By Mark Ulyseas
For The Bali Times
To my son Kabir Andrew and all the young people who will inherit the earth, listen to the music. From it you will learn that there is only one world, one people and one song.Â
So you think you can tell heaven from hell
Blue skies from pain, can you tell a green field
From the cold steel rail, a smile from a vamp
Do you think you can tell, did they get you to trade
Your heroes for ghosts, hot ashes for trees
Hot air for the cool breeze
– Pink Floyd, Wish You Were Here
Music has been the ember that keeps us warm through the days when ennui treads on our spirits. Lyrics and rhythmic beats rejuvenate and enhance our sensory perceptions of the here and now and give us hope and belief in the future that things will always work out for the better.
Traversing this emerald isle looking for the Elusive, I have encountered musicians in various stages of voice, technique and raw power. Sometimes the performances have been riveting, other times pathetic and an assault on the senses. Invariably at the end of the night, when the bars empty with the dregs of humanity, what remains is the echo of voices lost in the wilderness. A beautiful people struggling to be heard above the cacophony of the gaggle of geese that congregate at the digs to sip from the never-ending goblet of earthly pleasures.
On my numerous forays into the great unknown, through the labyrinth of neon-lit winding roads past Lucy in the sky with diamonds after a hard dayâ€™s night, I have come across minstrels of the dawn playing their songs to a menagerie of people from around the world who have gathered in search of the spirit that keeps this island alive, vibrant and living. The song remains the same. The lilt, the tilt and the incongruous all making for a perfect picture of all that was, is and will be in Bali â€“ a lust for the luscious life. From the wondrous, captivating and haunting religious music to the fervor of the reggae beat â€“ all making up the jigsaw puzzle of a land that is the refuge of many a weary traveller.
Walking distance from the dolphin monument on Lovina Beach is a small shack with a shingle outside that reads Kantin. It resembles a relic of a 70s bar shack on Calungute beach in Goa, India. On one side is a small stage where a band plays every night from 10pm onwards. The bar on the other side is festooned with colorful fairy lights and is manned by hostesses with a come-hither look. Often the opening song is Lovina â€“ an Indonesian reggae song that means Love Indonesia.
Sometime ago, on one of my weekend jaunts with a friend, I spent an evening listening to the music, drinking enough arak to torch the town and dancing in the street to the amusement of the odd assortment of tourists, policemen and Balinese. It was on this night that I met Agung, the lead singer with a rasping voice and a dream to play in Vegas. His scraggy beard, earnest face and deft fingers dancing across the fret board endeared him to the motley crowd.
When the customers left and the only sound that could be heard was the barking of street dogs, Agung spoke to me of his dream to record an album of his songs and to participate in the Indonesian Idol contest. I didnâ€™t have the heart to tell him that at age 35 he had little chance. He mentioned his pregnant wife and the impending delivery of a creature of love and asked me to suggest a name for the baby. I replied that if it was a girl he should call her Laxmi (after the goddess of wealth) and Krishna if it was a boy. Looking at his perspiring face in the glow of the streetlight, I sensed a hope that belied all sensibilities.
Agung talked about the wild dolphins and how they gave him inspiration and strength. And then went on to add that Lord Ganeshaâ€™s avatar in the sea is the dolphin. We sat through the night talking about the surrounding vineyards and grapes and wine and women and song till the sun rose over the hills to awaken us to the dream we lived everyday. We went our ways as the sunrays crept up the street and cloaked the place in an effervescent light – Agung to his beautiful wife and me to the wasteland of memories brought on by the soulful tunes serenading my soul.
Later that day, while driving along the coast to Amed, all that one could hear was Agungâ€™s rasping voice and intermittent cough through the purple haze of Hendricks. It was a voice destined to remain misplaced somewhere in a dreamscape. Or so I thought.
Many months after my first encounter in Lovina, I returned one night to savor the music of Uriah Heep, Steppenwolf and The Doors presented by Agung and his small band. The evening veered from Indonesian reggae, pop, rap and the ridiculous to the sublime taunts of Lay Lady Lay and Roadhouse Blues. The beer, arak and the young crowd all came together in perfect harmony. The night wore on with gyrating bodies in sweat-drenched clothes, pulsating fairy lights against the backdrop of a Full Moon, with Agung spasmodic on his guitar. The revelry was briefly interrupted by the screech of tires as a passing car ran over a street dog. The thumping of feet on the makeshift dance floor drowned out the frenzied wailing of the mortally injured creature. Some kind soul took a stone to its head, and the wailing stopped.
In the early hours of the following day, the music had died down and all that one could hear where sullen voices whispering sweet nothings. Agung came up to me and announced with a big smile that he was a father and quickly added that the name of his son was Krishna. I congratulated him and asked about his future plans. He told me he was going to cultivate grapes and make wine, as there was much money to be made in this business. Agung was now a father and with it came a change in his dreams. The newborn baby had become his reality and he was content to remain where he worked. His borrowed life of music had now become his own in fatherhood. We sat a while in silence sipping our Bintangs and watching the dead dog on the road, which by now had been flattened by passing vehicles. According to Agung, the Balinese believe that dogs are ancestors who have returned in the form of dogs as punishment for misdeeds committed in their past lives.
Suddenly without a word, Agung strode to his bike, sat on it and drove away with a cigarette dangling from his mouth.
I decided to call it a night and began walking to the dolphin monument on the beach. The sun rose from behind the hills like it always did, lighting the sea and the charcoal waters, setting the stage for the boats carrying tourists to race out to witness the dance of the dolphins.
Too tired to walk back to the hotel, I lay on the black sand beach and gazed at the morning sky as the soundtrack of Midnight Express played its self out in my head.
Very often I find myself humming a tune that I had probably forgotten for many years. The mind recalls the happiness and trauma and replays it to remind me of who I am and where I come from. When you hear the music, stop and listen; itâ€™s your soul telling you where you have been and where youâ€™re at. It will always be true to you.
The lyrics of songs ensnare our memories but release them whenever we least expect. The rhythm in music keeps us in tune with the universe. In the end, when the lights are switched off and the hum of speakers dies out, music will continue to play in our hearts and minds, rejuvenating the passion for living.Â
Who knows, it may eventually become the one common denominator for peace when all else fails in a world gone mad with hatred.
Om Shanti Shanti Shanti Om