Aum Swastyastu ... Welcome to the Stranger in Paradise

January 2009

Star gender metallaphone player of the Pecatu (Uluwatu) boy band.

Bali's Boy Bands

Well, here we are again, back on the printed page, just in time to confront the tsunami of tackiness sweeping the island.

This column has, since its inception in 1979, been forced off the road of righteousness and recklessness six times now.
This time, my editor says I have to write ‘younger’—’How very dare you’, I told him—so last month I took myself to Kuta for the fire show and almost threw up.
It’s not that the show or the food were that bad—in fact, both were passable—but the drive down Jalan Legian to the Ocean Beach Club venue was like Bladerunner meets Hooters, with all the extras in shorts and carrying beer bottles. The famed fierce Legian Barong that inspired my first 20 years in Bali has been buried under surf shops. Even Ground Zero is unkempt.
I implore you, my new readers, you must get to the real Bali beyond the Kuta-Legian-Seminyak ‘Valley of the Dolls’, or your trip to Bali will have been wasted!
My regular readers should avoid the lower stretches of Jalan Legian, as it may induce the dry tots.

•           •           •

Gusti Ayu Raka
at age 11 in Paris in 1953

Last month also, I found myself on a plane to Jakarta, sitting next to the Regent of South Bali (Badung), A.A. Gde Agung, who is also the Prince of Mengwi and son of the legendary Raja Tikus (Rat King) of Mengwi Palace.
We talked of the recent visit of the President of India to his family temple—the beautiful, moated Pura Taman Ayun in Mengwi—and also of his sending two plane loads (52 high priests plus family) to Central Java in October, to pray at the freshly re-consecrated Javanese temple Candi Ceto; and we talked about the proliferation of boy bands—thirty having sprung up during the last year in Denpasar alone.
‘This is proof of the resilience of the Balinese culture,’ he commented proudly and quite rightly. In the areas of pre-teen temple fashion, tiny-tot ballerinas  prima assoluta, and child protégé classical musicians, Bali is undergoing a cultural renaissance.
‘But you wouldn’t know it, looking at the island’s billboards,’ I replied. ‘You know an island gets the real estate it deserves!’
‘Humbug,’ he said jokingly, or words to that effect.

•           •           •

Two months ago at the Uluwatu temple, on the first morning of the five-day festival—when the God’s arca statues process from Pecatu Village where they ‘live’ to the temple on the cliff, past the Surfboard Dink Repair shops and fields of teak trees—a pre-teen boy band played with much verve and class, in the temple’s inner court! I was astonished!
In Bali, one is used to pre-teen dancers stealing the limelight but this gamelan band sucked the air out of the courtyard, it was so good! The lead drummer was like a print-sized Von Karajan coaxing and cajoling his team of cymbal-crashers to greater heights.

•           •           •

A few weeks later at a temple on the old Kuta-Sanur road, I arrived late after a shocking rainstorm to find that a local boy band had sprung up since the last temple festival and was playing this evening’s accompaniment to prayers and rituals (no mean feat).

Friday, 7 November 2008: Tiny Tots burn up the stage
Tonight my old buddy Yang Pung—Denpasar’s answer to Baryshnikov—is putting on a pre-teen extravaganza for Mlle Yeti, here from Paris to select a troupe to perform at next year’s European Children’s Festival.
The kids are amazing going through their paces, which includes a dramatic marching band (bleganjur) entrance through the audience with a child-size Barong Bangkung of the type found out and about in mountain villages after Kuningan, at the end of the Galungan-Kuningan all saints’ season.

Next came a heavenly welcome dance with pre-teen angels as light and fluttering as butterflies on amphetamines, and then a warrior dance of such power and virtuosity that the gathered tourists—an Australian group of elite capitalists and confirmed bachelors—rose to their feet, hooting.
The finale—Legong dancers the size of Barbie Dolls—had them all weeping in the aisles.

