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  • Radical Traditions: Reimagining Culture in Balinese Contemporary Music by Andrew Clay McGraw
  • Wayne Vitale (bio)
Radical Traditions: Reimagining Culture in Balinese Contemporary Music. Andrew Clay McGraw. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013. xxxi + 270 pp., music, diagrams, photographs, tables, notes, map, glossary, bibliography, index. ISBN 9780199941407 (Hardcover), $105.00; 9780199941421 (Paperback), $31.95. Companion website:

Balinese composers are highly regarded—literally. They have suffered so much scrutiny and expectation from so many parties—from Dutch colonial authorities and Western intelligentsia of the early twentieth century, to the modern mix of government arts committees and academies, tourist industry figures ushering millions of tourists into Bali each year, foreign artists and researchers such as the author (and myself), and their own local temple congregations—that I wonder why they don’t fly into a million self-conscious pieces and hang up their panggul (gamelan mallets). The weight of representation is heavy.

To make matters worse, these many parties, often in colluding combinations, have generated such persistent and romanticized cultural images that everyone’s vision has been hopelessly distorted, complicated, confused, or misdirected. Bali is the timeless, enchanted isle, with ancient dances performed by prepubescent girls in gold-leafed costumes—the postcard Bali. Bali is an artistic exemplar of the communal will of the masses, manifested in the socialist dances of the 1950s and 1960s—the Farmer’s Dance, the Weaver’s Dance, the Fisherman’s Dance. Bali is a locus of pan-Indonesian idealism, where composers graft and smash together styles from various corners of a diverse nation. During the New Order of President Suharto, Bali was Indonesia’s gemstone destination of international tourism, which needed to preserve, protect, and encapsulate its tradisi (traditions of arts and culture, a largely imported concept), while somehow also proving those traditions dynamic and modern by accommodating just enough, but not too much, innovation. [End Page 125]

Balinese music also had to reinforce or glorify nationalist directives, such as bhinneka tunggal eka (unity in diversity), pelestarian (preservation), and the all-pervasive pembangunan (national development). At the center of every newly contrived or adjusted image, a perfectly unified, anonymous, communally devoted gamelan ensemble sat, smiling, offering deep gong tones at the end of every phrase.

Needless to say, each of these images, some of which prevail despite decades of deconstruction by scholars, artists, and cultural commentators of all stripes, is only part of a far more complicated picture. Bali is also the scene of enormous urban trash heaps, of increasing drug and alcohol abuse, of deep-set corruption and cronyism in government institutions and the art academies, of catastrophic terrorist bombings in which hundreds have died, and of the influx of technologies (television, smartphones, the Internet, Facebook, etc.) that are changing the texture of life in unexpected ways.

Have composers and other artists ignored these many “other” Balis—these other identities, images, events, possibilities? Of course not. They have responded and, more to the point, reacted to them in striking, brilliant, sometimes ridiculous, but always imaginative ways. Starting in the 1970s, in resonance with parallel movements happening elsewhere in Indonesia (primarily the cultural centers of Java such as Yogyakarta and Surakarta) and infused with ideas about avant-garde expression from abroad, a few Balinese composers starting creating works that fell outside all known categories. They not only refused to glorify state creeds or satisfy arts committee guidelines but also deliberately sought to disrupt them. The new works, later dubbed musik kontemporer, included experimentation, improvisation, theater, political statements, found instruments, chance techniques, and much more. Musik kontemporer was, in a very overt way, the “everything else” music of Bali, which started from a handful of pieces and now stands prominently at the cutting edge of Balinese musical innovation.

Musik kontemporer’s fraught relationship with its musical and cultural environment is the subject of Andrew McGraw’s Radical Traditions, a dense and in-depth contextual analysis of how musik kontemporer composers responded to that environment, re-creating their artistic identities and ruffling many feathers in the process. Their music, in turn, provoked counterreactions, which influenced their work even further. The accumulating cross-influences, frequently touching on nodes outside Bali...


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pp. 125-129
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