Jammin Island

This is a story I have just written for Get Lost Magazine, it will be published in September

MC Berto

Nyepi, the day of silence, brings Bali to a complete standstill, all businesses close, including the airport, no lights are allowed and everyone must remain indoors. It is a day of reflection and meditation, the Balinese believe that by staying hidden, the evil spirits will pass overhead without noticing the island, thus bringing an auspicious start to their New Year. As Bali falls under its annual cloak of silence on March 26, many escape to the neighbouring island of Gili Trawangan in Lombok, for the first ever Jammin Island Roots, Rock, Reggae festival.

Gili Trawangan is a hedonistic slice of paradise with a well earned reputation as a party island, and its white sandy beaches, swaying palms and blazing sunsets make it the ideal setting for a reggae festival.

A relentless surge of boats bring Indonesians and tourists piling on to the beach, and the plethora of guitars, drums, dreadlocks and sweet reggae infuse the island with a distinctly Caribbean vibe.

Cidomo

Jammin Island 2-1

It’s late afternoon when the festival gets under way, an angry storm is brewing over the mountains of Lombok and thunderous clouds creep towards us. The official opening is marked with the release of 100 baby turtles to the ocean.  We carry the little creatures down to the beach, their legs flapping furiously and there’s plenty of cheering as we place them on the sand and they scramble awkwardly down to the water and freedom. As the turtles discover the rhythm of the ocean, gentle reggae rhythms fill the air, and then it’s the rhythmic patter of falling rain as the storm hits the island forcing the event indoors. Instead of dancing barefoot in the sand under the stars, we are packed inside Sama Sama bar, but the rain doesn’t dampen anyone’s spirits. The air is thick with smoke; the arak (rice wine) and the laughter flow freely; dreadlocks are flying and the atmosphere soaring. The heat is intense, but I found consolation in the fact that I am sweating out the alcohol as quickly as I consume it and looking around I can see that I am just another sweaty body grooving on the dance floor.

turtle release

The crowd is a great mix; Western surfers; Euro backpackers; island locals and of course the Indonesian dread community is out in force and providing plenty of eye candy for the western girls. Some of the guys look pretty scary with their wild hair and elaborate tattoos but these are not trench town rastas, mostly just nice guys from exotic places like Borneo or Sulawesi or Papua who dig reggae and like to get irie.  Indonesia’s burgeoning reggae scene has produced some incredibly talented musicians and festival headliners include Steven and the Coconut Treez who achieved international fame with their Trawangan inspired song ‘Welcome to my paradise;’ Lombok’s own Richard D’Gilis; and Lawa Am Q, from the Spice Islands.

Jammin

We are all united in the sheer spine-tingling pleasure of the music and I am not talking about the same old Bob Marley songs that you hear ad finium on beaches all over the world, this is real roots reggae, Indo style. The performers seem to have more fun than anyone and there is a constant rotation of musicians on stage as these brothers from another mother jam it out like there is no tomorrow.

richard and lawa

the guys

As the evening progresses I notice that the photos I am taking are increasingly out of focus. I wonder if it’s me; have I had too many jugs of rum and coke? Or it is the people I am photographing; perhaps they have had too many? Or maybe I am just capturing the vibe, because it all seems to get rather blurry and surreal. The storm passes and we all stumble outside to clear our heads, bask in the star light, eat barbecued fish and watch the fire dance show. Then it’s the rhythm of the drums and the gentle lapping of waves on the shore as the dancers twirl and swirl in a whirl of fire.

iwan

The music is even better on the second night of the festival but the pace much more relaxed and fewer people means more space to dance and a much more intimate atmosphere  –  it feels more like a really cool party. Richard D’Gilis croons his song ‘Gili Trawangan,’ and we all sing along,

“Pulau yg indah

Bersih pantaiyana,

ga ada polusi dan polisi”

(The beautiful island, the beach so clean, no pollution, no police)

The “no police” bit gets everyone cheering.

