January 3, 2010

Some people find the music of Bali relaxing. Not me. Twenty-five years ago, when I first visited Indonesia, I was introduced to the Gamelan music that accompanies the Legong dance. For people who don't know what Gamelan sounds like, it's a lot of percussion. Gongs in particular. Large bronze gongs, gong-chimes; also a metallophone and rattling cymbals.

I've been to some beautiful Balinese ceremonies. My father, who has lived in Southeast Asia for fifty years, loves the traditional Balinese Gamelan orchestra. He's told me all about how sacred it is and how it's believed to have supernatural power. Although not supernatural enough to get rid of a headache.

I don't mind Gamelan when it's performed in a temple or at a theatrical function - even a hotel lobby is fine. But does it have to be at every restaurant too?

It's hard to find a place to eat out where there isn't some sort of music playing. What's wrong with eating in silence? Does everything have to have a soundtrack?

Whenever I see a sign outside a restaurant that says: "Live Music Tonight" I think: who would go in there?

Just once I'd like to pass by a blackboard that says: "No Loud Noise Tonight" If they can have a quiet car on the train, why not a separate room in a restaurant? No mobile phones, no music, no obnoxious loud talkers or crying babies. I'd pay more to eat in that room.

Maybe because there are so many tourists in Bali over the holidays, the Gamelan is everywhere. Then the other night, I discovered the only thing worse than eating out with a Balinese Gamelan orchestra playing is eating out with a Balinese Salsa band.

"I forgot," my father said as we entered the restaurant I like, "Tuesday is Salsa night."

I can understand going to hear a live band and I can understand going to hear a live band play at a venue that serves food, but there's something so disheartening about showing up at a restaurant and seeing the empty drum set and microphone set up in the corner.

You know it's only a matter of minutes before they begin. I have to think of everything important thing I want to say so I can get it out before they start, Also, no matter how hard the hostess tries to seat me away from the speakers, it's useless. Unless she's sitting me in a different restaurant, I'm not going to be able to talk.

We decided to stick it out because choices were limited. "How loud can it be?" My father asked.

Turns out, loud. So loud, that after I'd ordered my food I had a sore throat. And this was before the 15 minute solo on the bongo drums started.

Every time the band would end a song people would clap. I wanted to call out, "Take a break!"

But there were no breaks. Not once. They went from one number into another for over an hour. Didn't they play non-stop loud music at Guantanamo as a form of torture?

It's not that the music was bad; it's that it was loud, and it was relentless. It made it impossible to have a conversation. But I guess that's why people loved it. I looked around. No one was talking.

Hearing live music while having dinner is ideal for people who have nothing to say.

Our entire conversation consisted of two questions: "What?" and "Did you hear me?" Once I added: "Why are you nodding if you didn't hear me?"

Naturally, my father wasn't as bothered by any of this. But he has an unfair advantage: a hearing problem.

At one point, in an effort to be diplomatic he said: "It would be just as loud if we were in Puerto Rico right now."

I gave him a look that said: Why would I ever be in Puerto Rico?

Driving back to his house neither of us said a word. "Isn't this nice?" My father asked. Just then it occurred to me - maybe he took me there on purpose.