cultural bridge through monkey-chanting
September 9, 2004
This weekend the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden
will be the setting for an unusual cross-cultural collaboration. "Sethu,"
or "Bridge," employs 50 artists from India, Indonesia and Minnesota to
re-tell an ancient Hindu myth. It also includes the Indonesian art of
|The monkey chanters of Bali.
Several were recruited by Ragamala Music and Dance Theater to
teach Minnesota volunteers the art of "Kecak," or monkey chanting.
(Photo courtesy of the Walker Art Center)
Minneapolis, Minn. — The Ramayana is a 2,000
year-old epic story that might be described as the Hindu equivalent of
Homer's Iliad. The hero is Rama, a model figure who lived his whole
life by the rules of dharma.
To be brutally brief, Rama is banished to the
forest and must battle an evil demon to restore his kingdom. Ranee
Ramaswamy, founder of Ragamala Music and Dance Theater in Minneapolis
says the Ramayana binds the Hindu world together.
"The Ramayana is a very sacred text," she says.
"And it teaches the ideal way of life is to follow your duty. If
everybody followed their duty, and then there would be no chaos in the
world. That's the model built behind the story."
Several years ago, Ramaswamy saw the Ramayana
performed for tourists on the island of Bali. She was entranced.
"Every village in Bali has their own choruses,"
she says. These are community members, who perform every night. And I
saw it at night, at 7:30, out by the temple, and it was like being in
Ramaswamy was so transported she enlisted the
Walker Art Center to recreate the experience in the Twin Cities. Sethu
is a multi-cultural fusion of performance styles, including Javanese
and Balinese gamelan, and South Indian dance and music.
If that isn't exotic enough, there's also monkey
Monkeys play a key role in the Ramayana. A monkey
army assists the hero Rama in regaining his kingdom. The art of monkey
chanting or, "kecak," (pronounced 'keh-CHACK') originated in
Indonesia, which is why Ramaswamy recruited a small team of Balinese
masters to teach it to Minnesota volunteers.
Team leader Dewa Berata says kechak isn't easy to
learn because there are three different interlocking chants happening
at the same time.
"Three thing going on," Berata says. "The
hardest, not keep your part but how to you say your part but you
listen to other part."
Jim Hodges is one of several Minnesota
volunteers, some who belong to the St. Paul-based Shubert Club Gamelan
Society, who took up the kecak challenge.
"It's a helluva lot of fun and it's kind of silly
at the same time," he says. "But it's also terrific to be doing this
in an ensemble with a bunch of people who were total strangers a
couple weeks ago."
Hodges and a few other volunteer performers only
needed a little coaxing to demonstrate their skills.
Hodges says when people find out he's learning
the art of monkey chanting, they become extremely curious.
"People at work," he says, "they say what's it
like doing this stuff? And I pull out this chart and start to do it
and I feel like an idiot because it's so out of context. But here, it
just fits together, it just rocks."
The enthusiasm and joy Hodges has felt during
rehearsals is what the performers want the audience to feel this
weekend. They believe the production is yet another example of how art
can bridge cultures.