Berto

When the music ends people drift towards the bonfire on the beach and the soft strumming of guitars. A bunch of us head en masse to Rudy’s bar, a dark, divey outdoor club where The Chemical Brothers ‘Hey Boy, Hey Girl’ is booming. And once again we are all leaping around the dance floor. Just before dawn the music finishes. The muezzin call to prayer rings out from the mosque, roosters crow, stragglers stagger on to the beach and finally as the first rays of sun hit the water, the island falls silent.

fire dance

The next day we lounge around at Coral beach 2, a guesthouse set on a quiet and very pretty part of the island, fringed by bougainvillea and palms. I float in the fluorite sea and ponder whether to have an avocado and chocolate shake or a fresh papaya juice. Or maybe it is Bintang o’clock. Life is sweet!  The musicians are gathered under a palm tree, still jamming, still irie. They are friends of mine and in the two years that I have lived in Indonesia, these are the nicest guys I have met, truly brothers from another mother. We are all spread out over the islands of Indonesia but every now and then we get together in Kuta for an event or just by chance and we hang out and make music. Someone brings bottles of Arak, someone brings food and everyone looks out for one another. It’s this closeness and sense of family that makes the music so special.

backstage

Gili paradise

For now we are all enjoying the island which is so picturesque it’s almost surreal, a kind of fantasy world where things like time have no consequence. Nothing is urgent and everything is put off till tomorrow, even leaving. Last year I planned to stay for a week, and was still there two months later. Some people never really leave and the island has been bought up parcel by parcel by Westerners. It is no longer a well-kept backpacker’s secret and more and more luxury villas and boutique resorts are springing up all over the island. Thankfully it has retained its quirky laid-back atmosphere. One of the restaurants has a sign ‘no shirt, no shoes, no problem,’ which kind of says it all. Bicycles and horse drawn carts are still the only form of transport, thongs are still the footwear of choice, the smell of weed still permeates the air and many bars and shops still offer ‘trips to the moon no transport needed,’ via their mushroom shakes. The island is quite an anomaly;  mainland Lombok ─ Islamic and conservative ─ is just twenty minutes by boat, but here on Gili, anything goes and the locals are more up for it than anyone.

mushrooms

The area known as Sentral or ‘downtown’ has a ramshackle assortment of dive shops, restaurants and bars lining the seafront.  Lounging is the key word; it’s all about the cushions really, they fill the berugas (open sided huts), the day beds and the sofas. Dining is informal, candle-lit and alfresco, most restaurants offer fresh seafood, you choose what you want and then lounge around while it is cooked on the barbecue. At  Pesona restaurant you can sprawl on the bamboo mats under a blanket of stars and smoke sheesha (water pipes) filled with apple tobacco; A couple of places even have berugas fitted out with plump cushions, televisions and dvd players, perfect lounging conditions. Lounging aside, most of the action takes place here in Sentral and there are three organized parties a week, rotating between the bars: Monday night is Blue Marlin, they have an excellent sound system and belt out old school hard house. The spacious wooden deck upstairs is great for dancing: Tir na nog, the Irish bar hosts Wednesday night parties with a mix of hip hop and pop. In true Irish style this is more of a drink till you fall off your barstool type affair: Friday night is Rudy’s, a dark, sleazy, outdoor club with random music, psychedelic décor and mushroom shakes. It’s the sort of place where you find yourself doing funky moves to Michael Jackson or Ice T at 4.00 in the morning: Sama Sama Bar has live acoustic music every night of the week, their house band S2 play great reggae and the open-mic nights can be hilarious.

Gili Trawangan

I have met people who have put off going to Gili because of its reputation as a party island, but away from the south eastern Sentral area, things are really quiet and the beaches on the undeveloped western side of the island are the stuff of cast away fantasies. Walking around the island takes about an hour and a half and is a great way to experience its contrasts. Heading north from Sentral the style becomes increasingly rustic and relaxed, more island hick than island chic. The area known as Coral beach on the north eastern tip of the island is my favourite. Its quiet here and the wide expanse of beach is dotted with berugas where I can settle in for the day; eat fabulous Italian style pizza and snorkel right off the beach.

Continuing around the island; there are groves of palm trees; patches of dense coastal scrub; deserted beaches filled with drift wood and bleached coral; and the occasional resort. The views out to sea change dramatically; the eastern side of the island overlooks the small island of Gili Meno and the mountains of Lombok; the northern tip is flanked by open sea; but as you continue walking down the western side, Bali and its towering volcano loom into view.  Sunset bar, a huge open-air building hugs the south western corner and is indeed a great place for watching the sunset. Sadly the owner died of a heart attack on the opening weekend and it now sits empty, although enterprising locals sometimes bring a boom box, beer and spirits and set up a make-shift bar.

