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.