So there I am, sitting on the Double Six beach, watching another Bali sunset, and my peripheral vision informs me of a presence two benches along. He is a wizened, weather-beaten man, looking as if he is made of leather and held together with nails. He is holding an equally battered guitar, which he cradles as if it is the only thing of importance in this life.
We make eye contact – me with curiosity, him with diffidence. He sits beside me, instinctively choosing my right side – the one with the ear that works. We talk. His name is Budi, from Kalimantan, and he settled here a long time ago. From the looks of him, it was probably around Independence Day. I look at his guitar; he tells me that it was made in Jarkarta and cost 800,000 Rp. I think to myself , hmm – perhaps they saw him coming?
But then I look at his guitar again, more appraisingly this time, and note that it is old and worn – but well looked after, and clean. The fretboard varnish is worn unevenly all the way down to the 14th fret. The tell-tale marks of a player who is unafraid to let his instrument sing tell their own story. He notices my gaze.
“Do you play?” he asks. Well, I did once. Badly, and a long, long time ago. He gives me the instrument and sits back expectantly. I can hardly remember chords that were once so familiar and my fingers feel like the breakfast sausages served at a two-star hotel. For a moment, I am the sober patron who has just been bullied into singing karaoke by his drunken ‘friends’ and is about to die on-stage … but I begin to tentatively explore the strings.
It is like an epiphany. This instrument is … well, let me tell you. It is perfectly in tune. Oh yes, the strings are screaming for replacement, but despite that, the sound is still harmonically rich, with overtones that can only have come from a luthier who knows his woods and his craft – and is so unconsciously skilled that he makes the superhuman task of creating a near-perfect instrument seem easy. The action is light and precise, with the individual notes of every chord being within a cent or two all the way up the fingerboard. The thing is harmonically balanced, with the 12th fret providing perfect octaves and all of the harmonics ringing true.
I play like I’ve always played. Truly, badly, briefly. But what a pleasure it is to hold this instrument and try to coax some simple blues riffs from it. Like someone else’s docile but faithful dog, it is reluctant to yield its affections to a stranger. But to my surprise, it does yield, and soon begins, like all good instruments, to almost play for me. On hearing the ancient and familiar 12-bar pattern, Budi’s eyes come alive. I hand him the guitar, recognising that age-old muso ignition point where he must either play now or quietly die inside.
So then Budi plays. I am transfixed. It is traditional blues, but with influences from everywhere he has been and everything he has seen. It’s rough and ready, and like a diamond, technically flawed in places. He plays and sings from his heart and soul, not from his head, and my forearms are dimpled with goosebumps from hell in the warmth of the Bali evening. His voice is etched with acid and honey, and there are overtones of broken glass and bourbon, poverty and loss. He frequently stops, usually about half-way through each song, trailing off with an unseeing stare at the horizon, muttering softly “Saya lupa, saya lupa …” I often forget words to songs too and I understand. He asks me to identify the exotic and mournful chords that he plays, but can’t name. It doesn’t matter. His music is the core of his being, and I am awed.
He will probably never give a concert, or be a performer in the cafes and bars. He probably would not manage to survive the crucible of the recording studio with his soul intact. The wolves of the recording industry would rend the flesh from his bones and dilute his soul enough to break his spirit anyway. I suspect he doesn’t really want public adulation - the act of creation is enough for him. He has no need to be stroked by a large audience – simple recognition by peers is enough for him. His music is his essence.
Budi reminds me of another artist – let’s call her Hellena - that I met in Seminyak. To financially survive, she works behind a bar. To emotionally survive, she writes songs and paints. To me, her paintings are very appealing. Being a Westerner, way too accustomed to being able to purchase whatever I want, I offered to buy a beautifully evocative guitar-themed piece that resonated with my own psyche. She refused. “My art is part of me”, she said. “I can not sell it, because I would lose it …” Just as for Budi, her own Muse has a personal relationship with her, and has not yet given permission to share the channelled talent with the world at large.
And that is the rub. Perhaps the best art is to be seen, and experienced, but not owned by any individual. Perhaps the best music is supposed to be heard, but not commercialised, lest it be diminished in some way. I don’t know. I do know that my life has been enriched by serendipitously meeting these two people. Thank you Budi; thank you Hellena.