on the beach

The view is also pretty good from a lounging position and I often find myself sinking into the cushions in a beach-front beruga with a thick sticky Lombok coffee. Monsoon season is a magical time when the heavy, dark clouds looming over Lombok create a moody back drop. Nature is broody here and unleashes dazzling electrical storms which whip the sea up in a frenzy of whirl pools and crazy currents. But the storms blow out as quickly as they blow and calm is soon restored.  It is also a great place for people watching: Colourful outriggers from Lombok bring locals with sacks of produce to sell in the market; Fast boats from Bali disgorge backpacker-laden tourists searching for cheap digs; Beach-sellers ply their pearls, watches and silver; Local women glide by with baskets of bananas or fresh fish balanced on their heads; Children play in the shallows and giggle; Muslim women pass by covered in head scarves, long shirts and trousers; Western girls pass by – barely covered at all. Goats and chickens trot along the road and there are cats everywhere, mostly with deformed tails or no tail at all. It’s a genetic defect, but the islanders love to invent stories and will tell you that cat tail soup is a local delicacy.

The locals are friendly and cheerful and always up for a chat and a laugh. When I tell them I am Australian, they say “Hey mate, ozzy ozzy oy oy oy.” When I ask where they are from, I inevitably get the answer, with a smirk, “From my mother.” The groups of local Casanovas (also known as big mosquitoes) that hang around can be a little intimidating and prey on the western girls. “You want boyfriend,” “you want free transport,” “you want take me home.” They are mostly harmless, just bored and always on the lookout for a girlfriend and a free ride. Enough of them get lucky that you can’t really blame them for trying.

Gili is also a popular dive spot and a good place to get certified. Dynamite fishing and coral bleaching have taken their toll on the reefs, but you can still find patches of healthy coral and the marine life is plentiful with reef sharks, seahorses, manta rays and turtles. Efforts are being made to regenerate the reef, the dive shops actually pay fishermen not to fish in the waters surrounding the island. Another initiative is the use of Biorock, which uses electrical currents to stimulate coral development. There are a couple of decent places for snorkelling just off the beach, although the best coral is found on the snorkelling boat trips which also visit the islands of Gili Meno and Gili Air.

In the days following the festival, as the dreads, the drums and the guitars trickle off the island, I have that really flat ‘the party is over’ feeling. But then my friends inform me that it is Bintang o’clock, and it is Monday night – that means a party at Blue Marlin. And I am reminded that here on Gili, as the song ‘Welcome to my paradise’ goes, “the party is never-ending.”

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Sister from another mister

This  is  my Swiss friend Steph.  I have only known her for 4 months but it feels like she has been in my life forever – a true kindred spirit. In a few days she is leaving to go back to Switzerland, she is a designer and will spend the summer doing festivals all over Europe selling her funky clothes. Her collection is amazing! She has been an inspiration, a true friend and a mirror.

Miss you already Steph……….

ali and steph

more good times

 

sunset girls

Bali Spirit festival 2009

“There is no sense of us and them, just a sense of unity”

Jamming

Jamming

Holidays in Bali have traditionally been associated with things beginning with the letter ‘S’, such as, Sun, Surf, Sand, Sex, Shopping.  But increasing numbers of visitors are being lured to the island for another ‘S’ word and that is Spirit, or as the catchphrase has become Bali Spirit. They have discovered that the island’s subtle energy and deep-rooted spirituality is highly conducive to healing, meditation and yoga, and people are heading to the hills of Ubud, long considered the spiritual and cultural heart of Bali.

Further entrenching Ubud’s reputation for all things holistic is the Bali Spirit festival. The second annual festival, billed as a celebration of yoga, music and dance brought together 20 yogis and teachers, 75 performers and over 1000 festival goers. The festival kicked off with an opening ceremony on the evening of the 28th April, in the gardens of the Purnati Centre for the Arts. It looked like a fairy land, with sparkling lights, white marquees and lush tropical foliage and there was a palpable air of anticipation and excitement as we stretched out on the sloping grass for the evening’s entertainment. There was a traditional Balinese blessing;  African reggae music; American folk music and a fire dance fire show, just a small taste of things to come over the next 5 days.

