Gongs and Pop Songs By Jennifer A. Fraser

Studies of the musical traditions of Indonesia have long focused on practices from Java and Bali, particularly those islands’ mesmerizing gamelan orchestras, at the expense of the wide diversity of other vibrant musical forms within the archipelago. Musicologist Jennifer A. Fraser counters this tendency by exploring a little-known gong tradition called talempong that has long been associated with people from West Sumatra known as the Minangkabau. The emergence of gong chimes followed the arrival of the bronze culture in Sumatra around 1000 years BCE.

Talempong is found everywhere where there are   Minangkabau – in the villages, in the cities, in the capital of Jakarta and even as far away as Singapore and Australia. This wide-ranging ethnic group is famous for their remarkable matrilineal society, their skills as inter-island traders and their high level of political and social equality unique in S.E. Asia. The province of West Sumatra is almost entirely Minangkabau who comprise about one-quarter of Sumatra’s and almost 90% of West Sumatra’s population or about 8 million people, the 4th largest ethnic group in Indonesia.

Written by an associate professor of ethnomusicology and anthropology at Oberlin College in Ohio, Gongs and Pop Songs is a highly original and richly detailed ethnographic work that explores Minangkabau ethnicity through their music since the 1960s. A culmination of more than two years of research over a 16 year period, this is the first comprehensive study to chronicle the history and variety of the talempong folk orchestra that consists of small bronze or brass kettle gongs arranged on waist-high racks; saluang, bansi and sarunai (types of bamboo flutes); djembe (drums) and gendang (tambourines). With its wide variety of styles, a talempong troupe could also employ vocalists, lutes (rebab), guitars and fiddles.

Fraser divides talempong into indigenous, cosmopolitan and modern gong chime ensembles, all of which have their origins in political and economic events of historical importance. The original indigenous ensembles are played predominantly at weddings and adat (customary) functions in the village or nagari, the traditional small tight-knit community unit specific to the Minangkabau. These ensembles are not standardized and vary from ensemble to ensemble and from village to village. Listeners can tell at once if an orchestra is from Unggan, Paninjauan, Sialang or some other nagari. Paradoxically, though the old style music immediately generates feelings of pride and nostalgia in the breast of a Minangkabau, at the same time it’s associated with all things rural, outmoded and even backwards.

After a failed regional rebellion in West Sumatra against the central government from 1958 to 1961, graduates with formal training at art institutes and working full time as musicians created the more elaborate orkes talempong. This music practice enabled the Minangkabau to recoup lost pride and political standing and helped them to re-establish a place for themselves in the new political order. The prestigious and cosmopolitan orchestra was also in line with the agenda of the government that was attempting to create a modern national identity in which local elements were plugged into more sensational and fashionable foreign frameworks.

Yet a third form, talempong goyang, had its genesis after the severe downtown in tourism in the late 1990s as a result of the Asian financial crisis and Suharto’s ousting as president in 1998. Later in the 2000s terrorist attacks dealt the tourism industry further blows, and domestic tourism was seen as a solution to overcome the economic shortfall. The glitzier the dance and music spectacle, packaged and streamlined for sheer entertainment, the better chances were its commercial success. The more popified and showy contemporary orchestras, using rock instruments and emulating the sexy hip-swinging beat of Javanese dangdut, were staged at tourist events, theme parks and elite weddings.

Through personal experiences; 26 in-depth interviews with composers, choreographers, teachers and free-lance musicians and the study of commercial video recordings, Fraser carried out extensive fieldwork in highland villages, participated in workshops, took music lessons and attended the tertiary-level Indonesian Arts Institute (Institut Seni Indonesia [ISI]) in Padangpanjang as an exchange student where she was apprenticed to a senior player.

I read this book as much for its insightful observations into Minangkabau culture and people as I did for its study of a beloved musical tradition. With its academic language and arcane references to diatonic-chromatic tuning, sonic markers, functional harmony, notational representation, etc., much of the subject matter would be of interest only to musicologists. But tracing the transformation of musical practice in West Sumatra for the past 50 years, Gongs and Pop Songs is also valuable for those who wish to understand how music is able to admirably express ethnic identity and how music styles change in an ever shifting free market economy through great social and political turbulence.

Gongs and Pop Songs: Sounding Minangkabau in Indonesia by Jennifer A. Fraser, Ohio University Press 2015, ISBN 978-089-68-02940, paperback, 240 pages, photos, tables, discography, glossary, index, online audio and video resources, dimensions 14cm x 21.5cm.


Review by Bill Dalton

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