Colin McPhee’s Musical Life in Bali

by Kerry Lee

In 1929, the expats were sitting at the outdoor cafes along the Montparnasse, quaffing espresso by day and absinth by night.  I dreamed I was there on a balmy evening, discussing Tender is the Night with F. Scott Fitzgerald, exchanging repartees with James Joyce, and watching the bus boy, Langston Hughes, clearing tables.

I’d read the work of all the famous runaways: Sherwood Anderson, Ernest Hemingway, e.e. cummings.  I knew about the expat communities in Berlin and Mexico City, but I hadn’t heard of another, less famous destination for expats between the two world wars.  The small island of Bali, one of the 17,000 islands that make up Indonesia, became a destination for a very different group of escapees.  Who would have thought that Charlie Chaplin and Margaret Mead were also a part of an expat community?  When I arrived in Bali 80 years after Charlie Chaplin, those long gone days were completely unfamiliar to me.  My interest was in live volcanoes, black sand beaches, shadow puppets, dance, and Indonesian food and coffee.

Late mornings I would leave my bungalow and follow a narrow passageway colonized by homeless, mangy dogs and ground pecking chickens until I reached the main road.  There I hopped aboard a crowded bemo, heading into Ubud for coffee at Cafe Rendezvousdoux.  I went there for the lattes, but found an artist and writer expat community occupying many of the tables, tolerating the tourists who bumbled in.  Owned by an articulate, irrepressible Frenchman in large, leather sandals, there were books on the sturdy wood shelves lining all the walls, for sale or for delving into while sipping your drink.  On the back wall, a large flat screen television rolled black and white Balinese films of dance troupes from the 1930s, and photos of famous Balinese dancers were propped on the tops of the bookshelves.

I shared a bench at the long wooden table and listened to the fusion of French, Indonesian, English, and Japanese swirling around me.  It was dark and cool, a perfect respite after the hot, humid, crowded market across the street.  It was a “tres confortable” place to spend the morning.

I also found myself invited to join a second expat community; a group of women who met regularly for a late lunch at the open air Cafe Nomad.  Cocktails or Bali coffee, Indonesian delectables, waiters hovering and then scurrying, white linen table clothes.  These women were business owners who had left homes all over the world: Germany, England, South Africa, and the United States.  When they arrived in Bali, they set a specific course for themselves.  On the list was marrying Indonesian men, having beautiful children, and starting very successful businesses: jewelry, clothing, yoga and massage studios.

Conversation at lunch invariably concerned ideas and suggestions about how to deal with unruly or lazy servants, trips to Singapore for shopping, and their teenage children, sent back home to stay with relatives while attending high school.

In the evening, at home in my bungalow perched on the side of a deep river gorge between the tiers of rice paddies, I chose books about Bali from my bookshelf.  The Kris of Death  – A Mystery Novel Set in Bali by Meredith Morain and Jerrold Steward, in which one of the characters says:

There are two kinds of expats; to one kind, home was a place to dream of.  To the other, it was the stuff of nightmares — most of the expats in Bali belonged to the second category.  The old nest had become fouled somehow; Bali was a chance for a fresh start.

Another book I pulled from the shelf a few nights later was The Edge of Bali by Inez Baranay.  One of the three travelers in the story states with contempt:

The hotel’s farthest fence had a gate that led to the beach, and there, too, its billboard reminded you that inside it was the way you want Bali to be.  And eat your heart out everyone else, because Bali isn’t the way you want it to be.  Bali has dirt and poverty and armies of hustlers trying to make a dollar, and if you can’t get behind a big, wealthy wall you can’t miss it.

I wondered what Bali was like before it became fouled by tourism.  Before plastic accumulated in refuse dumps outside of each family compound.  Before, when the tropical air wasn’t filled with billowing, yellow smoke as families burned their garbage along side the road every night.

Then one evening I pulled Colin McPhee’s novel A House in Bali from the shelf.   His name was familiar, I knew he was a composer, but that was the limit of my knowledge.  I learned in the first chapter that McPhee heard some gramophone recordings of Balinese gamelan music in 1930, and was completely smitten.  On his way to the exotic island, leaning over the rail at the front of the ship, McPhee watched for the telltale flickering lights on the horizon and thought:

I was filled with an inner excitement that kept me wide-awake.  I had come all this way on a quest of musicâ — to listen to the gamelans, the strange and lovely-sounding orchestras of gongs that still made music, it seemed, in the courts of Java and the villages and temples of Bali, and as I looked out into the night I could hardly believe that this musical adventure was actually about to begin.