Akim funk buddah

The festival is truly multi faceted, bringing the spirit of yoga and world music to Indonesia and at the same time showcasing the culture, the music and the spirituality of Bali with a global audience.  In the spirit of sharing, the Bhinneka Initiative, the charitable arm of the festival raises money for the local community with a focus on education and youth outreach. The zero waste policy was part of the founders desire to create an environmentally conscious event and there were bamboo cups, banana leaf plates, water bottle refilling stations and recycling bins for non organic matter. Amidst the market stalls were information booths on various non profit organizations such as SOS (Sumatran Orangutan Society), Breath of Hope Yoga Foundation, The Pelangi School and Feed Our Earth Society.

dance workshop

Daytimes were about learning, and workshops took place in the elaborate pavilion or the elegant white marquees that sprawled across the expansive lawns. Palm trees created shade; the hum of the rainforest and the sound of the flowing river provided the soundtrack, while verdant tumbling rice paddies created a scenic backdrop. The  eclectic mix of workshops on offer included; West African Dance; Mayan Cosmology; Yoga and Pilates;  Holistic Hip Hop; Javanese Movement Meditation; Qi Gong; Didgeridoo Workshops; Hatha Yoga;  Sacred Middle Eastern Music Traditions. At times I felt a little overwhelmed, there was just so much going on. Did I want to purify my chakras; or join the Sacred Balinese Feminine Dance class; or attend a seminar on Ayurveda; or did I just want to lounge in the infinity pool which perched tantalizingly over the river.

infinity pool

My concerns that it would be full of really earnest hippy types dressed in white and talking about peace and love proved to be unfounded. Certainly there was a small element of that, but in fact the participants were as diverse a mix as the presenters themselves. There were professional women from the US and Australia; European backpackers; Ex pats; Japanese and Koreans and a number of Indonesians ─ predominantly yoga students from Java. I was a little baffled by all the ideological stuff: There is talk of cross-boundaries and cross cultural values of awareness: Of musical collaborations positively impacting consciousness: Of sharing with the collective…… What I do know is that I met really interesting people, learned lots of new things, felt incredibly inspired and empowered, and had a thoroughly good time.

yoga

Far from being a serious affair, what really stands out in my mind is the sound of laughter rippling across the grounds, and I am not just talking about Laughter Yoga, although it did have a huge turn out and the peals of laughter emanating from the workshop were so loud and so contagious that everyone in the vicinity was laughing. Sibo Bangoura had us all  giggling during his African Drumming workshops as he yelled out “Get the police”, every time someone missed a beat. In Rebecca Pflaum’s Kundalini Yoga class she makes us hold our arms up in the air for four minutes, “When it hurts and you can’t handle it a second longer, laugh and get over it”, she berates us. She then instructs us to lie on our stomachs and make fists with our hands for what she calls the butt beating asana, “This is for every time you have wanted to kick yourself in the ass”, she calls out.  In the Ecstatic Dance workshop, Ellen Watson has everyone dancing around being fairies “Spread your fairy dust”, she tells us. I felt kind of silly, in fact it took me five days to pluck up the courage to participate in a dance workshop; but the way I figure it, if a 60 year old guy with a moustache and a beer gut can dance like a fairy, well so can I, and its incredibly liberating to play like a child, to let go of inhibitions and of course we were all falling about laughing.

ecsstatic dance workshop

In the spirit of collaboration there was very little separation between the participants and the presenters. Sibo Bangoura came to Kundalini Yoga; Rocky Dawuni, the African Reggae star brought his young daughter to the Crystal Healing workshop; Movement teacher Sofia Thom joined the Celebration of Women Yoga class. And Rebecca the Kundalini teacher was usually the last one on the dance floor at the nightly concerts. And as we the participants pounded out African rhythms, or grooved to hip hop or learned the kecak monkey chant, we became the performers. Program Director Daphne Tse said that the best part of the festival for her was the “melding of all disciplines, seeing everyone from first time yogis to master teachers so eager to learn from the others, to practice different disciplines. There is absolutely no ego. They are Bali Spirit”.

healing circle

Nightly concerts took place in the amphitheatre, complete with stunning lighting and excellent acoustics.  Cocktails and beer were served and we were treated to some really incredible performances. Saharadja, featuring Javanese Jazz trumpeter Rio Sadik and his Australian wife Sally Jo, a classically trained violinist, played their electrifying jazz fusion: Rocky Dawuni got the crowd swaying to his mix of reggae and African beats: Indonesian, Slamet Gundono entertained us with his modern take on shadow puppetry: Sibo Bangoura and Australian based In Rhythm had everyone bouncing to the booming percussion, Sibo played his drum so hard the skin broke:  Hip Hop artist, Akim Funk Buddha was quite simply the funkiest dancer I have ever seen and mesmerized us with his moves: While Australian ensemble, Ganga Giri, provided the most unique and unforgettable musical experience of the festival with a spine tingling blend of traditional didgeridoo with tribal beats and dub.

