Rebirthing the ‘Golden Oldies’ – Repatriation of Lost Balinese Music Part I

If you’re not “in the scene”, few people who live in Bali would know that a lot of Balinese gamelan music is either endangered or extinct. Depending on the village or tradition, this could be as much as 90% of a repertoire and there are more than 70 different types of gamelan ensembles. In addition, there are numerous gamelan instruments and even entire types of orchestras that are extinct: effectively the dodos of Balinese tradition. Documenting and reconstructing rare and lost Balinese gamelan traditions is the ongoing work of Mekar Bhuana in Denpasar, a centre that I set up in 2000 with this as one of the main objectives. Why this music and the physical instruments no longer exist is a topic too in-depth for this article, so I’m just going to introduce a fascinating process that we get to do every so often when we manage to access vintage documentation (that was mostly made by outsiders in Bali): repatriation.

Around five months ago, Dr Danker Schaareman, a good friend of mine who is also a gamelan researcher and expert in archaic gamelan types called selonding and gambang, shared a vintage field recording of gamealan music with me. It was of a rare type of court orchestra called semara pagulingan, which was the topic of my research over the past 21 years in Bali. In 1962, a Swiss resident of Bali who was a brilliant, world-famous painter named Theo Meier made an audio recording in the village of Ketewel. Living in Sanur and married to a Balinese, he was known locally as ‘Tuan Theo’; even my own wife’s grandmother, Putu Resi (who was a chef at Tanjung Sari Hotel) knew him well. The recording is in pretty poor shape perhaps more due to microphone placement and recording equipment (and perhaps the environment – remember there wouldn’t have been any electricity at that time and batteries would have had a much more limited life) than to its vintage; nonetheless musicians familiar with this kind of court period music can work out “what’s goin’ on”.

I was more than familiar with the orchestra recorded in this village as I had not only extensively researched it and hand-forged duplicates of some of the instruments, but also been invited to perform together with the group on numerous occasions since the late 1990s. Repatriation was essential but I had to aim for maximum effect so as to ensure that the pieces would be relearned and be reborn in this village. More on this process in the next edition of Kulture Kid!


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By Vaughan Hatch

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