AAS Annual Meeting

Southeast Asia Session 647

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Session 647: History, Modernity, and Cultural Transformation: Popular Music in Southeast Asia

Organizer: Andrew Weintraub, University of Pittsburgh, USA

Discussant: Henk Schulte Nordholt, KITLV, Netherlands

This panel offers new approaches to the study of popular music in Southeast Asia that foreground the movement of people, music, ideas, and technologies among the region’s cosmopolitan centers. Readings of the past that focused on the nation-state have tended to overlook these historical processes as well as the border-crossing practices of innovative actors and their audiences, who have been seen as marginal to nation-building. We focus on decisive historical junctures (e.g. the 1960s, the 1980s, the late 1990s, and the early 2000s) where technological innovation, human agency, the consumption of new musical styles and the rise of new audiences came together within particular Southeast Asian urban localities. The cultural transformations and contestations taking place in these localities are intertwined with expressions of modernity. Focusing on popular music offers new insights into the particular historical trajectories of modernity in specific urban settings. Music, by its nature, is suitable for expressing new ways of being while simultaneously connecting the familiar with the new, the local with the foreign, and the past with the present. This panel analyzes the interplay between the production of popular music, the articulation of modernity, and the emergence of new audiences, lifestyles, and related processes of social differentiation in 20th century Southeast Asia.

Funky and Shariah: Sonic Discourses on Muslim Malay Modernity
Bart Barendregt, Leiden University, Netherlands

During the 1990s, not only were modernity’s grand narratives being questioned by Southeast Asians but also their primary carrier, the nation. Many looked to new and old imaginaries: e.g. traditional, ethnic, pan Asian as well as worldwide religious identities. This paper focuses on nasyid, a popular music genre that since the mid-1990s has been popular across Muslim Southeast Asia, but is especially produced and consumed in cities and towns with a large student population and a Muslim activist tradition. These places include Malaysia’s Klang Valley and Indonesian towns such as Yogyakarta, Jakarta and Bandung. The paper follows young urban Muslims in their articulation of what has been called “market Islam.” This newly styled Islamic popular culture is linked to the rise of a new Muslim middle class, many of whom are young and well-educated, but also to specific political and technological constellations. Nasyid music is the auditory component of their newly styled Islamic popular culture, blending the politics of Middle Eastern hymns with the close harmony singing of Western boy band music. Nasyid acts employ the indigenous national language, rather than the foreign Arabic used in many sermons. Muslim Malay modernities are sonically articulated through the clever use of new digital possibilities provided by small portable studio equipment, samplers, as well as new means of distribution. Nasyid artists appear to have been at the forefront of using peer-to-peer digital platforms in exchanging their music and they were among the first to release music as mobile ring and ring back tones--an industry that is more lucrative today than conventional sales of cassettes and CDs. The presentation will cover the ways nasyid has been successful in not only addressing questions about what it is to be a modern Muslim youth in Southeast Asia, reconciling piety with a ‘funky but shariah’ consumerist lifestyle, but also had been expressive of their political aspirations for a righteous, utopian communal society.

Syncretism and Multiculturalism in Singapore: Music in Peranakan Popular Cultures
Tong Soon Lee, Chinese University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong

Peranakan refers to a locally-born community in the Malay Archipelago whose cultural practices, customs, and beliefs draw on Malay and Chinese heritage. The Peranakans in Singapore and Malaysia are further rooted in their historical association with British colonialism, specifically with the establishment of the Straits Settlement in 1826 that comprises Singapore, Penang and Malacca. During the first two decades after independence (1965), Singaporean Peranakans were largely excluded from the nation-building process primarily because their syncretic cultural practices could not be compartmentalized into the State’s concept of multiculturalism. Beginning in the 1980s, however, there was a systematic revival of Peranakan cultures that intensified after 2000, when the Peranakans became not only visible in State-sponsored events, but also came to represent Singapore internationally. The syncretic aspects of the Peranakans are most clearly seen in their popular culture. Forms of music practiced by the Peranakans include Catholic hymns sung in the Peranakan patois, American popular song and dance, Indonesian popular genres of kroncong and ronggeng, the Malay dondang sayang vocal form, and new tunes composed for the Peranakan theatre in the style of British-American musicals. In this paper, I shall focus on Peranakan popular music since the 1980s as a way to understand the changing dynamics of Peranakan identities, and of national identity, in Singapore.

