A follow-up piece to our previous post about the exhibition currently still on at the Rio Helmi Gallery & Cafe in Ubud until the 27th of March.

by Marlowe Bandem

Dr. Edward Herbst writes that these historic recordings were made in 1928 (and possibly also 1929) as part of a collection that was the first and only commercial collection launched in Bali during the period preceding World War II. They were launched in 78 rpm format with records being marketed world-wide, comprising a choice of Balinese gamelan and tembang in both old and new styles. On sale all over the world (or, as it later transpired, a total commercial failure), the black discs were anyway quickly depleted and disappeared from circulation. This was a very important moment in the history of Balinese gamelan, a time of revolution in the arts with the emergence of the kebyar style of gamelan that took prominence over the entire island. Groups of gamelan players competed with each other in converting their old styles to fit the new. There was fierce competition between villages and regions, forcing young composers to create charismatic and innovative techniques

Andrew Toth (1980: 16-17) wrote on the subject of these historic recordings: Representatives of the record company Odeon and Beka were sent to expand their coverage to Bali in August 1928. Five of the ninety-eight record matrices (savailable at the time were chosen by the renowned researcher Erich M. von Hornbostel to be included in a musical anthology of non-Western tradition bearing the title “Music of the Orient”. It was due to this collection that Indonesian music caught the attention of many people, a large public that included ethnomusicologists.


A third of the Odeon and Beka recordings finally emerged in Europe and America; however the larger part had actually been intended for the local Bali market. Since this was the case, these records had labels printed in Malay, which was the main language used in the archipelago, while some records even carried labels written in Balinese script. The ambitious plan to develop a local market ended in total failure due to the limited interest of the Balinese community in new and expensive technology, more specially as they anyway had easy direct access to a large variety of performances held in thousands of temples and houses across the island. Thus Colin McPhee remained the sole regular customer of the 78 rpm recordings, having purchased them from a desperate salesman throughout the year. Most of his collection remains well preserved to this day, having escaped the disappointment and fury of the agent who destroyed all remaining stock. (McPhee, 1946: 72).

It is interesting to note that all recording were conducted under the guidance of Walter Spies, a painter and musician whose intimate knowledge of the arts and culture was made freely available, and who often benefited the research or creations of other parties (Rhodius, 1964: 265; Kunst, 1974: 24). Despite the limitations imposed by instruments with a recording capacity of only three minutes, these recordings contain amazing examples of the wealth of both vocal and instrumental musical genres, as well as the work of a whole generation of composers, artists and sekaa gamelan (gamelan assemblages) that are revered today, the highly esteemed teachers and legendary gamelan assemblages such as I Wayan Lotring, I Nyoman Kalér, gamelan gong Pangkung, Belaluan, and Busungbiu. This auditory documentation of various priceless Balinese musical legacies and traditions includes various styles of singing barely heard these days, as well as the Kebyar Ding, a percussion composition of important historical significance. Thus today, these original recordings can be of great service to the new generations of musicians as a means of study and revival of the music of their fathers and grandfathers. Many recordings of renowned singers have even become sacred objects, with copies being stored in family temples.

Having caught a glimpse of Bali 1928, come join us and participate in the repatriation project of this richness and diversity of arts and culture from the past. Should any reader have additional information to volunteer regarding the identity of persons or locations contained in the footage and photographs included in the CDs and DVDs, or who have stories or historical data to contribute to this research project, please forward the data and information to info@bali1928.net for further examination.

There is a lot of curiosity in this 21st Century regarding Bali’s past, and efforts are being made to discover what is essential to Balinese culture. Today, musicians, dancers and singers, both young and old, have taken an unprecedented interest in these historical recordings. This is very encouraging for those who have worked over many years across continents, seeking out archives that are spread around the world in order to create this repatriation project to enable the present day Balinese community to reacquire and enjoy their past cultural splendour.


Edward Herbst is the principal researcher of the Bali 1928 project. He has made repeated visits to Bali and studied under a number of masters: he studied the gender wayang and palegongan under I Made Gerindem in Teges Kanginan, classical dance stage performance under I Nyoman Kakul in Batuan, vocal music under I Made Pasek Tempo in Tampaksiring, Ni Nyoman Candri, Wayan Rangkus and Pande Made Kenyir in Singapadu, as well as under I Ketut Rinda in Blahbatuh. At the present time he is a senior researcher in the Department of Anthropology at Hunter College, City University of New York.

This research and publication project of these historical recordings is fully supported by the Research Foundation at the City University of New York (CUNY), based on a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, engaging Dr. Edward Herbst as project coordinator, ethnomusicologist and principal researcher; Allan Evans from Arbiter of Cultural Traditions in New York as the quality expert for LP audio recordings (piringan hitam) recordings, and Dr. I Made Bandem as special advisor. The Indonesian publishing partner is STMIK STIKOM BALI (The Bali School of Information Management and Computer Engineering), headed by Dr. Dadang Hermawan, with Marlowe Makaradhwaja as project coordinator, Ridwan Rudianto as video editor, Jaya Pattra Ditya as graphic designer, and Marlowe Makaradhwaja and I Wayan juniartha as translators.

May our efforts be of benefit.