Ubud – I Wayan Balawan – a musical legend

Not too long ago while driving past Opera Warung in Ubud I overhead music that was contagious and provoking. Hence, I dropped in, ordered a whisky sour and sat down to see and hear a truly gifted Balinese musician, I Wayan Balawan, in a melodic frenzy with fingers racing across the fret boards of two guitars! This is what I would call an ambidextrous musician! When the show ended I got to speak to Balawan.

“I compose and play music not for audiences but for my God.” – I Wayan Balawan

I Wayan Balawan hails from Batuan Village about 10 km south of Ubud. His brother owns the Opera Warung where he performs on a weekly basis to an ever-growing number of expats, people from Jakarta and locals.

For the last 25 years Balawan has been perfecting his art of playing two guitars (electric guitar and keyboard guitar) at the same time backed by a drummer, bassist, rhythm guitarist and Gamelan. He has been attempting to bridge the gap between western music and the Gamelan.

At age 11 he performed for the first time in Denpasar to an appreciative audience. A self taught musician he believes that the root of all music stems from religious encounters with the Almighty that sows the seeds of enlightenment for the artist through the music that is being played.

The three musicians who have influenced Balawan’s style are John McLaughlin, Paco de Lucia and Charlie Parker. They infused in him a sense of being in touch with a spiritual force that magnified his perception of a bridge that exists in the music of eastern and western cultures. From here he began experimenting with his own compositions and came up with quite a few recordings viz. Balawan Globalism, Balawan Solo and the latest album – Balawan Magic Fingers.

He has toured cities in Australia, Germany, Holland, Norway, Belgium, Japan and Canada playing his own compositions punctuated by the gamelan.

Balawan’s band, Batuan Ethnic Fusion was formed in mid 1997 with the purpose of exploring existing elements in ethnic Balinese music by using a combination of western and traditional instruments (Gamelan) and to preserve for posterity traditional Balinese songs.

In addition to the two guitars he plays, a bassist, rhythm guitarist and drummer he has two Balinese Kendangs, one metal Gamelan, one wooden Gamelan, one standard Cengceng, four pairs of Cengceng, four flutes and a ten-piece Reong.

“Walking through the paddy field
While catching some fish
So you can eat it with rice
It’s a simple life for the Balinese” is a stanza from one of his compositions.

“I am a Balinese Hindu. Life is hard enough so why will I leave my religion. It’s my life, my culture. If I wasn’t a Hindu who will carry my body to the city?” said Balawan to me, adding, “I want to tell people not to sell their land and to keep the rice fields. For if the rice fields are sold off Balinese culture and what it stands for will also slowly disappear. We have to be careful. The only way to preserve Bali is to educate the people. For without education there can be no enlightenment”.

Well you heard it from a legend in the making. A young talented Balinese musician with a mission to bridge the gap between cultures and religions in a world ravaged by war, disease and racism.

Come to Ubud and listen to Balawan’s music and when you do you will then believe what some have been saying – that Ubud is the cultural capital of Indonesia.