Rapping the Javanese Groove: Hip-Hop and Political Activism in Urban Indonesia
Amrih Widodo, Australian National University, Australia

The last decade of post-New Order Indonesia has been marked by the demise of the nation-state in providing dominant national historical narratives, the saturated explosion of media and entertainment industry, and the movement of youngsters in metropolitan and urbanized districts in creatively using technology of communication to channel alternative narratives and social imaginaries. This paper will map out local hybrid creativities in the form of the production, circulation and consumption of Javanese hip-hop music and depict both the artists’ musical and political activism and narratives in the context of contemporary political, social and cultural discourse in Indonesia. The discussion will focus on how globalisation is at work in a given locality and how local hybrid creativity has taken advantage of globalized media and technology to participate in the production and circulation of fusion music while raising local and national issues on good governance, corruption, social justice, environment and pluralism. Using the case study of Jogja Hip-hop Foundation, a forum of communication and activism among several hip-hop groups who use Javanese language and literary and cultural resources in their creative production, this paper will demonstrate how the local artistic and cultural communities adjust themselves to the global trends and take benefits from the new formatted technologies to produce and disseminate Indonesian/Javanese fusion music while engaging themselves in political and social actions. Having exploited extensively but then dissatisfied with the rhythms and grooves of American hiphop, these Javanese rappers resort to some repertoires of Javanese traditional musical arrangements and classical literary texts to create their musics. Aside from looking at identity politics in the context of globalisation/ localisation/ indigenisation, and consumption, this paper will explain how through their artistic expressions and production strategies, local artists attempt to demonstrate the viability of their local cultural practices, reassert their identity in the national arena, and compete with other genres of popular and hybrid music in the commercial music industry.

Pop Goes Melayu: Popular Music in 1960s Indonesia
Andrew Weintraub, University of Pittsburgh, USA

In this paper I analyze the nature and meaning of “Melayu” in pop Melayu, a genre of music that enjoyed popularity in Indonesia as well as Malaysia during the 1960s. I begin by tracing the historical development of the genre, which straddles two critical periods in modern Indonesia: Sukarno’s Old Order (1949-1965) and Suharto’s New Order (1966-1998). Despite the Sukarno regime’s efforts to ban American films and music from entering Indonesia during the late 1950s and early 1960s, hundreds of illegal student-run radio stations in Jakarta broadcast prohibited recordings of American pouplar music. Pop Melayu bands towed a fine line in the early 1960s dwikora era (dwikomando rakyat), a period characterized by two ideological mandates: crush Malaysia and defend the revolution. Pop Melayu composers blended American pop and Malaysian film music (associated with P. Ramlee) with musical instruments, rhythms, and verse structures that signaled a link to traditional music of peninsular Malaysia. American pop signified prestige, development, and progress whereas local popular forms (like orkes Melayu, for example) were perceived as remnants of the feudal past. Pop Melayu redefined Melayu identity and created a symbolic space to represent as well as challenge notions of modernity. The significance of this study can be summarized in four points: (1) during this critical juncture in Indonesian history, composers and musicians created music that reflected a modern sense of Melayu identity. Historically, “Melayu” must be understood as a hybrid, flexible, and constantly evolving stage upon which people constructed their cultural identity and history; (2) by looking closely at the social discourse and meaning of the music, I challenge the notion that American-influenced genres are merely imitations of American pop; (3) the paper contributes original research to the under-researched and under-theorized topic of Indonesian popular music, especially during 1960s; and (4) I will suggest that pop Melayu thrived during the 1960s due to its discursive construction as “Melayu,” a trend that characterizes recent popular music processes in contemporary Indonesia.