What Is the Group Chanting Ritual Performed Early in “Baraka”?

Baraka (1993) is a film that takes the viewer everywhere without telling where they’ve been. Shot in 24 countries, the film never makes note of what location is being shown at any particular time. This is intentional—Ron Fricke composed a film that isn’t about knowing where you are, but what you are seeing. It doesn’t call out cultures or practices by name, as the world is all one. It promotes a universal cultural perspective.

Baraka’s approach is tremendously effective, but makes one wonder about the origins of many of the images it relays. Where is a certain gorgeous landscape, or a particular piece of fantastic architecture? Who are these people and why are they doing what they are doing? It’s up to the viewer to find out if they want to know more.

Early in Baraka, there is a beautiful scene of virile movement and sound performed by hundreds of men. It fits somewhere between music and noise, a trance-like chorus of voices chanting and reacting in massive choreographed motions. The scene is the kind of material Baraka exists to show people, clearly existing outside the Western world inside a whole different set of traditions and culture.

The chant is called Kecak, a Balinese form of dance and music drama also known as Ramayana Monkey Chant, or simply “monkey dance.” It is a tradition dating back ages, emerging in popularity during the 1930s. It was as exclusive to men until the mid 2000s, postdating the scene captured in Baraka by many years. Traditionally, at least 150 shirtless men sit in a circle wearing checked cloths. They melodically chant “cak, cak, cak” while moving their hands and arms. What they are doing is depicting a battle scene from the Ramayana, a Sanskrit epic poem considered one of India’s great works of literature along with the Mahabharata. The story says that the monkey-like Vanara helped Prince Rama fight the evil King Ravana.

The book Balinese Dance, Drama and Music describes the Kecak as “one of Bali’s best-known performing art forms, integrates complex multi-layers of rhythmic vocal chant, dance and drama. Known to the western world as the monkey dance, kecak was developed in the 1930s … [It] is often described as a form of gamelan suara (voice orchestra) and is named for the onomatopoeic sound cak or cek chanted throughout the performance.”

The art expresses balance and harmony, and is designed to please the ancestral spirits of the land. The kecak thus becomes an expression of culture as well as an act of worship. Performers seek taksu, or spiritual charisma, the pinnacle of energy which every Balinese performer desires.