Posts in: Block A

Barong in Bali

This week in Bali, our class had the pleasure to witness a traditional performance of the Barong–a mythic creature of major importance in Balinese theatre and religiosity. This lion-esque beast contains two people controlling the costume, with one in the front and one in the back. Though seemingly a stage prop at first blush, the Barong’s mask is the product of rigorous ritual purification, and often is housed at the local temple when it isn’t being used in performances. In this show, the class reveled as the mighty Barong played with his monkey companion and later faced off against the evil witch Rangda. Interestingly, this classic fight always ends in a draw, thus representing the good and the evil within all of us. Filled to the brim with colors, action, and a gamelan music accompaniment to boot, this was definitely a night to remember. Curious what gamelan means? Tune in next time to find out!

The Final Performance

After weeks of rehearsal and preparation, the class finished this music class about as fittingly as one can–with a gamelan and dance performance for the whole community. Surprisingly, despite the atmosphere of excitement behind the performance itself, I found the costume and make-up preparation to be one of the most memorable parts of the day. As someone with no experience in the performing arts, dressing up to the extent we did (seen to the right) was completely new territory for me. However, after being able to perform in costume, the appeal completely makes sense to me. On one level, one take-away from class was how performers would hang masks by their beds before shows to absorb their power. Covered in make-up, warrior garb, and later a demon mask, it’s easy to see why so much emphasis is put on costume’s transformative powers in Bali. For me, putting on all the layers of costume seemed to project responsibility away from me and onto the character. Thus, while it feels a little silly for Normal Mark to perform a baris dance in cargo shorts and a Nike T-shirt, a Warrior Mark outfitted with armor, weapons, and a mustache to boot couldn’t be more in his element. In a similar vein, an old college adage states that the best way to stay awake in class is to wear a suit to the classroom; in theory, it’s the sense of maturity and professionalism that’s so closely related to the suit that has the power to overcome the exhaustion that would otherwise de-rail one’s participation in class. It is this transformative power that I was able to feel when performing in front of the community, and made executing the dances feel so much more natural.

Overall, looking back on the block as a whole from playing music to exploring Balinese culture, one of the most valuable parts I found as a student that’s never done a semester abroad was how powerful of a teacher experience can be. Especially in a political climate where the sources behind facts are under such scrutiny, it was refreshing to learn about a subject with my own senses, rather than solely through a textbook. Though scholarly literature certainly did serve to ground the class, there’s something about the visceral reaction of seeing something for yourself that takes the textbook to a level that no textbook can. In short, it personalizes the process of learning, and makes it about people and senses rather than words in a book. Whether what I see ends up confirming or even nuancing what I learned beforehand, it’s an experience that I can’t recommend enough for CC students thinking about the abroad experience. It’s taught me not to simply be satisfied with the words of others, but to go and engage with the world and find out its workings for myself.

Spirituality in Bali

Arguably the most difficult part of blogging about this trip (as I’m sure would be the case in any abroad experience) has been to capture the sea of subtlety that naturally comes when thrust into a world outside of your own. However, I feel that I would not be doing my religion major proud if I didn’t talk about the spiritual landscape of Bali. I knew coming in that it hosted a unique blend of Hinduism, but what ultimately struck me the most was its practice. I first felt its power in the offerings. Composed of little straw saucers filled with food, flowers, and often small amounts money; for what these humble offerings lacked in fanfare, they made up in sheer numbers. In fact, it was difficult to go anywhere without finding one on a doorstep, sidewalk, or street corner. Temples also had a similar prominence in Bali, as communities often hosted more communal temples as well as household shrines (seen above). Thus, while in the West it’s often easy to section off our Sacred and our secular, the world of spirit is infused into everyday life in Bali. All you have to do is walk around.

Another striking feature of Balinese religiosity was its emphasis on heritage, and how that would present itself in daily life. One one level, one need look no further than the prayers at our professor’s local temple; in the listing of prayers, one could always count on one including their ancestors. However, even beyond the setting of the temple, ancestry plays a major factor in the daily lives of the Balinese. It is believed that when a person dies and is cremated, their spirit arises from the fire and–with the help of the family and community–ultimately comes to reside in the family’s communal temple. These souls either will remain in the family’s life in spirit, or will reincarnate into a new person in the community. Such is the case for one of the little girls on the compound, who was found by the priest to be the reincarnation of our professor’s mother. In this way, one’s heritage isn’t only felt in services, but becomes a lived reality for individuals and their loved ones.

