A musical history of Southeast Asia

To write its history based on the popular music of Southeast Asia. This is the aim of a research project conducted by anthropologists Henk Schulte Nordholt, Patricia Spyer, Peter Keppy and Bart Barendregt. ‘Popular music is an outstanding source to use in the debate about modernity.’

To write its history based on the popular music of Southeast Asia. This is the aim of a research project conducted by anthropologists Henk Schulte Nordholt, Patricia Spyer, Peter Keppy and Bart Barendregt. ‘Popular music is an outstanding source to use in the debate about modernity.’

An example of keroncong music: Miss Inah and The Sweet Malay Entertainers, Sesalken Oentoeng (mp3).
Image - Jazz Age: a ‘keroncong’ band from Medan

Heated debates
‘Popular music often creates a bridge between tradition and innovation,’ Barendregt explains. ‘This music by its nature blurs boundaries, partly because it is driven by commerce and is targeted at a mass audience. That is why it is not so surprising that it triggers debates about modernity.’ The researchers define modernity as ‘the full range of ideas about what is new, progressive, about innovation and change’. This led to heated debates in the twentieth century, also in Southeast Asia.

Image: Jeans, Rumba and Electric Guitars: LP sleeve of the Thai rock legend Johnny Guitar.
Listen to
‘Sri Nuon’ (mp3) by Johnny Guitar.

Role models In the twentieth century a wider distribution of popular music became possible, first with the gramophone, later with the radio and audio cassettes, and finally via Internet. The researchers have focused their attention on the cultural pioneers. These people act as role models and with their lifestyle they break free from the old social networks. They are the pacesetters of popular culture who tap into various cultural sources and conventions, which they deftly combine with the new technology.


Image - New Cassette Traditions: Elly Kasim and Juni Amir, West Sumatra regional pop from the 1970s.
Listen to ‘Es Kuntjang’ (mp3) by Elly Kasim and Juni Amir.
Trilateral relation
The often rapid rise and fall of popular artists – for an ever-changing audience – gives rise to questions, in each new generation, concerning tradition, taste, and what is socially desirable. Barendregt: ‘It is this trilateral relation between modernity, popular music and social ties, that is charged with emotion, that we are researching its historical and comparative perspective, to expose important social-cultural changes in Southeast Asia. What does popular music tell us about modernity? In what way is it related to the new social identities, such as the middle classes, or ethnic, religious and migrant groups in the urban areas in the region?’

Video clip of the number ‘25 Rasul’ by Raihan

Image: Pop, Politics and Piety in the Digital Age: Photo from the film ‘Syukur 21’, the very first Islamic Science Fiction musical, in which the Malay pop group Raihan plays a part.
Alternative history
'Recorded history which gives the nation-state a central position has a strong tendency to neglect popular culture,’ Keppy says. That is why the approach taken by these researchers offers a welcome alternative history. They have concentrated especially on the four periods in which the above-mentioned trilateral relation is clearly present. These are:
· The Jazz Age (1920-1950)
· Jeans, Rumba and Electric Guitars (1950-1960)
· New Cassette Traditions (1970-1980)
· Pop, Politics and Piety in the Digital Age (1990-2010)
Each of these is concentrated around its own urban area, such as Jakarta, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Manila. The first period falls within the era of decolonisation, whereas the second coincides with the beginning of a new nation-state. The last two periods coincide with the transition from a centralistic authoritarian regime to decentralisation and democracy.
The project
The project in NWO’s open competition Articulating Modernity: The Making of Popular Music in 20th Century Southeast Asia and the Rise of New Audiences is going to take four years and will result in three monographs, a collection of essays based on three workshops, an annotated discography and a sources publication about the music industry in
Southeast Asia, and a summarising monograph. This project will bring together researchers from:
· the Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies (KITLV)
· the Netherlands Institute for War Documentation (NIOD)
· the Institute of Cultural Anthropology and Development Sociology
(26 January 2010)

Last Modified: 08-02-2010