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Antiphonal Histories

Resonant Pasts in the Toba Batak Musical Present

Julia Byl

Publication Year: 2014

Positioned on a major trade route, the Toba Batak people of Sumatra have long witnessed the ebb and flow of cultural influence from India, the Middle East, and the West. Living as ethnic and religious minorities within modern Indonesia, Tobas have recast this history of difference through interpretations meant to strengthen or efface the identities it has shaped. Antiphonal Histories examines Toba musical performance as a legacy of global history, and a vital expression of local experience. This intriguingly constructed ethnography searches the palm liquor stand and the sanctuary to show how Toba performance manifests its many histories through its “local music”—Lutheran brass band hymns, gong-chime music sacred to Shiva, and Jimmie Rodgers yodeling. Combining vivid narrative, wide-ranging historical research, and personal reflections, Antiphonal Histories traces the musical trajectories of the past to show us how the global is manifest in the performative moment.

Published by: Wesleyan University Press

Series: Music Culture

Title Page, Copyright Page, Dedication

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pp. i-vi


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pp. vii-viii


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pp. ix-xii

Notes on Translation and Music

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pp. xiii-xiv

PART I Bindu / Introduction

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pp. 3-5

The Peavey amps transmitting the band’s reggae groove also distort its higher frequencies: the trio singing their close harmonies, the intricate lines of the lead guitar. In North Sumatra’s pubs, the levels are turned up to eleven, to better convey prestige and modernity. These same qualities are audible in the patrons’ calls for Jack Daniels and favored songs, and visible in the extravagant tips slipped into the singers’ outstretched hands. The lyrics of the song with the reggae beat—though written in the local Toba...

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1 Cosmological Cartography

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pp. 6-22

The charts of early modern Europeans, based on knowledge gained from exploration and grounded in enlightened rationalism, are the best-known ancestors of the modern world map. Less known is an even earlier cartographic tradition that traced the movements of Arab merchants through the Mediterranean, African, and Asian seas. This body of work dates from the ninth century CE.1 Made up of navigational data, scientific treatises, travel...

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2 Two Interludes and Some Family History

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pp. 23-46

It was a running joke in the Sitohang family that you could always pick out Bapak and know that he was a drum maker from the village merely by looking at his pants. Even when leaving the family complex in the afternoon, he would often make the rounds with one pant leg hovering around his knee. Looking at Bapak sitting on the porch of the house in Harian, talking animatedly with friends or family members, it was easy...

PART II Tarombo / Genealogy

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pp. 49-59

Family lineages are held in memory, in detail, but the larger tarombo system is written down in books sold in Medan’s central markets or traced onto wall charts for easy reference. The source of both is Toba oral tradition, but since each person regularly hears only the marga stories of close family, charts and books help to visualize the entire complex. They display the histories common to all and those specific to each sub-clan; mythological...

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3 The Aunties in the Lake Meet Batara Guru

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pp. 60-94

Lake Toba is a cool, blue-green lake with an island in the middle, suspended in a crater that is all that remains of an ancient explosion ten times the magnitude of Krakatoa. The lake and its surrounding lands are an eighthour bus ride from Medan, though it will seem longer if you are stuck in a middle seat, hemmed in by cigarette smoke. (If you choose the front middle, you’ll pay for the steady view with a perch atop an overheating engine...

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4 Grandfather Nommensen and Raja Stambul

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pp. 95-128

I had met a few people from Tarutung in North Sumatra but had never made the effort to visit the city until my doctoral research was almost done, though the Silindung valley was only two hours south of Harian and I had gladly gone almost everywhere else. Part of the reason for this reluctance was my connection to the area around Samosir—a loyalty to the people and landscape of Lake Toba.1 I had intuited—and I’ll admit it, fed—...

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5 Guru Nahum and Uncle Olo

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pp. 129-158

Despite a crowd of hundreds, on March 21, 2013, a Komatsu excavator and a few recording cameras were likely the only unbiased witnesses to a performance of ethnicity, religion and the stubbornness born of conviction. The cameras recorded the demolition of the Toba HKBP Taman Sari church in Bekasi, West Java. The solid white concrete building had been erected without a permit, and it was destroyed on the order

PART III Partuturan / Positioning

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pp. 161-172

With each new interaction, Toba people choose how to define themselves. The resulting association depends on the definition chosen and on how the situation plays out. Although each interaction is based on something true about the person, most Toba subjects inhabit so many different truths that the possibilities are almost endless. The closest translation of this process is “positioning.” As the word suggests, positioning predicates relativity. It is impossible to position yourself without some knowledge of your new terrain....

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6 Lapo Life

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pp. 173-194

On any Saturday night, Padang Bulan residential streets are alive with impromptu performance. Clustered at the side of the road—on the porches of private houses, or around the shophouses that act as the local public space for a few contiguous houses—any number of people sit and sing together. During the core of my Medan doctoral research in 2002 and 2004, my nightly walk to the palm wine stand two blocks away brought me into...

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7 “Jehovah Fights for Me”

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pp. 195-213

The most memorable sermon I have ever heard in a Toba church took place in 2004, near the end of my second ten-month research trip. The preacher was interpreting a particularly vituperative chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, in which the ever-tetchy John the Baptist calls his listeners “a brood of vipers.” Anticipating the difficulty of this passage, he acknowledged the insult that many churchgoing Tobas would feel at being described so unflatteringly, and he used the knowing nods his words elicited to strengthen his...

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8 Artists from the Capital

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pp. 214-239

In traditional saddle-back Toba houses—the kind that is getting rarer in the villages— the pitch of the front and back gables is slightly different: the back gable is steeper and reaches up a little higher than the front (fig. 8.1). Bapak, and other Toba fathers and mothers, ascribes a symbolic meaning to this architectural detail. He says that it represents the hopes of the older generation (the front gable) that the newest generation (the back gable) will exceed them in honor, wealth, and happiness. In the past, these goals...

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9 Jambar Hata / Portion of Words

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pp. 240-256

My relationship with Erika boru Sinurat1 began a little formally, because it was structured on the rights and responsibilities of landlords and tenants. Looking for a place to rent, I was introduced to Erika by her acquaintance, a teacher cum businesswoman cum realtor. Dealing with this woman for the better part of a day had led me to initiate a snide telephone conversation with her less than an hour after parting. My pettishness was incited by her habits of correcting my English and her unceasing invitations to church,...

PART IV Afterword

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Four Short Studies in Time and Space

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pp. 259-268

The month before I defended the dissertation that led to this book, the holiday 2005 version of The Economist landed on my breakfast table. The lead paragraph of its cover story mentioned the ancient volcano that had created the crater now containing Bapak, Oma, and my entire village research site and discussed “the effect of Toba” on the human population of the time.1 In recent biological anthropology, North Sumatra has become the focus of deliberation about the spread of humans through the prehistoric...


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pp. 269-282


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pp. 283-290


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pp. 291-308


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pp. 309-316

Series Page, Tracking List, About the Author

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pp. 317-322

E-ISBN-13: 9780819574800
E-ISBN-10: 0819574805
Print-ISBN-13: 9780819574787

Page Count: 320
Publication Year: 2014

Series Title: Music Culture

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Music -- Indonesia -- Sumatra -- History and criticism.
  • Toba-Batak (Indonesian people) -- Music -- History and criticism.
  • Toba-Batak (Indonesian people) -- Social life and customs.
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