Tourism Revisited

To continue our journey through Bali with a a trip to one of the holiest temples on the island–Tanah Lot. Located on an island twenty yards off the coast of the mainland, at first blush this quiet sea temple (seen below) has an unperturbed atmosphere deserving of its sacred status. However, look anywhere around this island and you’ll find that it’s surrounded by tourists, shops, and even an 18-hole golf course. So many of Bali’s holy sites fall into this trap, in which the cultural (and specifically religious) tourism that served as the original appeal for the island become a hub for a hoard of tourist-centered businesses hoping to capitalize on their allure. As this push to expand on the tourism market that already drives Bali’s economy continues, many Balinese people have voiced their discontent towards this degradation of both Bali’s physical and cultural landscape. Our class’s position is particularly precarious, because as we have learned about tourism’s effect on the Balinese people, so too are we participating in this tourist culture not only in our purchases, but also in our being outsiders looking into another culture. After talking to the class ironically during a lunch at a beachside resort, the consensus seems to be that best thing we can do as students is to constantly seek to educate ourselves about Bali while also realizing the limits of how much we can truly understand this new culture, especially in such a short time. It is this very humility that allows spaces like Tanah Lot to not be merely a plot of potential real estate, but a temple with a significance that can only be understood from the inside.

Tourism and Kecak

So far in our virtual journey through Bali, we’ve covered forms of Balinese music and theater that predated globalization and the advent of mass tourism. However, as emphasized through Liz’s repeated questioning of “well what IS traditionally/properly Balinese?” a main point in this class has been about the fluidity of culture. Just as the indisputably Balinese Hinduism we see today was ultimately an import from India, so too has Bali needed to re-adjust its cultural mindset to accommodate its booming tourist economy. In terms of the arts, one such product is the modern kecak chant, which creates a soundscape for theatrical scenes using various patterns of the sound “cha.” Our class has been repeatedly practicing this popular tourist performance, and it’s honestly not hard to see where the appeal lies! As the chant excitedly continues, a tale from the famous Ramayana epic unfolds as the brave monkey general Hanoman (pictured above) sets out to save Sita and kill the evil rakshasa (played by yours truly). Even if I do meet my untimely demise by the end of the performance, chanting along to the kecak is an incredibly catchy way to explore Balinese tourist culture.

Playing in the Gamelan

Throughout our time in Bali, the class has had the opportunity to play in one of the cornerstones of Balinese music–the gamelan (or “ensemble” in English). Composed primarily of bronze instruments to withstand Southeastern Asia’s notorious rainy season, these gamelans serve multiple ends here in Balinese society. On one level, one cannot understate the religious significance of the gamelan instruments, which are believed to have their own spirit that deserves reverence from players and bystanders alike (so if you get rebuked for trying to step over one, now you know why!). The gamelan also finds its way into numerous ceremonial contexts, such as the funeral our class saw earlier in the block in which the gamelan served as the center of the procession. Beyond the realm of the spirit, the gamelan also finds a prominent role in the competitive realm as well! Our class got to experience this firsthand at the Bali Arts Festival as we watched gamelans representing different regions of Bali duke it out in front of thousands of excited fans. Though the class (seen in the picture below) may need a few more blocks before being competition-ready, we have also been practicing gamelan daily both for the immersive experience and in preparation for our upcoming show! FUN FACT: if you’re curious about this multifaceted type of Balinese music and culture but want to save the trans-Pacific flight, CC has a gamelan group that performs once a semester! Be sure to keep an eye out for their shows!

Barong in Bali

This week in Bali, our class had the pleasure to witness a traditional performance of the Barong–a mythic creature of major importance in Balinese theatre and religiosity. This lion-esque beast contains two people controlling the costume, with one in the front and one in the back. Though seemingly a stage prop at first blush, the Barong’s mask is the product of rigorous ritual purification, and often is housed at the local temple when it isn’t being used in performances. In this show, the class reveled as the mighty Barong played with his monkey companion and later faced off against the evil witch Rangda. Interestingly, this classic fight always ends in a draw, thus representing the good and the evil within all of us. Filled to the brim with colors, action, and a gamelan music accompaniment to boot, this was an incredible look into the power of the Balinese arts. Curious what gamelan means? Tune in next time to find out!

Candomblé

Oi Gente!

