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Home » Edward Herbst – Reviving Early Twentieth-Century Balinese Vocal Styles through the Music Recordings of 1928

Edward Herbst – Reviving Early Twentieth-Century Balinese Vocal Styles through the Music Recordings of 1928

Edward Herbst

My presentation will incorporate aural examples that illuminate issues relating to an ongoing repatriation project involving the first published recordings of music in Bali. In August 1928 representatives of the German companies Odeon and Beka arrived in Bali and recorded a great variety of genres. About half of the recordings were of vocal music: classical, ritual and popular styles. In the 20s Bali was experiencing tremendous societal transformation reflected in new forms and the disappearance of ancient genres. The last of the Balinese kingdoms had just been conquered by the Dutch in 1908.

The intent of the Odeon-Beka companies was to sell these 78 rpm records to the indigenous population. But Bali was not a cash economy and there was more than enough live music to listen to, so virtually none of the records sold. By 1931 the local European dealer in Denpasar—during a fit of rage—destroyed his entire inventory.

In 1998 Allan Evans, director of Arbiter of Cultural Traditions, asked if I would write CD notes for The Roots of Gamelan, a sampler of the 1928 recordings. I wrote from a distance and soon after brought the CD to Bali. The overwhelming enthusiasm of musicians and singers old and young led me to initiating a repatriation project of all extant recordings from 1928, numbering at last count fifty-five 78s—109 sides, each three minutes.

Philip Yampolsky provided me with a list of the many 78s he had personally located based on Andrew Toth’s earlier discography. This information led to a worldwide quest for access to these discs, ranging from Indonesia’s National Museum to UCLA and numerous public and private collections. We have given publication rights to Indonesian colleagues who will release five volumes as CD/DVDs and cassettes.

Since these recordings have been unavailable until now, my Balinese colleagues and I are similarly dealing with varying degrees of unknowns, necessitating a collaborative process of research. It is what I often refer to as our kebingunan enak, delightful confusion stimulating considerable re-thinking about aesthetics and cultural history. Another unusual facet of the project is that I am writing for a Balinese readership as much or more than for international readers. My perspectives are from conversations with singers, musicians and dancers, some of whom are near centenarians, offering missing narratives often contrary to accepted wisdom. We are continually struck by the experimentation, improvisation, humor and subtle nuance in music and dance of the 1920s.

Visits to the palace of Klungkung led us to the family of two singers and a great grandson of the author of the many of the excerpted geguritan poems, Anak Agung Gdé Pemeregan, born in 1810. We discovered that Pemeregan’s Duh Ratnayu, one of Bali’s most popular romantic poems—thought of as generic love lyrics adapted by Arja dance-opera’s ever-popular Sampik-Ingtai story—was actually a contemporary account of a prohibited love affair between first cousins in the royal court of Klungkung during the 1890s. The singer recorded in 1928, Ida Boda, would likely have been a personal acquaintance of these ill-fated lovers, forbidden to marry, the female drowned in the sea by orders of her family in 1901 and expunged from royal chronicles. The princess’s death was believed at the time to be an omen that foretold the fall (and mass suicide) of this last Balinese kingdom. I should call attention to Ida Boda’s affecting use of “movement of sound through the body,” often with mystical, metaphysical connotations, particularly playing with mouth, nose and throat to shape vowels.

While most of today’s music concentrates on five tones, the microtonal singing of 1928 reflects archaic seven-tone gamelan such as gambuh and Semar Pagulingan but exhibiting an even wider palette of pitches. Ambiguities of intonation became profound when I realized that today’s revered singers are enchanted by the subtleties of these songs but have difficulty imitating them.

My Balinese research team visited the families of singers featured in 1928 and gained insights into their lives and aesthetics. We discovered an influence of the Sasak Muslim culture from the neighboring island of Lombok on Hindu-Buddhist-animist Bali, expressed in subtle intervals and downward slides suggesting an emotional sigh. The Balinese singers (born in the 1870s) made occasional visits to Lombok to perform, teach and listen, and were “crazy” about Sasak vocal styles. While Balinese music has been present in Lombok, Sasak influence in Bali has not been considered except for one genre, cakepung. Several factors played roles in the disappearance of this rich Balinese vocal style of East Bali. One was the dominance of the government radio station beginning in the late 1940s, which championed certain regional styles while marginalizing others. Another is the annual island-wide Bali Arts Festival that includes competitions after which the losers often adopt the aesthetics of the winners so as to compete in the next year’s festival.

In 1928 Ida Bagus Oka sang with ten distinct pitches to the octave and many more nuanced tones. Oka danced and vocalized the role of Panji in seven-tone gambuh dance dramas and sang solo juru tandak for the légong dance with the seven-tone Semar Pagulingan now in Kamasan. I have had an ongoing discourse with one of Bali’s great singers, Ni Nyman Candri, who feels that Oka was singing intuitively, without reference to specific gamelan modes. Oka, however, lived and sang amidst a tonal ecology of seven-tone gamelans most of which were melted down during the early 20th century.

When singer Ketut Kodi and I visited Ida Wayan Padang, who performed with Ida Bagus Oka and Ida Boda in the 1930s, we played him some of the 1928 recordings. He did not identify any phrases as a specific tetekep, patutan ‘mode’ or saih ‘tone row’, but said the melody mabo sunarén, has the fragrance of the mode sunarén.  Fragrance, sense of smell is, of course, linked to taste, and both to the realm of rasa ‘feeling’.

