The first time I attended a Balinese Kecak Dance was in 1979. We travelled through darkness in a bemo, a basic van with side seats in the back, to a village some distance from Ubud. We passed through dense jungle and small lamp lit villages along the way: at that time, electric lighting was limited, intermittent and unreliable in Bali. Darkness held more mystery then and the Kecak fire dance, always held at night, was more exotic and entrancing. That performance was raw and primitive, leaving an impression of sound, fire, and primordial noise. We sat in a dusty circle around the men and I recall the black and white checked sarongs, the glowing honey coloured skin of the men, and the loud repetitive harsh chanting, as well as the central role played by Hanuman, the monkey.
Recently, almost 40 years later, we attended another Kecak dance at Uluwatu temple on sunset. The fabulous setting added drama to the story. The amphitheatre and stage, a large arena bordered by Balinese carved entrances and dense Bougainvillea, sits on the edge of the Bukit Peninsula, alongside the sacred temple of Uluwatu. The audience wear ceremonial purple sarongs or orange sashes in keeping with the dress requirements of this sacred park. Just after sunset, the show begins.
The Kecak dance and drama, ( pronounced kechuck ) was developed in the 1930s. While relatively new, it draws on the ancient traditions and legends of the Ramayana. Since its creation, it has been performed primarily by men. Also known as the Ramayana Monkey Chant, the piece is performed by a circle of between 75 and 150 men chanting “cak cak” and other rhythmic and forest noises while moving their hands and arms. There is no accompanying music. One could compare the sound to beatboxing. In the drama, the loyal monkey, Hanuman, helps Prince Rama fight the evil King Ravana. Other Ramayana characters include Sita, Garuda, Holy Man, Twalen, Laksmana, Trijata and servants.
In the modern version, Hanoman steals the show. His initial monkey-like scratching eventually brings roars of laughter when he resorts to scratching his crutch. After Hanoman escapes the ring of fire and the story comes to a close, he reappears as a naughty but loveable dramatic character, an acrobatic comedian who taunts and teases the audience. At one point, an intrusive camera waving tourist gets in his way. Hanoman grabs him, turns him around and attempts to pull his shorts down. The crowd laps it up. Then Hanoman leaps into the audience and takes a seat, grabs the glasses from a nearby tourist and places them on his head. This modern Hanoman has learnt a few tricks from the real naughty monkeys that inhabit the Uluwatu park. The crowd roars with delight and the children are entranced.
It was worth seeing the Kecak dance again. Despite the crowds and chaos of ticket buying, I can highly recommend this show.