The Sounds of Life… or Just Noise

I remember the first time I heard the sound of a bomb not long after I arrived in Ubud; then, what sounded like a series of explosions. Booms and crackles were followed by reverberations that would unseat me for days to come. In the absence of shrieks and cries from the Balinese family downstairs, in whose compound I was living, it took me a few minutes to understand that these explosions were not life-threatening, and that there was no reason for me to run for the hills (or the beach).

Soon enough I learned that those ear-splitting sounds were emitted by fire crackers – which, if not a daily occurrence, were nothing more than a fact of life on this island. It took me little time to realize that I would have to become accustomed to those kinds of outbursts – and others like it – if I wanted to stay in Bali for awhile. For a tropical isle called by many ‘paradise,’ it soon became clear that silence was more elusive than I’d expected.

Still today, I revert to memories of that night of the fire crackers. When New Year’s Eve rolls around, or during the bi-annual holidays of Galungan and Kuningan, children and young adults will set off a noisy ruckus in their compounds, fields and roads. I’m less likely to cringe these days, but the suddenness with which fire rockets are launched nearby still rankles me…for a moment.

Without warning, the eardrum-shattering noise begins and often lasts for hours at a time. Neither the village chiefs, banjar (hamlet) leaders nor the pecalang (villagers responsible for security) are perturbed. Foreigners are not advised of such upcoming disturbances – mainly because the Balinese do not find them bothersome. They are either used to noise, or simply do not make a fuss about it.

Consider the various sounds that characterize daily life around Bali. From daybreak until sunset – and beyond – we are immersed in a colorful world of sound. Even in the middle of Ubud, we are as likely to awaken to the crowing of a rooster as if we were living in the more remote parts of the island. Cars rev their engines and motorbikes rumble down roads with a roar at once distinctly recognizable and irksome. Even earbuds don’t block out the start up sounds of a souped-up motor.

If you go to the morning market, especially before dawn, you’ll find vendors competing for attention with chickens cackling from pick-up trucks nearby. Then there is the incessant growling of Bali street dogs, the singing of caged birds, children banging on pots and trucks rumbling by within inches of passersby.

Consider the clinking sounds that a bakso vendor makes on the edge of a glass, inviting those within earshot to take a break and enjoy a bowl of hot soup. Or the solitary man in sarong and udeng, who wanders the streets and hills of Ubud (and beyond), in search of hungry stomachs, calling out Lumpi-yaaaaaaang! His trademark singsong is well-known by the locals and loved by the children, who often mimic his cry and follow his steps as if he were the Pied Piper of Ubud.

Consider also the myriad sounds that comprise a typical Odalan (temple festival): The priests recite mantras, chant and ring their bells; people in ceremonial garb walk about, talking, placing offerings; a gamelan orchestra strikes up a tune just as a Barong performance gets underway.

What about those roving bands of young boys – led by the pair up front hidden under the dancing Barong lion – meandering the streets of Ubud. Have you ever heard so much dissonance; drumming and cymbals clanging all at once… what a rowdy display of creative expression!

And the night before Nyepi, when Ogoh-Ogoh monsters are paraded along the streets; isn’t that spectacle a perfect example of Bali’s colorful pandemonium?

To the first-time attendee, this cacophony might appear disorganized, disturbing (the peace) and deafening. But to the Balinese, these sounds are all reminders of the many layers (seen and unseen) that are brought together to appease the evil spirits, entertain the ancestors and those present, and to show gratitude to the deities that protect and guard their families, temples and home.

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