Saturday, 8 November 2008: The Bali bombers executed amidst much hype
The Bali  bombers chose the Sari Club because it symbolized licentious behaviour. Amrozi’s mother said her son did nothing wrong, ‘just blow up a few slags and non-believers’.
Tonight, I drive past a ground zero park (the only strip of Jalan Legian not maintained to within an inch of its life, despite all the donations), past the ornate memorial, past the girly bars with giant roadside screens featuring gyrating lap-dancers in denim hot pants (‘private dancers’ soliciting themselves from dark doorways below). Spliced into the chaotic urban sprawl are giant surf emporia, built on the graves of Legian’s famous Barong it seems.  
Amrozi and friends created a zone of crud when they destroyed the island’s innocence.


Saturday, 29 November 2008: To Sanur Paradiso for a lecture by the design world’s hottest guru
Bali attracts all types, but lately not as many top-drawer artists as it used to (‘The magic dust has turned to rust,’ one pundit commented).
Seventy years ago, Noel Coward quipped that there was ‘far too much creative endeavour’ in Bali. The island today has turned into the world’s longest shopping mall.
Three months ago, world-renowned designer Stefan Sagmeister was lured off the Obama campaign by the draw of Bali, by that self-same ‘creative endeavour’. He moved to Sayan, Ubud, where he is staging a series of art projects and workshops this year.

In this evening’s lecture, he amuses and educates a ballroom of young Indonesian designers and architects. Even Bamboo Queen Linda Garland—who invented so many popular craft items in Bali—is here, fresh from her heroic 15-day battle with colon-cleansing at her celebrity spa (Britney is rumoured to have booked in for Christmas).
Stefan is masterful, his artworks sublime. Art students hurl designer underwear at the stage as he intones his famous mantra: Obsession is good for my creativity, worse for my art!
For true inspiration, visit

Sunday, 30 November 2008: Scandal dust at the old Carole
Famed Pacific Rim anthropologist Carole ‘Nyonya Girang’ Muller once told me, she believes that westerners introduced ‘decadence’ to Bali.
I used to think she was overreacting—the Balinese do a good line in decadence themselves, if one considers all that heavy petting in a temple setting; and all the family fortunes decimated by lavish, over-the-top cremations; and the cavalier attitude the Balinese often bring to the boardroom—but lately I’ve decided that she had a point!

The most alarming incident in recent memory involves some Australian filmmaker (muckraker more like it!) and the reputations of a handful of (now old) Balinese houseboys, who once worked for legendary Australia artist Donald Friend in Batujimbar, Sanur, from 1915 to 1989. Respected documentary producer and director Kerry Negara has decided to satisfy the global audience’s appetite for ‘Strictly Confidential meets Hindoo Holiday’ with a reality TV-style exposé on the sex life of the old Tuan with his houseboys 35 years ago!

(Donald was a dirty bugger, it must be said, but he was also a great man; see, ‘Berata and the Brazier’, published in the Sunday Post, 10 December 2006).
Negara tracked down a few Balinese grandfathers to ask them about pillow-favours distributed to the generous and the widely loved Tuan.
They, the ex-houseboys—now pillars of society—are rumoured to be quite upset about Miz Negara’s indelicate interviewing and the fact that they are named in the book (they never knew!), and about Miz Negara’s film.

For decades the non-judgmental, pliant and fun-loving Balinese have watched us foreigners behave like animals—copulating on the beach in broad daylight, for example, and scarring the cliff sides with ugly architecture, etc., etc.—and have never commented. Now we send some filmmakers into a Balinese village to rattle ancient skeletons about long buried / never-given-a second-thought peccadilloes. It’s obscene.
I suppose she’s trying to convince the well-balanced Balinese individuals that they need ‘closure’, as is the fashion, or ‘a good fuck and $50’, as Donald used to say. Ha! This is not to say that this writer condones Donald’s self-confessed (in his diaries, published by the Australian National Library no less!) forays into sub-teen wanky-poos.
As the Balinese say, ‘Let’s let Baygon be Baygon’, and put a gag order on this sort of exploitative-investigative journalism into someone else’s culture! (And Donald Friend wasn’t exploiting?)

New Bali meets old Bali

Real Bali (Kuta)

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