Bali. It’s beautiful, it’s exotic. It’s probably your dream honeymoon (or at least mine). A couple I’m friends with (who are well-traveled) have told me it’s “the most romantic place they’ve ever been.” But what do we know about Bali, really? That it’s near Australia. Or maybe it’s an island.
There’s much more to Bali than you think. For example, did you know film legend Charlie Chaplin lived there? Writer Kerry Lee takes us literary travelers into the strange, exquisite world of Bali, which Colin McPhee wrote about in A House in Bali. Lee’s article explores the music, storytelling and unique mix of people on the island.
Literary Traveler: You mention the women ex-pats of Bali. Did you feel you fit into their group and the ex-pat community as a whole?
Kerry Lee: The women expats and I came from a pretty similar background, so in that respect I fit into the group. Same education, same social and economic upbringing, though the women were from Europe, South Africa, as well as the United States. The similarities ended there, however. Though they lived in this foreign country, they clung to each other for most of their social life, and didn’t spend a lot of time with native Balinese. Their children attended international schools, like The Green School. Because foreigners cannot own property or business in Bali, each of them had married Indonesian men, and then started their various enterprises. There was also a suggestion of “runaway” about them. On their own, they had moved halfway around the world and started a whole new life, leaving friends and family behind. While I am a traveler, it is always good to come home. I didn’t get this feeling from them.
LT: How do you think a big personality like Charlie Chaplin would’ve fit in when he lived in Bali?
KL: Apparently Charlie was loved in Bali, though the Balinese hadn’t seen his films prior to his visit. From what I have read, the crowds, especially children, loved him wherever he went. They thought he was very funny! An article in the New York Herald on June 12, 1932 said, “There were no mobs making frenzied efforts to see them (Chaplin and brother Syd), no newspaper reporters to ask if they liked this or that, and no cameramen attempting to get intimate portraits.”
Noel Coward was also Chaplin’s traveling companion, and he wrote this verse while they were there:
As I said this morning to Charlie,
There is far too much music in Bali.
And although as a place it’s entrancing,
There is also a thought too much dancing.
It appears that each Balinese native
From the womb to the tomb is creative,
And although the results are quite clever,
There is too much artistic endeavor.
Which leads to your next question …
LT: Bali is also known for its beautiful art, especially its wood carvings and paintings. Did you immerse yourself in the art of Bali as you did with the music and oral literary tradition?
KL: The most incredible art museum in Bali is the Agung Rai Museum of Art (more commonly referred to as ARMA). The museum grounds are immense, with perfectly coiffed gardens and in the morning, the museum is virtually empty. The permanent collection includes works by such well-known artists as Ida Bagus Made, Walter Spies (another interesting story), and many other Indonesian artists. Balinese art is extraordinarily beautiful and divine, and I spend quite a bit of time at this museum. With an entrance fee of $2.50, one couldn’t go wrong.
LT: Is Balinese gamelan music visceral? How did you feel hearing it?
KL: The gamelan is so outside of what music means or sounds like in the West. Visceral would be a good way to describe it – I felt a little on edge listening to it, because it was impossible to know where the sounds were going. The music was always an accompaniment to a dance, a play, or a puppet show, and was an integral part of the show. It set up a tension, an edgy anticipation, and always resulted in a surprise, both visual and auditory.
Please continue reading the article Colin McPhee’s Musical Life in Bali.