Reviewed by Shushrut Devadiga, Batch of 2025, Kirit P. Mehta School of Law
Hidden amongst the binaries of codes that constitute music on Spotify, hides a gem of ancient traditions endemic to the tourist hotspot of Bali. This performance, which sounds foreign to the ears and yet so pleasing, retells a myth as old as the human civilization from a land thousands of kilometers away from these tropical isles. This is Kecak, a form of Balinese Hindu Performance retreading the Ramayana.
I first encountered Kecak on a random monsoon day, when my eyes’ attention was caught by a peculiar YouTube Recommendation. It was a clip from the monumental American documentary, Baraka, depicting a large group of men sitting in large, concentric groups of circles dancing and chanting in complete unison, an impressive display of human ingenuity. I was both puzzled and intrigued by those ominous chants which were drilled into my head, replaying it obsessively during different activities. The continuous search for this elusive music led me to scores of YouTube links of commercialized performances tailored to the needs of aloof tourists attending for their superficial interests in this primordial culture.
This led to my discovery of this album on Spotify, simply titled “Kecak from Bali”. I was quite intrigued by the presence of such an obscure miscellany of indigenous music that would only have a tiny niche audience, but thankfully it was present. A combination of binary codes preserving this lore, unblemished from the need to make it suitable for the western market.
A Kecak performance is led by a chorus of men, representing the Varna Army who fought in the Ramayana, continuously intoning “Cak!” or “Keh-Chak” in polyrhythmic sound, producing a dramatic wall of sound narration against which the play is performed. It’s led by a soloist who effortlessly conducts this concentric mass of humanity, directing the different notes of this complex recital along.
The Soloist also narrates the play, combining the beautiful strains of his melodious recital with the rhythmic cacophony of these symbolic monkeys. Another layer of complexity is added by the sonorous oration of actors incarnated as the figures of the Ramayana, each adding a unique blend to the music. This shortened version of the Hindu epic is divided into different scenes, something that the album skillfully includes by segregating each scene as different songs of this collection. Each of these songs is accompanied by the pulsing cries of the chorus but is differentiated by the unique narrative beats and individual actor’s performances.
A pertinent question you may have is that why am I absolutely obsessed with arguably distant music from a far-flung land. I have a deep love of learning about different cultures and a somewhat uncanny obsession with traditions from around the world, often directing me to different forms of plays, dances and music. However, this particular piece of music has been stuffed in my head for its singularly unique effect on my mind. Watching this piece of Balinese art for the first time on YouTube provided me with an untypically tantric peace, something I have rarely achieved. This album encapsulates everything that I love about the Kecak, that unique blend of uniform chants gracefully assimilating with the dulcet inflexions of the narrative. Though I don’t think this is everyone’s cup of tea, I do believe that you should give this unique album a try.