musings on music, travel, books, and life from Southeast Asia

Posts tagged ‘Sampih’

Dancing Out of Bali


I don’t what it is about Bali that captivates me so much. Maybe it’s the enchanting allure of the exotic Asia of yesterday, back in the times when Bali was a relatively unspoiled paradise in the minds of so many Western visitors. I’ve actually never been to Bali, but I’ve been transported there through literature, most notably after reading Colin McPhee’s outstanding A House in Bali memoir a few years ago. But seeing as how that book detailed McPhee’s life in Bali in the 1930s, I doubt that I’d find many vestiges of the old Balinese culture if I visited nowadays.


I recently read another book that could be considered as a companion to McPhee’s memoir, Dancing Out of Bali by John Coast. The British-born author was interned by the Japanese during WWII, where he was sent to work on the infamous Thai-Burma Railway, an experience that he later made into a film for the BBC. After the war he moved to Indonesia and became a press attaché to President Sukarno. Moving to Bali a few years later with his Indonesian wife, he became friends with many of the same people that McPhee had known during his time there, including dancers such as Sampih and Mario. Inspired by the unique Balinese dance styles, Coast came up with the idea of forming a new dance troupe and taking them on tour overseas. Thus, the “Dancers of Bali” was formed.


In Dancing Out of Bali, Coast writes about his experiences in Bali, ranging from humorous and heartwarming moments to more harrowing incidents. Of particular interest is the way he befriends the locals and discovers more about Balinese culture and traditions. Eventually, he manages to get them excited about his plans for the new dance troupe, although a few people needed some gentle persuasion. At the time of Coast’s arrival in Bali, the legendary Mario was retired from dancing, spending more time gambling at cock fights than working or staying at home with his wife. But Coast talks him into teaching some of the young local girls a few of the traditional Balinese dances. Sampih, who had been one of McPhee’s young “discoveries,” had also stopped dancing, but became a close friend of Coast and the male lead in the new dance troupe.

 Sampih Life magazine

The final chapters of the book describe the preparations — along with the frustrations, complications, and politics — involved in organizing the 1952 “Dancers of Bali” tour, a journey that took the village dancers to Europe and the United States, and back again to Europe. Coast writes engagingly about his experiences both in Bali and on tour. He also has a good ear for dialogue and some of the conversations that he recounts are quite funny. As you can imagine, trying to supervise a large group of villagers, making their first trip overseas, was quite challenging, packed with plenty of funny moments.



Dancing Out of Bali also includes many Black & White photos taken in Bali and during the various overseas tours. It’s pretty cool to see some of the dancers posing with celebrities such as Walt Disney, Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, and Sukarno. We are also treated to photos of one of the star female dancers in the troupe, Ni Gusti Raka, both as a 12-year-old and later as a grandmother in 2004, when she is teaching a new generation of dancers in Ubud.


Coast dedicates this book to Sampih, who was tragically murdered in February 1954, only a few months after the dancers had returned from their latest tour of Europe. The book has some photos of Coast with Sampih’s son (named Belge by his mother after she received a postcard from Sampih from Belgium) and Ni Gusti Raka in 1983. Coast passed away in 1989.

If you haven’t seen it, there is an amazing video of Sampih dancing as a child, taken by McPhee in the 1930s. You can find it on YouTube:

Bali: I Sampih dancing Igel Jongkok 1930s

And another vintage video from the 1930s, this one featuring Mario:

Bali: I Marya dancing Igel Trompong with Gong Belaluan



A House in Bali

I’ve never been to Bali, but reading Colin McPhee’s book A House in Bali makes me feel like I am there amongst the rolling green hills, listening to a gamelan orchestra, a troupe of graceful dancers performing, a soothing tropic breeze wafting over me. Granted, things have changed considerably in Bali since McPhee wrote this book nearly 70 years ago. I doubt there are many vestiges of charm and authenticity remaining in Bali nowadays, especially in the wake of all the beer-chugging Australian tourists, tattooed backpackers, and Eat, Pray, Love devotees who have descended upon the island in recent years. But A House in Bali remains — in the words of the book’s publisher — “the only narrative by a Western musician” about Bali. And, like a timeless snapshot, the book is still considered a classic account of life in Bali and Balinese culture.  


McPhee was a composer (born in Canada, but an American citizen) who fell in love with the sound of Balinese gamelan music and ended up moving to Bali for several years in the 1930s. More than a travel diary or a primer in ethnic music, A House in Bali also focuses on Balinese culture and the remarkable people that McPhee meets during his time at his rented house in Ubud.  McPhee’s passion and love for Bali and the Balinese people comes shining through on the pages of this delightful, informative, and sometimes funny book.


McPhee was a composer of some fame, having studied with Edgard Varese, and later working with Benjamin Britten. McPhee’s Tabuh-Tabuhan: Toccata for Orchestra, which combined Balinese and Western music, is considered his most famous piece.  While doing an online searche I found some old videos that McPhee filmed back in the 1930s when he lived in Bali. Yes, you can see them on YouTube! One video is of the famous dance teacher Ida Boya as she guides a young girl through some moves. There are also short clips of a gamelan orchestra and a kendang drummer:


But the most amazing clip of the bunch is the one of the village boy Sampih (a boy that McPhee mentored and reportedly adopted) as he does a traditional Balinese dance (Kebyar Duduk). In full costume, Sampih whirls and weaves his way around the stage, surrounded by gamelan musicians. I’m not sure which is more striking, Sampih’s intricate dance moves or his comical facial expressions, but it’s absolutely mesmerizing footage. It’s too bad there’s no sound to accompany these old Black & White videos — it would be marvelous to hear the gamelan sounds as Sampih dances. But considering that these scenes were shot over 70 years ago, we should just be thankful that they were unearthed after so many years in storage and are in good enough condition that they can now be viewed.


Sampih grew up to quite a famous dancer, and was part of the “Dancers of Bali” tour that went to the United States in 1952. They appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show and there was a feature article on them in Life magazine (which can also be found online). World Arbiter Records has released a CD of music recorded during that tour; Dancers of Bali 1952: Gamelan of Peliatan. This is a quality recording and includes a 24-page booklet with photos and more information about gamelan music and the tour. After the tour finished, Sampih returned to Bali but was tragically murdered in 1954 at the age of 28. McPhee passed away in 1964. A collection of his compositions, recordings, films, photos, and other documents is housed at UCLA, where he taught composition and ethnomusicology from 1960-1964. Another McPhee book, Music in Bali, published posthumously in 1966, is also considered to be an important and influential source of information for musicians. The full title is the cumbersome: Music in Bali: A Study in Form and Instrumental Organization in Balinese Orchestral Music.


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