Today marks my 10th day in Brazil. I can’t believe we have been here for so long.

A lot has happened since my last post. First of all, I went to a Candomblé celebration. My host family asked me, “Do you want to see Candomblé?” I agreed, because honestly I didn’t want to be alone in the house for several hours. I was told not to wear any black, brown or dark colors. I couldn’t wear anything above my knees but I was supposed to get dressed up a bit. When we got to the Candomblé house, I saw that everyone was wearing the essentially the same colors: blue and white. Dress ranged from what I would say traditional African to modern dresses. People were literally spilling out of the Candomblé house. They crowded the door and leaned in on the windows. My host family kept trying to push me through the thick crowd but for a long time all I could here were the pounding of drums and hollers from inside the house. Eventually we pushed past the hoards and into the house, and what I saw was beautiful. A group of women dressed in the traditional Candomblé outfit. Some stood off to the side, but then others, and a man, danced wildly in a circle of spectators. While they danced they shouted and some actually collapsed to the ground. I didn’t know what any of it meant until the next day when we had a class about Afro-Brazilian culture. The people of Candomblé recognize thousands of spirits called Orishas. When they dance, they can get possessed by these Orishas and let the Orishas dance around here on earth. Candomblé is an interesting religion because for years it was viewed as witchcraft and people were persecuted for following it. Even today many Christian churches try to convert those of Candomblé and view it as a lessor religion. Many people believe that people who are members of  Candomblé also fully believe in Catholicism and practice it side by side. This is because when the African slaves first came to Brazil, they were forced to disguise their religion under Catholic practices, so that they would be able to continue to practice in secret. This did eventually lead to a blend of religions for some people, but the current leader of Candomblé is advising her people to stop pretending to practice Candomblé under the guise of Catholicism. One isn’t allowed to take photos of  Candomblé, and therefore I don’t feel comfortable inserting any pictures of Candomblé into this post, but of you google Candomblé, there are some photos that will help you to understand better.

We also took a trip to Ilê Axé Opó Afonjá. Here their were several houses given to the Orisha. Each person on Earth has an Orisha. You can only go into the house of a certain Orisha if that Orisha is connected with you. Also an interesting fact is that these houses are legally registered under the names of the Orisha. The people that belong to that Orisha make donations to be able to pay for the houses bills like gas or lighting.

Here in Salvador, Candomblé is everywhere. It permeates almost every aspect of life in Salvador and the people are very proud of their religion. Candomble has created a unique culture here in Salvador. It connects the Afro-Brazilian people here to their brothers in Africa, that still practice the same religion, just in slightly different forms. As a African-American student, I am slightly jealous of the Afro-Brazilian people because of this. Their culture is so rich and fresh, while many of the slaves in America converted to Christianity and many lost their roots to Africa. I regret this.

Muito Prazer – Nice To Meet You

When most students decide to study abroad they usually chose places like Italy, France, or Spain. While these places are obviously full of culture and history, I am beyond satisfied with my choice to not travel the beaten path and travel to Salvador, Bahia, Brazil.                         IMG_5724                                 IMG_5737

I’ve only been in Salvador for four days, but in that time, I feel like I have a new understanding of the world.For the first time in my life, I was the foreigner, struggling to understand  another language. As a butchered words, received blank stares from everyone around me, and sometimes was forced to just sit silently, I was reminded of all the immigrants in the United States. Speaking a new language is indefinitely hard. Languages are not just a new set of words, but also a new way of thinking. The people in the United States who are from another country yet can understand what I’m saying and respond in “broken” English have accomplished something I and many American’s still can’t do. This brought me to a new realization. I am stupid. I, a straight A high school student on an full ride academic scholarship to a great private college, with an A- average in college, am stupid. In Brazil, when someone says, “I speak a little English,” essentially they can understand most of what I am saying and respond coherently. When I say, “I speak a little Portuguese,” I mean I know a tiny bit of scattered vocabulary and a few grammar constructions. So many people around the world can speak more than one language, and I struggle to learn one. Most Americans don’t even give other languages that much dignity. Most Americans push through their required two years of language in high school while they’re 14 and 15 years old. After that they forget about this language unless they’re required to push through more years of language in college, but like me they learn only scattered vocabulary and few grammar forms. Living with my host family, watching them talk and laugh, and not being able to communicate with them, is hard. I want to laugh and joke, but instead I sit quietly and watch. When Americans travel, we go into new countries without knowing a word of the country’s language and expect to be accommodated. When students from other countries come to America, they come fully speaking English or something close to it.
Of course, this isn’t the only thing I’ve learned in Brazil. Salvador is so alive and full of culture. The people here are proud of their African heritage and their culture is a mix of African and European roots. Catholicism and Candomble (an African religion), stand hand and hand in the city. There is no conflict, no or struggle between the two. We went on a city tour and saw many of shrines and churches of both religions.

