A House in Bali by Colin McPhee

By Ian Browne

A House in Bali by Colin McPhee

Bali, what an island! I used to travel to this Hindu paradise from Darwin, but I never wrote about the place. Instead, I used Ubud and Amed as a hideaway to unwind from a busy work- life back home in even hotter Darwin. I also made friends with families, and was lucky in being welcomed to travel out to forest family abodes, those happy homes away from the usual tourist traps. But many years before myself, or even the cast from Morning of the Earth surfed their way around the island, Colin McPhee pondered life there.


Canadian born Colin McPhee was a virtuoso pianist who moved to New York, delving into the ‘New Music’ scene there where he instigated a new style of music as a ‘middle ground’ between the two classical styles. To quench his passion for Balinese music, McPhee travelled to Bali in 1931 to explore all facets of the gamelan. A House in Bali was first published in 1947; many years after Colin left the island, never to return. From his time there he published Music in Bali, which to this day remains the ‘leading reference work for Balinese musicians and composers’. An insight into how the West perceives the ‘value of other cultures’, he writes about the people of Bali with a fast-paced intimacy that I wish I could have mastered within my Asian odysseys. Not only is this a journey into the village life of 1930’s Bali, but a nod-and-wink to the music and drama that breathes life into these spiritual people. 

Though McPhee’s main ambition within this well-penned chronicle is to investigate the musical culture, he too sheds light upon the cultural dynamics; taboos, while painting the fears of the villagers to life. Highlighted are the islander’s belief systems and ceremonial rituals, rigid and diverse, leaving the most hardened vegans horrified. Dispersing musical endeavours within the island’s daily events, in stages he explores the structure of the gamelan’s music and associated instruments with dizzy intent. This is not for everyone, but he once again leads you back to the colour, climate and poetic landscape of this beautiful island, where the characters become part of your every day. His communication of the relationships between the Balinese characters, and his mentoring of the gamelan performers, is honourable. Exciting too is his voyage to the places of this past world, both familiar to many of us, and those unfamiliar. 

Colin McPhee really speaks to both the visual and the audio, from moonlit swimming holes perched within mountain jungles, to the cockerel awakening us far too early on the arriving dawn, as a new village day arrives. His descriptive devotions to the love of the shadow play and folk-storytelling are plentiful. I really enjoyed the building of his house, set on the edge of a village by a cemetery, its staff, and the cringe-worthy socio-politically-necessary ceremonies he has to commit to. Having worked with indigenous groups in the Top End from across northern and central Australia; and within my many sorties to village-life Asia, I have witnessed and respected many cultural beliefs. What takes place in the final stages of this book will leave you gaping at the jaw and realising just why these folk are so spiritually-connected. I too have seen something similar in Caringbah-Sydney, and at night in Kakadu. One of my top 30 books of all time, Colin McPhee’s A House in Bali published by PERIPLUS, witness Bali from a different vantage point.

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