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Reviewed by:
  • Musical Journey in Sumatra by Margaret Kartomi
  • Suryadi (bio)
Margaret Kartomi. Musical Journey in Sumatra. Urbana, ILUniversity of Illinois Press, 2012. 500+ pp.

Scholarly attention on Sumatran traditional music, including music from the small islands around it, has transpired since early 1930s. Two pioneers of this field were Jaap Kunst and Claire Holt. The Dutch ethnomusicologist Kunst visited West Sumatra and the island of Nias in 1930. He was interested mostly in Niasans music1 and, to a lesser degree, Minangkabau music.2 Holt, a French ethnographic scholar, traveled through Central Java, Bali, the Celebes, Sumatra, and Nias in early 1938 to film as many dances as she was able to witness. Her field research in Sumatra and Nias islands focused on the song-dances of Nias, Batak, and Minangkabau ethnic groups.3 Since then there have been dozens of studies on Sumatran ethnic music carried out by Indonesian as well as international scholars. But none of those is as extensive in scope as the book under review. This is by far the most comprehensive, if not the most complete, scholarly study about Sumatran traditional music ever written.

In Musical Journey, Kartomi, the most prolific Australian ethnomusicologist on Indonesian traditional music, explores the traditional musical arts of Sumatra. She uses the term “musical arts” in this context to refer to performing arts containing music:

[including] the vocal, instrumental, and body percussive music, the dance and other body movement, the art of self-defense, the bardic arts, and the musical theater performed at domestic ceremonies, as well as the arts performed during religious rituals and processions, and the adaptations of traditional genres that are performed on government and commercial occasions, during artistic tours and missions, and on the media.

(p. 1)

The book guides us on the journey through the traditional world of music of various ethnic and subethnic groups living in Sumatra from the lagu nelayan (fishermen’s song) of the Sekak sea people in Bangka Island to the variants of the rapai’i [End Page 213] song-dances in Aceh; from the Minangkabau Islamic vocal genre of salawaik dulang of the West Sumatra’s highlands to Mandailing’s gordang lima orchestra of North Sumatra. It is based on the author’s extensive fieldwork in the 1970s and the 1980s on the largest Indonesian island.

Musical Journey relates historical, mythical, religious, and social-contextual issues of many musical genres rooted in Sumatra. The book considers the “stylistic aspects of the music-dance relationships, the dance syntax, and the musical syntax, including melody, tempo, rhythm, meter, formal structure, melodic ornamentation, improvisation, and instrumental and body percussive interlocking techniques” (p. 1). Kartomi divides the Sumatran people she discusses in the book into five musico-lingual groups: the Malay/Melayu, the Minangkabau, the Batak, the Acehnese, and the Chinese–Indonesian. In turn, those five groups can be subdivided into thirty-three subgroups. As she describes in the glossary,

musico-lingual groups [are] population groups and subgroups that are primarily distinguished from one another on the basis of the musical and lingual attributes of their vocal-musical genres (including songs, ritual/religious chanting, song -dances, and intoned theatrical monologues or exchanges), and only the second level of division on the basis of their musical instruments.

(p. 421)

This “musico-lingual” categorization seems to have been used as the main criterion to organize this book. Musical Journey has an introductory chapter (Chapter 1) and then is divided into four parts. In Chapter 1, “Sumatra’s Performing Arts, Groups, and Subgroups” (pp. 1–17), the author describes the scope of the book, provides an elucidation of the musico-lingual groups of Sumatra, and presents the major themes dealing with the music that recur throughout the chapters. Part I (Chapters 2–6) describes the traditional music in West Sumatra and Riau provinces. Part II (Chapters 7–9) focuses on the traditional music in South Sumatra and Bangka Island. Part III (Chapters 10 and 11) looks at the traditional music in North Sumatra province. Part IV (Chapter 12–14), sheds light on the traditional music in Aceh province. Clearly, the book’s four parts refer to the Indonesian national administrative divisions of Sumatra. But, as the...


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