14 July 2016

Bali 1928, the recordings

The last piece: An original 78 rpm record from the historical recordings of 1928-1929 with information on the label printed in Balinese script. This particular record contains “Pubupuh Adri” and is the only existing disc in the world. It is a story nearly 90 years in the making that has taught a large number of people, from prominent scholars to village musicians, how a past legacy can invigorate present tradition. The story began in mid-1928, when representatives from German recording company Odeon and Beka traveled across Bali to record the traditional music and songs of the island, which by that time had become known in Europe as a bewitching tropical paradise in the East. It was a crucial time in the island’s musical history. Bali was in the midst of an artistic revolution with kebyar becoming the new dominant style of music. Gamelan orchestra groups had their older ceremonial instruments melted down and reforged in the new style. Intense competition between villages and regions stimulated young composers to develop impressive innovations and techniques.

The recordings were made under the guidance of Walter Spies, a German painter and long-time resident of Bali. Spies possessed an intimate knowledge of the island and knew most, if not all, of Bali’s top artists and musicians at the time. In 1929, the diverse sampling of new and older Balinese styles appeared on 78 rpm records with subsequent releases for international distribution. Although the medium limited tracks to three-minute excerpts, the records contained remarkable examples of a broad range of musical genres — vocal as well as instrumental — and outstanding composers, performers and ensembles of the period who are now famous teachers of legendary groups. It was the first and only commercially released recording of music made in Bali prior to World War II. Unfortunately, it was not a commercial success and quickly went out of production. The information on the labels was printed in Malay, the lingua franca of the archipelago at the time, and in some cases in Balinese. The ambitious plan to develop an indigenous market was a complete failure, however, as few Balinese were interested in the new and expensive technology — especially when there was a world of live performances happening daily in temples and households across the island.

The present generation of Balinese artists would not have had the opportunity to listen to the magnificent music contained on the records if not for the hard work and perseverance of an American scholar. Edward Herbst first visited Bali in 1972 to study wayang and gamelan palegongan, gong-making techniques and Balinese classical dance drama. Later, Herbst had the privilege of studying under other great Balinese masters. He was a passionate student and meticulous researcher, two qualities that enabled him to overcome numerous obstacles in his next task: searching for the “missing” discs.
In July 2015, the Bali 1928 Repatriation Project launched a collection of five CDs and DVDs containing the remastered music of 111 discovered matrices of Odeon and Beka.
Photos courtesy of Bali 1928

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