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  • Gongs and Pop Songs: Sounding Minangkabau in Indonesia by Jennifer A. Fraser
  • Jeremy Wallach (bio)
Jennifer A. Fraser. Gongs and Pop Songs: Sounding Minangkabau in Indonesia. Ohio University Press, 2015. 240 pp.

Studies of music and ethnicity in Indonesia’s outer islands are haunted by what Benedict Anderson called (in another context) the “spectre of comparisons.”1 Because the gamelan traditions of Java and Bali belong to politically powerful ethnic groups and have received the lion’s share of attention from scholars, it can be a daunting task to claim spaces for other musical traditions. Jennifer Fraser rises ably to this challenge in her monograph Gongs and Pop Songs: Sounding Minangkabau in Indonesia, which explores talempong, a lesser-known Southeast Asian gong tradition performed in a variety of contexts by the Minangkabau people of West Sumatra. The result is a model of multi-sited, multi-method music ethnography that reveals shifting configurations of ethnicity, morality, gender, class, and modernity in contemporary Indonesia. Fraser follows talempong’s trajectory from folk tradition to university ensemble to commercial entertainment. Along the way, talempong’s widely variable pitches become standardized to a Western diatonic, then chromatic, scale; functional harmony is introduced; amplified, electronic instruments are added to the mix; and even djembes (African drums) and tambourines join the ensemble. It also becomes clear that Minangkabau music culture has been influenced decisively not only by Western models, but by the prestigious gamelan traditions mentioned above, as well as Minang- and Indonesian-language pop and dangdut (hybrid national music genre).

It is impossible to understand Indonesian ethnicities without an appreciation for how they are anchored in kampung (village) experience, and it is here that Fraser begins her exploration. After a detailed introductory chapter introducing talempong, the Minangkabau, and the cognitive view of ethnicity that guides her study, Fraser launches into a richly textured description of talempong performance focusing on two Minangkabau villages, Paninjauan and Unggan. The discussion centers on two traditions in particular: talempong duduak, tuned kettle gongs played while seated, accompanied by drums and idiophones; and talempong pacik, a processional form in which the gongs are joined by a reed instrument and percussion. Each village has its own distinctive sound, which represents the community both to the inhabitants and to outsiders:

[T]he local talempong practice becomes an investment in the community and a tacit statement about what it means, sounds, and feels like to be from that place. The presence of local styles also deepens the feeling of social connectedness between participants from the community because not only is the music familiar to them but it also is unique to that community. Talempong does not sound like that anywhere else.

(80) [End Page 121]

Since the kampung (called nagari in Minangkabau) as idealized social unit by definition functions according to a cultural rather than market logic, it is unsurprising that musical performance there follows the parameters of gift exchange, even when monetary payment is involved. This stands in stark contrast to when “institutionalization, professionalization, and monetization” befall talempong performance. These processes are described in the book’s ensuing chapters, when Minangkabau “cosmopolitans,” under the influence of state support or economic incentive, appropriate the ensemble and refashion it into standardized signifiers of ethnic belonging.

Chapter 3 concerns the 1965 establishment of an institution dedicated to the “preservation” and “development” of traditional Minangkabau arts in the town of Padang Panjang, located near Bukittinggi. This institution was to have many names, starting with KOKAR (Konservatori Karawitan Indonesia). After numerous upgrades it is now known as ISI (Institut Seni Indonesia, Indonesian Institute of the Arts). Unfortunately, the developmentalist and xenocentric mentalities of the institution’s faculty cause the marginalization of village musicians, whom they deride as being backward and unlettered. At the same time, Fraser’s research indicates that both student and faculty interest is directed toward a style of music called talempong kreasi baru (or talempong kreasi for short), literally “new creation talempong,” as opposed to traditional musical forms like talempong duduak or pacik (111–12). This new style of music is invented at the conservatory, and is an outgrowth of the decontextualizing of musical sounds and instruments on the one hand, and the standardization...


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