Today’s highly-skilled singers love the subtle, complex nuances of tonality and phrasing, and the use of nafas ‘breath’, that reflects the practice of pranayama ‘yogic breathing’ wherein some melodies extend for 25 seconds on one exhalation. A vocalist in Lombok explained that singing is strengthened by the practice of pranayama while pranayama is enhanced by the aesthetics of singing. The challenge becomes one of musical perception by which new ways of hearing intervals seem necessary for many Balinese to penetrate through their own culturally and historically-specific processes of music cognition. Our research reveals some truth in music scholar Wayan Sinti’s bold accusation in the Bali Post newspaper, “telinga masyarakat Bali dijaja oleh laras gong kebyar“—“the Balinese public’s ears have been colonized (occupied) by [modern] gong kebyar tuning.” Certainly diatonic music in radio and television are even more of an influence. I should mention that Balinese tunings are a rare breed not based on a cycle of fifths and small integers. There are no absolute pitches, and octaves are not fixed but rather stretched and compressed to prioritize acoustical beats (ombak or waves) of the bronze gamelan orchestras, which are tuned by blacksmiths with great precision.

Our research has led to the ambiguous terrain of implicit and explicit musical knowledge. When I mentioned to a highly respected vocalist that some have suggested that three or four pitches are used in contemporary renditions of classical kakawin sung poetry, she thought it a reasonable number. But when we listened attentively to recordings of these songs, she began to hear between six or seven pitches within the song’s span of 600 cents, half an octave. After she herself sang with those subtle intervals, I asked, if she had not conceived of this music as possessing so many pitches what she had thought those musical phrases were. She answered, “rasa,” an implicit element not articulated consciously. This explains some of the difficulty Balinese singers experience traversing the years since 1928 and hearing an entirely “new” but “old” set of semi or microtones that are not part of their intuitive, implicit aesthetic learned by rote.

Although sléndro and pélog, the terms used to differentiate Bali and Java’s two scales, are mentioned in the Catur Muni-muni section of the Aji Gurnita and Prakempa, said to be a 19th–century manuscripts, they only came into common usage in Bali during the 1960s after being introduced by Nyoman Rembang, Gusti Putu Madé Geria and Nyoman Kaler, who had all taught at the KOKAR conservatory in Surakarta, Java. Their desire to transplant a theoretical rubric led many to ignore the sonic reality of the great variety of tunings, modes and terminologies found throughout Bali’s villages. My vocal teachers in the villages were quite analytical about style and consciously articulated the tonal and modal differences between each song form. In Voices in Bali I assert that there are almost as many scales or intervallic structures as there are song forms. So what I am suggesting is not that Balinese singers practice their art without conscious attention to pitch variation but that the most subtle, nuanced aspects are mostly implicit and within the realm of rasa, feeling. The intuitive approach works until you have a gap within which a generation misses that rote teaching process that bypasses the intellect.

Although gambuh is today referred to as laras ‘saih pitu’, a seven-tone scale, the Catur Muni-muni text describes a ten-tone gamelan Amladprana, … “Pélog is played along with Sléndro. Pélog is called the Five Waters and Sléndro is called The Five Fires.” Many songs from 1928 embody this aesthetic that pre-dates sléndro-pélog differentiation. One example that illustrates the tyranny of academic theory over practice is the term saih, which is generally defined as ‘scale’ or ‘tone row’. But the Balinese word actually translates as ‘like’ or ‘comparable with.’ So the terms saih gendér wayang, saih gong or saih angklung actually means “like or comparable to these three specific instrumental ensembles”—far from any absolute or fixed tonal arrangement. This is one of many examples of how the commonly accepted concepts inculcated by Balinese academics (following westerners such as Jaap Kunst) is not consonant with the aesthetic as practiced.

Suling gambuh  bamboo flute players in Batuan village still use ten tones, as Karl Richter has documented. And even older seven-tone Balinese gamelans like the iron-keyed slonding and wood-xylophone gambang remain to this day in small numbers. So how can singers come to hear and vocally re-create these old tunings? I feel we can combine both implicit and explicit tools, new and old. Up until now, the ten-tone palette, described in historical treatises, has not been understood without the ‘evidence’ we now have in the 1928 recordings. I have noticed with some singers that “seeing the music” on some kind of ‘visual map’ may help the mind hear what the ears bring to it. In Voices in Bali I created notation with a variety of flexible staffs to avoid imposing an equidistant grid upon Bali’s relativistic tunings. I’m not inclined to use this with Balinese musicians because they do not think of pitch vertically, harmonically, but rather horizontally, reflecting the way they arrange their metallophones. What we call high and low pitches they call big and small since the smaller the bronze bar or gong, the higher the frequency. But very, very few Balinese inside and outside the conservatories use notation: the transmission process is still aural. Another visual tool could be computer software like SPEAR or PRAAT, providing a visual image and frequency analysis. My principal interest in acoustical analysis is to facilitate ways that help singers hear and sing the music with open ears and without obstruction from the pélog-sléndro rubric. The consensus I find amongst expert singers is that subtleties must be learned orally one-on-one by rote from teacher to student so as to follow the vibrations through movements of head, neck, and mouth, perhaps best explained scientifically in terms of mirror neurons.

And already some Balinese singers have suggested that a new category of competition in the annual island-wide Bali Arts Festival be singing in the old style recorded by Beka in 1928.

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