Salvador also has huge communities called Favelas.
IMG_5775                         IMG_5767
These favelas have been compared to slums. People come to the city from the countryside looking for a better way of life, and while they try to find a job, they find or build a ‘temporary’ home in a favela. Once they are here, they are usually stuck here, in an unplanned community. Not all favelas are dangerous, but some are and have drugs running through them. The favelas are mixed in with the rich neighborhoods. There is no separation or distance between the rich or the poor. One favela we saw overlooked the soccer stadium built for the world cup, a beautiful lake, and a beautiful neighborhood for the rich. As my professor put it, Brazil is a rick country, but it has a corrupted government, so that the money stays in the hands of the politicians and a select elite, and doesn’t ever reach the hands of the people. For me, the hardest part is to see people sleeping in tents on some of most beautiful beaches or graffiti on beautiful churches or historical landmarks. Of course there is no way to make this better or justify what’s happening, but when I open the window to my room and hear the thriving city below me and all the people rushing in their car to be somewhere, I know that this city is still fighting for it’s equality, and I have hope.

The Finale…

screening

Photo Credit: Angela Kong

Waiting for my film to show up on the big screen was absolutely terrifying, and as I looked at the other students’ faces, I could tell they were doing a pretty awful job hiding their terror too.

I exported my film at about 6:00 for the 7:00 screening. That’t not okay. I told myself that I would finish the film at 4 pm, like we were supposed to do, but sure enough with titles and credits, I found myself sweating in my chair as my film became one of the last ones to export. I kept having flashbacks to my freshman experience of not being able to export my film in time for the screening because of technical errors. It’s an absolute nightmare to throw away weeks of work for no reward.

Instead of eating a nice dinner, showering, and dressing up hours before the screening, I left the editing room at about 6:40 to run back to my house, shower, throw on my jacket in a fury of sweat and run back to the editing room with my shaving cream and razor in pocket. With about 3 minutes until the screening, I ran into the bathroom, slapped some shaving cream on my face, and hurriedly cleaned myself up as I ran into the theater seeing a lot of the dancers there anxiously awaiting the screening. I couldn’t believe I made it, but the anxiety began to set in. The theater was packed, and worse, these were people I cared about who were seeing it. I said my hello’s and made my way to the front row to join the rest of the class.

So far, my diet that day consisted of two mini-powdered donuts, a cookie, and maybe some water. I didn’t sleep the night before, and napped for an hour outside the editing lab before beginning to edit again in the morning. I was surprised to be standing up, and my eyes were a little bit too wide open to seem normal. With each new film I cringed hoping it wasn’t mine, wondering where in the lineup I would fall. Multiple times I thought I was coming up only to see with relief it was my classmate’s.

When I saw my first dancer on screen it was actually okay. And even better, I liked my film. I should have been absolutely sick of it at that point, but hearing the audience laugh when they were supposed to, gasp when they were supposed to, and applaud at the end made me love it. Its a little ego trip, but I have been looking forward to that ego trip the whole class. It’s the little moment of glory that makes all the delusion worth it.

Having people approach me in congratulations at the end was exhilarating. I was having a little bit of a hard time focusing for sure; my eye-locking capability was sort of like I was staring into an indistinguishably deep black hole with no focus point. My composer and crew members all enjoyed it too, which was relieving; I felt such a responsibility to highlight their hard work. The food at the reception vanished by the time I finished talking, which was frustrating. I got in one brownie. But it was fantastic.

Each time I make a film, I start at square one. I know I will have moments where it is awful. Where it is amazing. Where it is mostly awful. But somehow I have fell in a strange love relationship with the pain of filmmaking, and thankfully have come out of each film with a new desire to make another one that’s better. There definitely is a necessary detox period due to lack of sleep and poor eating habits, but it’s all part of it. Soon I will be thinking of a new film, and I will have to forget how awful or how great my last film was and accept that this one will be totally different. At least I know that now.