the Balinese will control the flow of people and development,” he said.

Graham and I have often shared a rack of spare ribs and drank those wicked martinis like they were going out of fashion at my favorite watering hole. I must thank Diana Darling, author of the Painted Alphabet and long-time resident of Ubud, for introducing me to this fine art of decadence.

On the penultimate day of the year gone by, I dropped in to my watering hole for a “quicky drinky” (in the words of Graham) and perchance met Diana and some of her friends from Singapore – Michael, a geographer; Tim, editor-in-chief of Editions Didier Millet, an Asian publisher; and Henry, a classical musician. Diana told me she’s writing a book for Tim’s publishing house called A Miscellany of Bali.

Our discussion on the clash of clichés in Bali was abruptly interrupted by a phone call from Chris Gentry of Asia Works, who insisted that I should see he new wine cellar at his house in Syan. As I entered his home, I was accosted by him and dragged off to meet Patrick and Frederique, who had flown in from Thailand to spend New Year’s in Ubud.

Patrick, a Harvard graduate, is a suave gentleman who has perfected the art of unabrasive communication. I suppose that’s why he was a successful lobbyist and is now, in retirement, a facilitator of large business transactions. He told me that he’s an old buddy and neighbor of the Clintons back home in Arkansas, and spoke passionately about the next presidential election. They clearly favor Hilary. Patrick’s wife Frederique, who is known as the queen of spas, has been doing business in Hong Kong, Thailand, Bali, Moscow and some Indian cities.

I asked this jet-setting couple why Ubud was special to them.

“We are fellow travellers and fellow humans. We ask those of you who love Bali to preserve your culture, your artistry, your beautiful Ubud and to share this with those of us who love your people and your unique lifestyle,” Patrick said.

Whether it’s divas, culinary delights, sinful martinis, the unique lifestyle or the intrepid travellers of many nationalities, Ubud will always remain the world’s melting pot, the bastion of Balinese culture mingling with Western sensibilities that intoxicates all who sip the nectar of the hills.

May the New Year bring more joy, happiness, peace and prosperity to Ubudians and visitors to Bali.

Om Shanti Shanti Shanti Om

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