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A Club of Little Men…A Children’s Tale From Bali

Warning: I advise you not to try to find this on the internet, just follow my link below.

Our family has lived with a Javanese Gamelan in our home for most of our children’s lives.

At one time each of us could play at least one of the instruments. My husband, who has his Masters in Ethnomusicology and whose instrument of choice is the Celempung, below, would rather listen to this music than any other sound on earth. He’s convinced there will be Gamelan music in Heaven.

Celempung at the Indonesian Embassy in Australia


When I hear a live 40 piece Gamelan playing in a large hall or outdoors, (I’m privileged to hear it more than I expected here at Cornell University which owns their own}, it brings back every good memory I have of Java: Warm, tropical breezes; gracious, beautiful people; the most delicious, spicy food on earth; visits to classy, but inexpensive five star hotels.

But, I have other memories of Gamelan also; of hot nights, clove cigarettes lingering in the air, migraines and late nights when I couldn’t go to sleep in my home because of “practice”.

This story, “A Club of Little Men”, was written in 1948, by Colin McPhee. McPhee was a Canadian composer and musicologist. He is primarily known for being the first Western composer to make an ethnomusicological study of Bali.

A gong collection in a Gamelan ensemble of ins...

Gongs and some of the Gamelan Instruments

It was recommended to us by a friend in the South East Asia Department at Cornell.  I think it sounds interesting, and thought you might enjoy hearing about it!

A Club of Little Men: A Children’s Tale from Bali by Colin McPhee, illustrated by Trina Bohan Tyrie

Loved by the people, music is as much a part of Bali’s environment as rivers, trees and the snarl of traffic. It’s often difficult to know where music ends and nature  or Balinese life begins. Echoing, throbbing  xylophones, drums and clashing  cymbals can heard all hours of the day and night,  blending with chirping crickets, croaking frogs and barking dogs.

On this island of perpetual music people spend their free time making beautiful things to offer up to the gods and   perform wonderful music and dance to give both viewers and the deities pleasure and entertainment. All over Bali can be heard the sound of gamelan orchestras with their huge metal gongs, simple flutes, bronze instruments and cymbals.

To achieve the rich sonic complexity and subtlety of Balinese music – without a notational system – requires long hours of rehearsal. Depending on the orchestra, rehearsals are held as infrequently as once every six months or as often as five days a week. In preparation for a big upcoming festival, temple anniversary or to provide music for a dance troupe, incessant researsals take place.

Training starts at a very early age. The instruments remain in the bale banjar for anyone who wishes to practice. When musicians take a break, a mob of little boys descend upon the gamelan and start improvising a melody, often quite deftly. It’s almost impossible to damage the instruments.

A Club of Little Men, originally published in 1948 and re-illustrated in this edition in full color, tells the story of the first ever Balinese music club of young boys, how it all got started and how their teacher puts them through their paces to bring off a successful performance.

Today any visitor to Bali may witness gamelan rehearsals or live performances by just following their ears while  traveling the island’s roadways. The metallic, jangly energy and deep, reverberating gongs are difficult to miss. Village rehearsals are casual, open-air affairs with dogs prancing across the dance floor, infants suckling, villagers walking to and fro.

This charming story takes place in the village of Sayan to the west of Ubud at a time when it was on the edge of a wilderness. We meet Kayun and his friends Kantin, Dapat, Dog, Kinigan and Bedil (as well as his cheeky monkey), and the American stranger who comes into their lives. We follow the adventures of the boys and their eventual mastery of their instruments.

There is every reason to believe that this delightful tale is drawn from real life. Colin McPhee first began his career as pianist and composer. He fell in love with the music of Bali when by chance he encountered a rare recording of  Balinese gamelan music in 1929 which subsequently changed his life. McPhee spent six years in the 1930s in the village of Sayan where he made an intense study of both gamelan and dance and encouraged the talents of the local children.

The Canadian author is most famous for his fascinating book about his stay on the island, A House in Bali, which has been reprinted by Periplus Editions in 2002 and previously reviewed in Toko Buku. Readers can be assured that the technical aspects of gamelan playing are accurately reported as McPhee’s Music in Bali (Yale University Press, 1966) is an early definitive classic in the literature of Balinese gamelan and musical life, combining keen ethnographic description with detailed analysis of instrumentation and repertoire.

In children’s books, the illustrative material is at least as  important as the text. Illustrator Trina Bohan Tyrie, a  professional water-colorist living in Indonesia, has had her work exhibited all over the world for the past 20 years. Her paintings are obviously greatly influenced byIndonesia’s   colors, textures and arts and crafts.

In the present day, a famous children’s gamelan established by the Agung Rai Museum of Art in Peliatan in 1998, has carried on the tradition. The group won the prestigious 1st prize of the children’s section in The Bali Arts Festival. The youngest member is only eight years old and both the       complexity and sheer quantity of material the children are able to learn and perform is astonishing. As in the 1930s, these “small men” are able to communicate complex emotions way beyond their own field of experience.

A Club of Little Men: A Children’s Tale from Bali by Colin McPhee, illustrated by Trina Bohan Tyrie, published by Periplus Editions 2002, 48 pages, ISBN 0-7946-0074-3. For related titles, check out http://www.tuttlepublishing.com.

Available for Rp85,000 at Periplus Bookshops in the Bali Galleria and in the Matahari in Kuta, Warung Made in Seminyak, Ngurah Rai Airport (both the international and domestic terminals), Keris Gallery in Nusa Dua and in Gramedia Bookstores.

For comments and suggestions, please write : pakbill2003@yahoo.com

Copyright@2004 PakBill

You can read all past articles of Toko Buku at http://www.BaliAdvertiser.biz


Colin McPhee, Wikipedia


One Response

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