McPhee and his wife, anthropologist Jane Belo, traveled to Bali in 1931.  Finding the beautiful little paradise to their liking, they began building their house in 1932, and while doing so McPhee recorded the building process as well as his daily life in Bali.  In this writing, strangely, he completely failed to mention his wife even once, nor does he mention Margaret Mead or Charlie Chaplin, both of whom he entertained in his Balinese home.

McPhee is a charming writer, and the description of his life and the Balinese people he met and lived with is fascinating.  He wrote in great detail about his attempt to understand the rituals, of which there are many, the social context of Balinese life, as well as the captivating dance and music.  With humor he also ruminated on the collision of Balinese attitudes and Western expectations.

But more than anything, this book is a chronicle of Balinese musical culture, which is a very complicated thing.   McPhee was a purely Western composer attempting first to comprehend and then to learn a completely new musical language.  He writes about his growing understanding of this foreign language, as well as his frustrations.  He also went on to compose a hybrid of Balinese and Western music in the mid-1930s; a pioneer on this path.

McPhee’s primary interest in coming to Bali, however, was the gamelan orchestra itself, which is unique to this small island and its larger neighbor, Java.  A gamelan, almost completely percussion, is a specific set of instruments associated to a village or group of musicians.  The instruments are built and tuned to stay together, and they would usually not be interchangeable with any other orchestra.  During his time in Bali, McPhee attended temple ceremonies and trance rituals and visited orchestras hidden deep in the mountains of Bali.  He also tracked down and studied with many famous Balinese musicians and composers.   In his narrative he describes how the composer would teach his personal gamelan a new piece, playing a phrase over and over and having the orchestra practice it until it was perfect, before moving on to the next phrase.  McPhee helped save a few Balinese orchestras, assisting them in buying their instruments and supporting their travel to performances.  He also notated the melodies and rhythmic devices of every gamelan that he heard.

The instruments in the gamelan are usually played in pairs that are tuned slightly differently.  When played consistently together, they create an interference beat, the shimmering sound of the gamelan, the opposite of two sounds played in complete unison. The Balinese believed these interference beats were a symbolic reminder of god’s presence.  It is this shimmering sound that is so unique, and bewitching, and nonexistent in Western music.

Music, storytelling, dance, history, and religion are all interwoven in the Balinese culture.  Like McPhee, I was also intrigued by Balinese dance.  I attended a performance that began around nine o’clock one evening.  For hours the children sat enthralled along with their parents.  I leaned over and whispered to the elderly Indonesian gentleman sitting next to me, asking him which tale the group was performing.  He smiled, never taking his eyes off the colorful dancers, and said that it might not be clear for another hour or two.  When I left, we knew that the story being told was about King of Lasem, who found the maiden Rangkesari lost in the forest. The King takes her home and locks her in a house of stone.

The stories themselves never change, and everyone knows the outcome; it just isn’t always clear in the beginning which story is being performed.  This lack of knowledge doesn’t detract from the beautiful costuming, entrancing eye and hand movement, and the exquisite makeup of the dancers.

McPhee studied these stories the dances told and spent a great deal of time with many different dancers.  He even recruited young boys he felt were promising dancers, helping them with their training, and sometimes inviting them to live in the house he and his wife built.  The open acceptance of homosexuality in Bali at this time ultimately contributed to the demise of McPhee’s marriage with Belo.  They divorced in 1939, and without her monetary support, McPhee had to leave Bali.

Back in the United States, the 1940s found McPhee drowning in alcohol and depression, with little attention to composing.  In the 1950s,  however, he rose from this stupor and began to work again.  In 1958 he was appointed professor of ethnomusicology at UCLA, and was also a highly esteemed jazz critic.  In addition, during this time he wrote the book The Music in Bali, finished just months before he died and published in 1966, two years after his death.  This book was the first comprehensive study of Balinese music written in English.

But it is the captivating House in Bali that he is most remembered for; his wistful description of being an insider and at the same time an outsider in a very strange and different culture.  After reading the story, I looked at the Bali I was experiencing through a different lens.  I’d caught a glimpse of a paradise that was unencumbered by my proscribed Western restraint.  Though the island and its people and traditions were lovely to behold, I needed more time to delve deeper, to slowly peel away more of my personal filters, to better understand.  There will have to be another visit.

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