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  • Books Received
  • Kathy Foley
ANTIPHONAL HISTORIES: RESONANT PASTS IN THE TOBA BATAK MUSICAL PRESENT. Julia Byl. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2014. Cloth, $85.00; paper, $29.95; ebook, $23.99.

This book is a hybrid of musicological study, autobiography, ethnography, and historical meditation. It has its logic, but often left my head spinning as to why in a discussion on field research the reader had to keep being interrupted with the information that a toddler was running around the room in the midst of an interview. And did we need to hear that the researcher had to sit through a largely content-empty seminar, because she was being shown off as an acolyte by her guru (here the important Batak artist Guntur Sitohang)? Anyone who has done fieldwork has had these experiences; we do not need to go through them again. One must cut through such material to get to her important details on Sumatran music.

This is part of the current need for the anthropologist to self-disclose position in relation to the subject (Toba Batak history and social relations as seen through the prism of music including traditional gondang drum ensembles, church music, urban pop, Indonesian Idol TV singing, and so on). The ambition is large and is based on long years of research and engagement in the culture as an adopted daughter, wife of a pop musician, and a socially engaged ethnomusicologist living through the late New Order Indonesia’s transition with its rising Islam and globalization. There are fascinating details of early accounts of Sumatra (where women were said to grow on trees and make the sound “waq waq” as they fell like fruit). There is a compelling argument linking gondang with nobat (ensembles of Islamicized monarchs of the [End Page 253] Malay world). We get speculation on the practice of old ancestral rites, which included trance behaviors, the relations to social structures of clan lineages, relations to urban gangs (and their relations to musical patronage), and historcized discussions of Dutch Calvinist music (which the author links to her American ancestors). Byl takes us into Toba churches and their identity politics as well as into pubs in the cities where palm wine, sexual innuendo, and song create male bonding. We accompany her through many adventures and misadventures. Some of the book is well written, some of it fascinating, and some of it overladen with personal details. The first full defense of her method does not come until late with “Apologia for Navel Gazing” (pp. 165–170), where she finally presents her argument for the method. She has her argument, but the reader is already worn out with the different genres of writing (ethnography, autobiography, gossip sheet) juxtaposed one against the other. This of course suits the author’s stated intent to create a book “with many prefaces, elaborate metaphors, and hybrid methodologies” (p. 22). However, it does not make easy reading for the reader, who is constantly forced to decide which frame is appropriate for the passage at hand. While the author is, of course, right that the personal is political, the mix makes hard reading. Still, for the purposes of Sumatran ethnomusicology/performance practices this is a useful entry. For theatre scholars, however, the slight discussion of the significant genre, Opera Batak, is little unexplored though the author’s teacher was very active in this genre prior to the 1960s and various songs discussed were part of that significant theatre.

THE IMMORTAL MAIDEN EQUAL TO HEAVEN AND OTHER PRECIOUS SCROLLS FROM WESTERN GANSU. Trans. and intro. Wilt L. Idema. Amherst, NY: Cambria Press. 2015. $134.99.

Though ritual scroll recitation was banned during Mao’s rule, it has revived in selected areas since the end of the Cultural Revolution. Wilt Idema continues his ongoing contributions to understanding of China’s oral and performing literature by translation of six precious scrolls (baojuan) from Western Gansu, where these texts, which were originally part of a genre performed by Buddhist monks and nuns as a kind of religious outreach since the Ming, today are presented by laypeople. Content can vary from religious legends to reports of natural disasters to animal tales and so on. Performances begin with a...