Saharadja

I met Megan Pappenheim (who founded the festival, along with her husband, Kadek Gunarta, and Musical Director, Robert Weber) for lunch one day. We sat on the grass and ate organic nasi campur from banana leaf plates, a drumming workshop took place behind us and the heavy beat of the djembe resounded. She is incredibly vital and personable, a kind of one woman holistic dynamo and her passion for Bali and her local community is all too evident. This is a woman who really cares. Megan set up the website Balispirit.com in the wake of the 2002 bombing, its mission was to revive the islands stricken industries and to preserve its environment, culture and spirituality. The site, a kind of one-stop shop for all things holistic has proved to be enormously popular and now boasts over 150,000 direct hits a month. Since its inception at least 10 new yoga centers have opened up and around 40 retreat groups are converging each year. Her other ventures include a food café, a yoga shop and the Yoga Barn. She operates all her businesses under fair trade principles and employs over 70 local people, although the number doubles during the lead up to the festival. She tells me, “We are not here patting ourselves on the back saying we have done so much for the community but it’s a start, it gives an example, we want to inspire other people to do something similar.”

me with megan

We talked about the huge amount of support and encouragement that the festival has gained, including that of the Bali Tourism Board as well as the Ministry of Culture and Tourism. When one of the major sponsors dropped out at the last moment there were fears that the event would be cancelled, but most of the performers offered to waive or greatly reduce their fees. In fact the festival has run at a huge financial loss, but as she says “Its not about the money, its about the message,” and she is already enthusiastically planning next years event in which she is thinking of choosing an AIDS charity  as the beneficiary and hoping to get a condom company as a sponsor. She also wants to have more non-profit organizations in attendance, “creating an information warehouse”.

yoga in the lawn pavillion

We discuss the Bhinneka Initiative, the charitable arm of the festival. Bhin.n.eka tun.ggal ika translates as Unity in Diversity; its goal is to work with Indonesian youth to inspire new understandings of social awareness and global responsibility. It features various community based projects promoting holistic health and creative collaborations in music and dance. The musical outreach program featured Pre-festival concerts headlining Michael Franti, Rocky Dawuni and Tom Freund and raised over $20,000 for the Pelangi community school. As part of the Yoga Outreach program, Indonesian Muslim yogini, Pujiastuti Sindhu conducted free yoga workshops for the women of the surrounding villages of Ubud. International celebrity yogini Katy Appleton also conducted free pre natal classes at the Yayasan Bumi Sehat natural birthing clinic in Nyuh Kuning. I traveled with Katy to the clinic, a humble establishment, run by a non-profit organization which sees about 50 births a week. It’s a long way from London and her celebrity clients which include Sarah, Duchess of York and Paul McCartney. Eight heavily pregnant local women attended and she led them gently through a series of positions. Afterward Katy was beaming and said doing the class had been “a sweet honour and great fun and that she was looking forward to returning for a longer time next year to help out with another pair of hands and a smiling heart”.

Also under the Bhinneka Umbrella came Hari Cinta Keluarga (family day), the final day of the festival which was free for all and specially devoted to family with a range of family and child oriented workshops. There was a good turnout of Balinese, who joined in the pre-natal classes and the children’s yoga workshops. The local kids played drums with In Rhythm and Sibo Bangoura; danced to the sounds of Kirtan; and learned music with Lebanese artist Khalife, who will also be conducting a series of free workshops with street kids in Jakarta. Tom Fruend from California performed songs from his album ‘Hug the trees’ and had all the children dancing enthusiastically at the front of the stage.

face painting

The musical highlight of the festival came on the last night when the festival closed with the Siki Seka Jam which saw at least 15 of the performers up on stage all doing their own thing but somehow bringing it all together in a truly rousing finale that had everyone up and dancing. Seeing performers from so many nations and so many genres on the stage and playing as one captured the spirit of the festival perfectly. I thought about what Festival Director Amsalam Doraisingham said in his opening address, “You are here. This is your space and time. Let your light shine.” And when a thousand people let their light shine they create something that goes far beyond the individual. It has been a journey for all of us, we have learned and shared and created and we all take something away with us, a little bit of Bali Spirit I guess.

Jammming