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Book Review of A House in Bali by Colin McPhee

Updated on September 8, 2011

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In 1929 Canadian composer Colin McPhee heard a recording of the mysterious and haunting gamelan music from the Indonesian island of Bali while at a party in New York. The music intrigued him and compelled him to move to the exotic tropical island, sparking a lifelong love affair with the people, the island and the music. McPhee lived in Bali for almost a decade, and his experiences there inspired him to write A House in Bali, which has now become a cult classic and must read for visitors to Bali and gamelan aficionados worldwide.

The Island

McPhee has a keen eye for detail as he chronicles his initial responses to the heady mix of sights, smells and tastes of tropical Bali. Of his first landing in the port town of Buleleng he writes, "The town gave forth the faint, voluptuous scent of all eastern cities, of nutmeg and aromatic cigarettes, coconut oil, gardenias and drying fish. From somewhere came the sound of sweet crystal music; of a gong, and above it thin chimelike melody, commencing, stopping, commencing once again." As he goes on to describe his adventures on Bali, he continues to add rich sensory details that allow the reader to be transported instantly to the tropical island.

The Music

One of the major selling points of A House In Bali is McPhee's eloquent descriptions of the structure and sound of Balinese gamelan music. Take for example a passage where he describes listening to a rehearsal of a legong club in the village of Kedaton, "Over a slow and chantlike bass that hummed with curious penetration the melody moved in the middle register, fluid, free, appearing and vanishing in the incessant, shimmering arabesques that rang high in the treble as though beaten out on a thousand little anvils." McPhee's wealth of musical knowledge and appreciation of the nuances of Balinese music add a unique element to the story, making it much more than a simple travelogue.

The People

McPhee also manages to bring to life the unique culture, traditions and collective spirit of the people of the island through his sometimes humorous descriptions of his interactions and with the people he meets. The ever changing cast of characters he portrays include Sampih, the eight year old boy who saves McPhee from a flash flood, but becomes disorientated and frightened when he leaves the familiar landmarks of his small village; Anak Agung Bagus, the warm and generous prince who squanders his family fortune away betting on cock fights, and Ida Bagus Gede, the great and powerful priest who falls into a deep trance in an effort to expel evil spirits from the land.

Resonance Today

Although McPhee was ahead of his time in that Bali was not yet a popular travel destination for foreigners, nor was it a place where many outsiders chose to live for an extended period of time, readers will still find aspects of his experience that ring true today. Ubud, where much of the story was set, still remains the cultural heart of Bali, elaborate ceremonies full of ritual, music and dance still take place every day on the island, and the warm-hearted, joyful and creative spirit of the people of Bali remains the same. And thanks to McPhee's efforts through this book as well as additional documentation and compositions by the author, the sacred gamelan music of Bali has now become world renowned for it's unique composition, haunting melodies and overall complexity.

Watch the Royal Balinese Gamelan Orchestra perform in Ubud


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    • Erin Rooney profile image

      Erin Rooney 6 years ago from Arcata, California

      What a beautiful review. You gave me just enough of a taste of the rich imagery and characters of A House in Bali that I can't do anything else but buy the book! It's pretty impressive that you could create so much intrigue surrounding the music described in the book, that I would feel curiosity despite the fact that I won't actually be hearing the music.

      The video was a fantastic addition to your hub. It will be nice to hear what a person with knowledge of music gleans from the unusual but beautiful sounds. Thank you for the convenient links and wonderfully crafted review of what looks like an incredible book.