Indonesian Traditional Music is No Less Cool Than Modern Music

Reading the How Music Works book made me realize how amazing David Byrne is: a design school student, a singer, front man of the legendary punk band Talking Heads, and also a musicologist (or ethnomusicologist).

In this book, Byrne lays out a compelling narrative on music. At first glance, it may come across as an autobiography about his music career; but, in fact, this book imparts a good chunk of knowledge on music theory, anthropology, history, even ethnomusicology—provided that we understand the latter is a combination of many other disciplines.

Byrne discusses various musical forms, ranging from acoustic and recording technology to the earth-sky case in music while describing the interrelationship between Balinese gamelan with the worship of the Omnipotent God and tribal African ecstatic rhythms, both of which became modern world music.

Similarly to Byrne’s efforts in documenting world music, Vincent Moon, in my opinion, is another brilliant ethnomusicologist.

He may have never ordained himself as an ethnomusicologist, but the filmmaker’s videography contains documentation of music videos from various parts of the world, from exotic samba, the mystical jathilan from Java, the God-summoning ritual à la Senyawa to the retro movement of White Shoes & The Couples Company in the urban landscape. Previously Moon was known for his takeaway-show style in La Blogotheque, a holy grail for indie music aficionados.

In his TED presentation, Moon stated the reason why he finally felt deserving of the ethnomusicologist title: ”I just want my next generation to know that there is a traditional music of our ancestors that is no less cool than Beyoncé.”

Moon presents his videos in an engrossing manner. In my opinion, the Tumblr-ish feel of his documentation appeals to the tastes of today’s youth, while also demonstrating the cool factor of ancestral and traditional music.

Palmer Keen is another primary example. Born in Uncle Sam’s land, Keen is now a long-time resident of Bandung and Yogyakarta and frequently travels around the archipelago, using his own money, to document fascinating strains of traditional music, sometimes in cultural peripheries instead of centers.

Afterward, he would compile all of his documentation on his famous Aural Archipelago page. His writings, sound recordings and adventure videos are also presented there, waiting to be discovered and devoured by knowledge seekers.

It is all the more impressive to take into account that not only was Palmer born in a country half across the world away from his current whereabouts but also that he is not even an ethnomusicology graduate.

Keen has said that Aural Archipelago was born out of understanding that the internet would be the most reasonable choice to publish his works as having a website was cheap, fast and popular. After all, most people are now more interested in poking their smartphone screen rather than flipping wide pages of newspapers.

Byrne, Moon and Keen may not hail from the same ranks of intellectual disciplines such as Bruno Nettl and co. Most modern humans are not necessarily familiar with traditional music since childhood either. And yet Byrne broke out of his comfort zone as an honorary rockstar of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, before crossing the globe to take on other types of music beyond the traditions of the modern and the post-modern.

Moon travels around the world armed only with video cameras and high curiosity. While the curious mind may inquire: what desire might have forced an American like Keen to travel around Indonesia to record traditional music without any ties or roots to the culture?

Probably the answer is simple: curiosity and enthusiasm to gather knowledge. Curiosity is the fuel, and its main purpose is to gather knowledge for humanity.

Therefore, shouldn’t Indonesian ethnomusicologists be fueled by the same level of curiosity and set a common goal together knowledge rather than spend their energy arguing how tradition must be sustainable and changes in any form must be limited?

Isn’t knowledge one of the most potent ways to elevate the spirit of the nation? So why don’t we focus on gathering knowledge?

Perhaps, the curiosity that forced Moon to travel around the world to record the music from different nations prompted Byrne to learn music outside of the CBGB turf and motivated Keen to learn to play genggong. This is also perhaps how these men learned more about the nature of (Western?) music that they were raised with.

But what if it turns out that actually we, Indonesian ethnomusicologists, make the East-West dichotomy in understanding music? While for these three people, music is music, without the need to differentiate.

It is good for all ethnomusicologists of the archipelago to reflect on this: lest we remain stuck in a comfort zone that renders us short-sighted, unable to accept and understand other musical influences. In fact, who knows when we cultivate curiosity and open our minds to various forms of music and knowledge, we will instead better understand the nature of our essential art?

After grasping the essence of our art, we will understand that culture is not only about the past but also the present and the future. Indonesian ethnomusicologists should be attached to the present and future, and not be constantly tied down to the past.

Simply put, art and culture – in this case music- is a mirror of our society. It cannot stand alone as an independent entity. When society changes, the art form will change automatically. When a society shifts from agrarian to industrialist, the cultural model cannot help but change too.

Instead of debating between studying tradition or modernity, why don’t we respect and maintain our traditional music by studying it according to the present context? After all, our ancestors are no less cool than whoever’s currently trending on social media or Spotify.

PS: This article was previously published in The Jakarta Post.

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