The most beautiful chorus in Bali is the post-dawn revellé of the birds —that soft tsunami of sound that crescendos for about ten minutes before fading into the dull rumble of morning peak hour traffic.
At night one can lie in bed listening to the twang of the giant kite strings, the knocking of wooden cow bells or the stampede of frogs and cicadas, before the thump-thump-thump disco beat of the girlie bars kicks in at around 11 p.m.
There are amplified sounds too: in Java there is the excessively loud call to prayer; in Bali there’s the reading of the holy Hindu manuscripts that accompanying temple festivals and such, all via kampong-blasters.
“Middle class Indian can’t sleep,” I was once told by an Indian hotelier friend, “without the rattle of a faulty air conditioner”.
“And these are the people who invented meditation?” I asked, by way of a reply.
One must remember that most Asians are immune to noise pollution; noise is a nuisance to the westerner but a comfort to many Asians.
In Bali no doctor’s waiting room, airport departure lounge or night bus is free from the trashy soundtracks of Indonesian soap operas or the bang and boom ofKung-fu movies.
For the Balinese the clashing cymbals and beating of gamelan metalophones at temple festivals induce a trance-like state of calm; for westerners the equivalent over dinner at a hotel dance performance can be as relaxing as a dentist’s drill.
Living in Bali in open pavilions one eventually becomes used to background noise: dogs fighting, the roar of passing motor bikes, chainsaws felling coconuts,and the thunder of heavy monsoon rain.
Being woken by a passing procession at 6 a.m. during MELASTI season, when every village takes its gods to the sea, is one of the quintessential Bali experiences, such as being awakened by the blood-curdling shrieks of a sacrificial pig being chased around the compound, pre-dawn, on Galungan Eve.
The Balinese are naturally loud, compared to most other Indonesians; they talk loud, dress loud (flashy) and often think and read out loud. But loud is not the new tranquil: silence is still golden and even has its own holiday, Nyepi.
Then, why all this commotion?
Is it progress?
Buildings done by machines and not by hands?
The lack of adoration of the muffler?
Maximum treble maximum pleasure?
Some trendy West Coast beach hotels and clubs now blast tunes down the beach — one can’t hear oneself sun-baking!
Should son et lumier shows towards the beach be banned or regarded as offerings to Ratu Baruna, God of the Oceans?
Balinese are all musicians, one way or another, having spent their formative years in temples and banjar halls surrounded by sound. As teenagers they get exposed to the classy western music played in the cafés and night clubs of Legian – Seminyak. It’s only in their adult years that the cheesy, vaguely Dutch-pensioner music — championed by Garuda Airlines for example —becomes synonymous with success.
I suspect that the supreme commanders at the helm of Garuda Airlines recently commissioned Liberace's arranger and the Berlin Philharmonic to produce a recording of popular Indonesian tunes that sounds like the overture to “Prince Diponogoro’s last stand — the Musical”.
It is truly heroic of the national carrier to go to all this trouble but the problem with swelling overtures is: they are designed to be listened to once, to get one all expectant-like. Listened to end on end, hour after hour, gets one overly pepped up.
One’s nerves would perhaps prefer some lighter fare, such as the Dharma Wanita angklung favorites that used to be piped into business class lounges and airplane fuselages across the country with soothing effect.
Music-wise, Bali is as rich as any culture in the world. The natural sounds are many and varied too: the sound of the wind in the coconuts, waves crashing on the shores, and the sporadic rumbling of volcanoes. All these sounds contribute to the general gorgeousness.
The big choice facing the Balinese as they face urbanization is which way to go with noise? Fight it, as they are trying to do in India (Honk three times if you’re Hindu) or follow the Iranian example and worship the sound of silence.