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  • Tradition Serving Modernity?The Musical Lives of a Makassarese Drummer
  • R. Anderson Sutton (bio)

Despite complaints by artists, intellectuals, and government bureaucrats throughout the Indonesian archipelago of the threats to traditional music and dance by the onslaught of globalization,1 a remarkable range of indigenous performing arts continues to maintain viability in an environment of continuous social change. This viability is achieved through a variety of artistic strategies and maneuvers,2 some orchestrated by government agencies, others engineered by corporations, still others promoted by individuals and small groups working outside formal institutions. In this essay I will focus on one individual musician whose mastery of what he and others would readily identify as traditional music and whose openness to performative experiments has enabled him not only to participate in widely contrasting musical worlds but also to provide modern contexts for his traditional practice.

The senses in which I use these terms modern and traditional will be clarified as we consider particular events and discourses below. Yet, from the outset I wish to stress that I intend my usage to coincide with the prevailing Indonesian uses of the Indonesianized equivalents of these terms (tradisional and moderen). Traditional/tradisional behaviors, beliefs, social structures, works of art, and other human-made objects are those that are widely construed as having originated locally, been passed down at least several generations, and remained meaningful within a locally shared sense of the world. The well-known Indonesian culture scholar Umar Kayam sums up succinctly the defining aspects of tradition in Indonesian societies:

First, it has a scope that is limited to the cultural environment that supports it. Second, it constitutes a reflection of a culture that develops very slowly, because the dynamic of the society that supports it is indeed that way. Third, it constitutes a part of a cosmos of life that is round/all-inclusive and cannot be divided up and put into compartments/boxes of specialization. Fourth, it is not the result of individual creativity, but is created anonymously, in keeping with the collective nature of the society that supports it.

(Kayam 1981:60)3 [End Page 1]

Putting it somewhat more succinctly, playwright and poet W. S. Rendra offers the following as the opening to his book Mempertimbangkan Tradisi (Considering Tradition):

Tradition is the customs that are passed down in a society. It represents the collective consciousness of a society.

(Rendra 1984, 3)4

Awareness of tradition would seem to emerge only as it begins to disappear, or with the recognition of other, competing alternatives in form and meaning. For most Indonesians, that which is moderen is a thing, a process, a style, or a condition that is not only new, but is readily perceivable as distinct from what is traditional and, almost always, introduced from elsewhere (very often directly or indirectly from the West). Regardless of the level of sophistication and nuance in understanding these terms, they are widely understood as opposite categories. And because they are so, it is especially interesting to observe and reflect upon instances in which the two are forcibly and strategically merged.

In Indonesia, among those striving to create new, unusual, original works of art, there is a cadre of individuals who intentionally draw on what is widely recognized as traditional practice as one crucial element in a complex artistic product whose communicative power draws from the juxtaposition of that practice with others considered to be modern. The result is less immediately accessible to the wider public, more puzzling, more subject to diverse interpretations.

The musician at the center of my inquiry is Abdul Mu'in Daeng Mile (pronounced "mee-lay"), a highly accomplished drummer and music/dance group leader living in Gowa, South Sulawesi. Trained by his father to become an anrong guru (Mks., teacher and leader; lit., mother teacher) for a Makassarese drum (ganrang) and oboe (puik-puik) ensemble and the dances that this ensemble has accompanied for generations (pakarena and salonreng), Daeng Mile actually performs in a number of contexts, ranging from village family rituals (weddings, circumcisions, harvest ceremonies), to obligatory cultural festivals (sponsored by the government), and experimental performances that are best understood as encapsulating the local avant-garde. Let me say...


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