BALI 1928: A Project for Film and Sound

Légong pangipuk (love dance). Photo by Walter Spies courtesy Water Spies Foundation, the Netherlands

BALI 1928, a project started by Arbiter of Cultural Traditions in New York to reissue the 1928 Odeon and Beka recordings, has been led by ethnomusicologist Edward Herbst for the past 12 years. The original idea was to locate, restore, and reissue the 78 rpm recordings made by the German Odeon and Beka companies in Bali (and one from Lombok) during 1928 (many by Beka may have been recorded in 1929).

It eventually included films as they were discovered from the 1930s, and with booklets and extensive notes are a legacy that could be returned to the Balinese.

Early Films and Music from Bali

In 2003, and again from 2006 to 2015, Herbst assembled a research team in Bali of musicians, singers, and dancers ‘to find and get to know near-centenarians who could illuminate the creative climate of early 20th-century Bali and help identify performers in the films and archival photos’.

Many of the films and photographs were taken by Canadian composer Colin McPhee, who decided to go to Bali after hearing several of the discs in 1930. The same year Mexican Miguel Covarrubias and his wife Rosa also left for Bali, which led to their Island of Bali (1937). Covarrubias also took wonderful footage. Also included are the films of 1938 by the lesser known Rolf de Maré, some of which are colour.

All these films have been finely restored. Many of the films required correcting, as in some instances left and right had been reversed and then transferred at the wrong speed, common errors in restoring 16 mm footage.

Recordings of the Traditional Music of Bali and Lombok (1980)

These remained the only recordings made in Bali and released before World War II. Locating the recordings presented a true seek and find. Andrew Toth originally listed many in his Recordings of the Traditional Music of Bali and Lombok (1980). Philip Yampolsky continued this work through the 1990s, so by then 101 recordings were known. Herbst and Arbiter’s director Allan Evans searched collections worldwide, even finding a disc at an auction in rural Texas. One Beka (above right) is the only copy known to exist. A total of 111 recordings are being reissued.

Fortunately the advisor to Odeon and Beka was Walter Spies, the German artist, musician, composer, and so much more, who had recently arrived in Bali. The result is an amazingly comprehensive set of recordings including many varieties of gamelan, the chamber-style gender wayang, rare unaccompanied vocal music, dance, theatre such as arja and jangér (fig 2). A nephew of the centre dancer in the photograph, Gusti Putu Rengkeg, was at the launch in July.

Music and Dance in Bali

So much important music and dance was included in these recordings of 1928 and then in the films of the 1930s. Performances had been brilliantly documented and photographed by Spies and Beryl de Zoete in Dance and Drama in Bali (1937) as well as in McPhee’s work, and that of his wife and sponsor Jane Belo.

With all this new material in BALI 1928 it is hard to highlight what is most important; however, one certainly is the new music and dance, the kebyar. Herbst rightly equates its rise with that of jazz in the US in some aspects, although not stylistically. Films on the DVDs provide fascinating rehearsals and long performances of many forms including the légong (fig 3).

Last July, at a BALI 1928 Repatriation Conference organised by Herbst and his Balinese publishing partners at STIKOM-Bali, the set of five CDs, five DVDs, and booklets in Bahasa Indonesia was launched. It was announced that sets were to be distributed free to the descendants, village music and dance groups, advisors, informants, schools and teaching institutions throughout the island of Bali.

Attendees happily included many of the descendants of the 1928 performers. The keynote speech was given by Anthony Seeger, founding director of Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, who is the recently retired professor emeritus at the UCLA Ethnomusicology depart-ment, and director of their archive.

McPhee had taught and produced his magnum opus Music of Bali (1966) at UCLA whose archive provided many of the original 78s and his films and photographs. Some of the latter are known from Music in Bali, as well as his A House in Bali (1946) and A Club of Small Men (1948), but many are unpublished.

A Selection of 80 Photographs Displayed

A selection of about 80 photographs were displayed at the conference and monitors showed the films. A performance of related music in the evening included some inspired by these historic recordings.  Herbst, his teams, informants, and advisors, all well acknowledged in the booklets, are to be congratulated for their beautiful and important work. It should be an inspiration to others working with similar legacies.

Films Posted on a Dedicated YouTube Channel

The CD/DVD sets are issued only in Indonesia, which makes sense since access to the Internet in Bali is often not as fast and universal as elsewhere. And all the films are now posted on the YouTube channel: Outside of Indonesia, the individual CDs I-V and an Anthology CD have been issued by Arbiter of Cultural Traditions, for more information go to The English-language extensive notes, increased five-fold to over 400 pages, are also available online on


You can listen to some of the music rediscovered and related to this project visit

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