The Shangri-La of Stridency

By Vyt Karazija

Much of the marketing guff written about Bali involves trigger words that conjure up visions of ultimate relaxation in a tropical paradise. Who would not respond to the promise of visiting such a jewel among tropical islands? Who in this frenetic world would not succumb to the lure of a quiet, harmonious, peaceful, serene, undisturbed and tranquil sanctuary?

It’s a beautiful myth, seductive and pervasive, but at least in south Bali, an impossible and foolish fantasy. Unless you are one of the fortunate few who can stay in a secluded villa, or one of the hardy souls prepared to travel to the calmer north and north-eastern parts of the island, your senses will be assaulted by a constant cacophony of noise.

Noise, being unwanted sound, is of course a relative term. The typical Bali pub band, consisting of nine parts enthusiasm and one-part talent, may well provide an appropriately atmospheric background for joyfully raucous drunks. These denizens, intent on singing along in keys that bear no resemblance to those employed by most of the musicians, naturally don’t regard the resulting brain-twisting dissonances as noise. Neither do the musos themselves, each of whom seems to believe that playing louder than anyone else in the band is the path to fame, recognition and presumably riches. That’s like having a pack of four alpha dogs.

I talked to a few bands and their crews to ask why they played at such a high level, allowing their sound to smear and coalesce into a turgid aural glue. Their response, delivered as if to an imbecile, was that “There is no bass, and no treble” at low levels. Well, that’s true if you don’t know what you are doing. But I so long for a good band that can play at a lower volume and has the smarts to EQ their sound to obtain rich, satisfying bass and a crystal clear high-end. Ah, guys – ever hear of Fletcher-Munson curves? Or Robinson and Dadson? Or even a mixer? Oh, well.

So for me, it’s noise – a painful sonic pandemonium that shuts my only barely functioning ear down, so that conversation is impossible, my balance becomes marginal and the result is days of screaming tinnitus and blurry hearing. For those not similarly afflicted with Meniere’s Syndrome, I’m sure that the noisy blare of the pub and club scene is the epitome of fun. And I guess it will continue to be fun, at least until noise-induced hearing loss steals away the dubious pleasures of high-decibel environments for them, too.

A recent, and worrisome, trend is that formerly peaceful venues are now providing “atmosphere” by playing loud music. Warungs, coffee shops, small restaurants and shops, previously oases of relative quiet, have switched from an occasional gamelan track to the cloying clamour of 80s pop. Whether this is intended to drown out the incessant din of motorbikes, honking horns and the chainsaw-like blare of Bali’s surviving 2-stroke mopeds, or to cause rapid table turnover is debatable. But lingering sojourns over a relaxing coffee or cool drink in these places is fast becoming a fading memory. Especially when some loon with a mosquito fogger – arguably the loudest and most intrusive contrivance ever invented – suddenly leaps into view and envelops you in a toxic cloud of fumes. Presumably this is a Balinese experiment to discover whether the carcinogenic hydrocarbon fog, traumatically ruptured eardrums, or Dengue fever will kill you the fastest.

This tropical tumult doesn’t just consist of amplified and mechanical bedlam, of course. Even in remote Bali villages, there are hundreds of hysterically barking dogs, rowdy insomniac roosters, chattering cicak geckoes, incredibly loud tokay lizards, cicadas and frogs to disturb your peace. On top of all that, there are the gamelan orchestras, Bali Djembe drums, excitable infants and fireworks at any time of day or night. If you’re near the beach, the counterpoint to all this jangling racket is the crash and bellow of the surf merging with the roar of departing planes.

But through this complex warp of sonic threads is a weft that, for me, defines the sound of Bali – the unique vocal timbre of its women. Not, I hasten to add, in normal conversation, where for the most part their voices are gentle and mellifluous, even bordering on shy. No, I’m talking about the times they need to talk to friends through the uproar of a crowded marketplace, restaurant or beach.

That’s when their pitch rises and their delivery becomes rapid-fire and staccato, reminiscent of a Gatling gun on steroids. No doubt that is a local adaptation to allow communication through potentially masking noises. But the net result is a projective capability that would put a stage actor to shame, cutting through the underlying hubbub far better than an ambulance siren. These are truly awesome, weapons-grade voices. Standing in the direct path of these verbal fire-hoses is guaranteed to instantly coagulate your eyeballs and melt your liver. Hati-hati – you have been warned.

One of the reasons I originally came to Bali was, yes, you guessed it – the lure of a quiet, harmonious, peaceful, serene paradise and the hope that my shabby hearing might improve. Well, it hasn’t. After two years, I’ve stopped wondering why.

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