EOL 7 CD Review

Indonesian vol. 11 CD cover thumbnail Melayu Music of Sumatra and the Riau Islands. Music of Indonesia, vol. 11. Recorded, compiled and annotated by Philip Yampolsky. Produced in collaboration with the Indonesian Society for the Performing Arts. 72 mins. Liner notes 25 pp. Smithsonian Folkways LC9628, 1996.

This volume covers an area much wider than Biak, but the album is no less unified in concept. The focus here is on Melayu music from Sumatra and the neighboring Riau islands. Much of this music displays connections with the Middle East, particularly with Yemen, which has been linked to Indonesia through maritime trade for centuries. The album provides means for exploring the multitude of cultural connections that bind the far-flung Malay world. Yampolsky devotes considerable space to a discussion of the label "Melayu" (the indigenous equivalent to the English term Malay), stipulating that he uses it in a cultural rather than an ethnic sense. Indeed, it becomes apparent from the liner notes that some of the performers recorded here come from non-Melayu ethnic groups.

Under the broad umbrella of “Melayu music” we find zapin, mendu, mak yong, and ronggèng. Zapin is a dance music associated with Muslim celebrations that is played on a gambus (a lute that resembles more or less closely a Middle Eastern ‘ud) by the singer and accompanied by several drummers playing marawis (two-headed frame drums). Mak yong and mendu are two theatrical forms, sung by the actors and played on an assortment of gongs and drums, with violin added for mendu. Ronggèng is music associated with dance events in which a professional dancer/singer dances with male members of the audience. It is played, minimally, on a violin, one or two frame drums and a bossed gong.

audio icon [Audio 1] zapin sample

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The four zapin selections (Audio 1) feature the plucked gambus prominently, with interlocking drumming that comes to the fore in the instrumental interludes between vocal phrases. Almost all of the lyrics of these four songs consist of pantun, the quatrain verse form that is ubiquitous in the Malay world. The musicians are linked to the Arab world by ancestry, their instruments and some aspects of their music, but the lyrics are all in Indonesian. The first song, “Cari Hiburan” ("Looking for Entertainment"), for instance, is a social critique, focusing on the way modern women dress.

The mid-verse refrain in track 2 transcribed “lai lai” should almost certainly read "La illahi," a slight alteration of part of the shahada, the Muslim statement of faith. On the other hand, the extensive interjection of particles such as “lah” and “yang” is highly reminiscent of Malay storytelling recorded by Amin Sweeney in the 1960s (Sweeney 1974). Yampolsky stresses the non-religious nature of most of the texts, and notes that the groups have links with other Arab-related musics and musicians within Indonesia rather than direct links with the Arab world.

He describes a fantastic variety of lutes and offers the intriguing speculation that the current gambus tradition “may be a comparatively recent overlay on an earlier rural tradition of lute-playing” (liner notes, p. 9). Three of the four zapin tracks begin with unmetered gambus solos reminiscent of Arab taqasim in their rhythmic character but not in their melodic organization. The drums sound a bit harsh with substantial echo, probably a result of the performance conditions. The interlocking drumming differs radically from that played on the mak yong tracks.

Mak yong was first documented in the early 17th century on the mainland in Patani (southern Thailand). It spread south into Kelantan (northeastern Malaysia) where it flourished into the early 20th century, with troupes touring to various courts in the Malay world.

Mendu is thought to have developed in the early 19th century, probably as a narrative genre first, and then as a staged drama in more recent times as a result of the influence of bangsawan theater. Competing origin narratives are offered for mendu. Some performers participated in all three genres.

While neither mak yong nor mendu is in itself a ritual performance, they are both associated with ritual celebrations and incorporate ritualized components. In the past, they were often presented in long performances that stretched over several nights (Yampolsky says as many as 48!) but now neither is performed with any frequency. Yampolsky provides substantial information on theatrical practices and the way these pieces of music are used, as well as noting some of the changes that have occurred as mendu and mak yong have declined in popularity.

audio icon [Audio 2] mak yong sample

The mak yong tracks (Audio 2) are a treasure for anyone who would study the cultural interaction of the Malay world during the colonial period for this genre spread from the northern extreme of Malay settlement on the mainland southward into the islands of Indonesia.

“Betabèk” (track 6) offers a striking comparison to the mak yong performances recorded in Kelantan, Malaysia, by William Malm in 1968 (Malm 1971). One can hear some of the same delicious interlocking drumming and overall intensification, but the choral singing is far less heterophonic and the drumming is more tightly coordinated (in Malm’s recordings the “beat” is very loosely defined at the beginning of most pieces and coalesces over a long period). The absence of rebab is another striking difference, further reducing heterophonic interplay.

Strangely, the choral singing is much more heterophonic in the metered “Air Mawar” than in the following unmetered “Bermas.” Yampolsky notes that the rebab is frequently omitted (liner notes, p. 19) and that a more recent addition, the double reed serunai, was not available on this occasion either.

The pace in these three selections is brisk – the gradual acceleration from extremely slow and barely coordinated action to a fast, tight finish which one hears in almost every piece on Malm’s Kelantan recording is not evident here. But the drumming cadences cue the gongs in ways very similar to the Kelantan recordings. Another difference from the Malm recordings is the lively part played on the small gongs, which evokes a connection with ketuk tilu and other forms of ronggèng music from other parts of the Malay world.

Five mendu pieces are presented. Why one is placed before the mak yong pieces and the rest after is not clear. This isolated piece, “Peranta” (track 5) is performed to announce to the community that a mendu performance is about to begin. Played loudly on two drums and “any sort of metal can” it probably can be heard for quite a distance. The liner notes do not mention a gong but one is clearly audible and was noted earlier in the description of a typical mendu ensemble (p. 13).

The other four pieces are taken from the middle and end of a performance and fulfill various functions, including battle music, a song to depict traveling, and a ritual ending piece. The actors, all men, sing in each of these pieces except the battle music. The violin player for the mendu selections sounds either too old or too young to be playing up to par.

audio icon [Audio 3] ronggèng sample

The vastly different ronggèng music (Audio 3) of tracks 13 and 14 appears to show far more striking signs of European influence than the other music on this disk. This is particularly evident in the violin playing.

But the most surprising tracks, perhaps, are the final pair (15 and 16), featuring accordion in concert with violin and two frame drums. “Damak” (track 16) is based on tonic and dominant chords with a modulation to the dominant, the harmonies implicit in the melody and explicit in occasional accordion chords. Florid heterophony between violin and accordion results in some fleeting but delicious modal clashes (e.g., ca. 1:38) between verses. The long verses are sung in alternation by a woman and a man.

These last four selections represent ronggèng, local manifestations of a cultural practice that is widespread in Indonesia. Here, as in many other parts of the archipelago, a female performer invites men to dance with her. She sings, too, accompanied by a small group of male musicians.

Yampolsky points to other instances of and names for this practice and points to its antiquity and possible origins in fertility rites. West Javanese manifestations of this phenomenon have been analyzed in depth by Kathy Foley (1989) and Henry Spiller (2001). Yampolsky notes briefly the social stigma attached to this genre, because of its association with drinking, gambling, and prostitution, the sanctions against it by religious and political authorities, and the transformation into a more “polite,” staged affair. One important bit of information that he elicited is the likelihood that many of these female performers are not Melayu, but outsiders from other ethnic groups, due to the low social status of this type of performance (cf. Romani musicians in Europe).

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