Wednesday, January 30, 2008

The Kampung Sound: Indonesian radio plays traditional tunes to bridge cultural gaps

by Diana Pabst Parsell

Jakarta, Indonesia — Inside the brightly painted bungalow that houses Ben's Radio, Edo Arazy cues a tape for Esther L. Siagian, an ethnomusicologist who has come to pay another of her frequent visits. Arazy, the station's manager, recorded it the day before with a group of local musicians. As he pushes the play button, Siagian leans closer to one of the speakers to hear the tanjidor tune, which combines hanging gongs and drums with tubas, trombones and other brass instruments adopted from Dutch military bands of the colonial era.

Although national and international pop stars still rule the airwaves in Indonesia, it has become increasingly common to hear music that has its roots in local and ethnic traditions. Listeners who want a break from Britney Spears and Ruth Sahanaya, an Indonesian pop diva, can hear the prestigious gamelan orchestras of Java and Bali, and the North Sumatran music known as gondang Toba, in which percussionists use tuned drums to carry a melody. Many of these recordings are brand new, the result of a partnership between dozens of broadcasters and ethnomusicologists, among them Arazy and Siagian.

This project, which began with support from the Ford Foundation in 1995, encourages radio stations to air local material by providing them with recorded programs and training them to make new recordings on their own. The goal is to bring this varied musical heritage to a wide audience so that listeners might gain a deeper understanding of the many cultural traditions that brush up against each other in Indonesia.

The radio project has become especially relevant in light of recent incidents of interethnic and interreligious violence in several regions of the country. Indonesia - with a population of 204 million, five officially sanctioned religions and some 300 ethnic groups - has long prided itself on its diversity and tolerance. But the sectarian clashes have exposed the fragility of that social compact.

"Many people talk about political and economic reform, but we also need cultural reform," says Sapto Raharjo, a programmer at Radio Geronimo in Yogyakarta in central Java. "Listening to this music makes people conscious of regional differences and helps them appreciate those differences."

In 1996 Raharjo and a production team began compiling the first of more than 30 programs of ethnic music and distributed tapes of them, along with explanatory notes, to 52 radio stations. Producers and disc jockeys repackage the programs to suit station formats and listener preferences. Ben's Radio, for example, broadcasts two hours of this material each Saturday evening, and plays briefer selections throughout the week. A magazine that covers the radio industry has published background information and interviews with musicians.

Initially, Raharjo and his colleagues drew on hundreds of field recordings that were made through another Foundation-sponsored project (see text box at the bottom of this page). From the outset, though, the radio project sought to assist broadcasters in recording local music on their own, says Jennifer Lindsay, a former Ford Foundation program officer who now teaches performance studies at the University of Sydney in Australia. "Broadcasting and ethnomusicology are a perfect marriage," says Lindsay, who initiated the radio project in 1995.

One of the first steps was to establish a series of workshops that bring together professionals from both fields. To date, more than 100 people from 25 of Indonesia's 26 provinces have taken part. For radio producers the workshops have offered a wealth of new programming material and insights into traditional music. They have given ethnomusicologists an unprecedented chance to introduce their recordings and scholarship to an audience that has since shared them with millions of listeners.

Most importantly, the workshops have provided training so that radio programmers and ethnomusicologists can make their own broadcast-quality recordings. A key partner has been Radio France Internationale (RFI), which is renowned for recording and broadcasting music from throughout Africa and Asia. For the last two years, RFI's Jérôme Samuel has also arranged to bring several graduates of the workshops to help the network cover a traditional music festival in Lorient, France. Esther L. Siagian, who made the trip in 1998, said the experience of covering a live cultural event has proved invaluable as she works with radio programmers like Arazy.

Radio audiences have responded enthusiastically to the broadcasts, says Errol Jonathans, who organizes the project's workshops. Jonathans, a radio programmer in Surabaya, Indonesia's second-largest city, says, "When we play traditional music at Radio Suara Surabaya, we get calls from listeners who say, 'I remember hearing that music when I was a child and lived in the kampung,' " or home village.

Moreover, stations in Sulawesi, Bali and Sumatra have found that putting local and traditional music on the air has brought an increase in advertising revenue. A high school in Ambon, the provincial capital of Maluku, now requires students to listen to the programs as the basis for class discussions. Even Indonesia's television industry is paying attention.

"Arts performances are boring for television audiences because the format has been unsuitable," says Fred Wibowo, director of Yogyarkarta's Studio Audio Visual, which began managing the project in 1997. As part of its effort to expand the project into television, the studio hosted a workshop last year for 40 producers who specialize in arts programming. "We need to encourage broadcasters to develop new ways to document live art and culture," says Wibowo, "so that people can become aware of their own values and be able to participate in democratic society."

Raharjo's dedication to the radio project stems from similar convictions. As a musician and composer who likes to fuse old and new sounds, he worries that Indonesia's cultural traditions are being lost under a wave of imported music and television programming. Most of Radio Geronimo's listeners are students at Yogyakarta's many universities, and Raharjo believes it is crucial to reach them during these formative years. "They are the future leaders," he says. "The cultural knowledge they carry away with them when they leave their studies here is important for the future of our country."

In Music, a Complex Joke

In 1990, Philip Yampolsky, an ethnomusicologist, and several Indonesian colleagues began to travel the vast Indonesian archipelago to record samplings of the country's many types of music. The project, funded by the Ford Foundation, resulted in "Music of Indonesia," a series of 20 CD's produced by Smithsonian Folkways with the Indonesian Society for the Performing Arts. Ten of these CD's are now available in Indonesia with translations of liner notes written by Yampolsky, now a program officer in the Foundation's Jakarta office. Musical selections can be heard online at

The following excerpt, from liner notes for "Indonesian Guitars," discusses music of the Bugis, the largest ethnic group in South Sulawesi:

"Among the major forms of entertainment in Bugis rural villages and small towns is a performance by professional kacapi players-two, three or four male singers accompanying themselves on two-stringed plucked lutes ... Kacapi ensembles play for weddings and other domestic celebrations. The central element in a nightlong performance is narrative songs … A show will also contain a number of comic interludes and episodes, called atraksi … [One] revolves around the musician La Podding … When it is time for his atraksi, he retunes his kacapi, attaches a tiny speaker (spul) from an automobile sound system to it as a pickup, and transforms his instrument into a two-stringed electric guitar. What he plays is dangdut, one of the principal forms of national popular music. Sometimes he borrows Indonesian-language dangdut songs from the big Jakarta stars … sometimes he borrows dangdut Bugis from the Bugis-language singers .…

"For the most part, La Podding plays these songs straight, without overt comedy. Seated throughout, with his hands busy on the kacapi, he has no opportunity to imitate dance moves or stagy gestures. Yet his audience finds the songs hilarious. The joke is complex. Partly it lies in the incongruity-glamorous television and recording stars from the big cities summoned to a bamboo platform at a village crossroads; the electric guitar, indeed the whole dangdut band, reproduced on a two-stringed lute. But also, we believe, there is an element of humorous payback: the national, which so often mocks the local as backward and foolish, is here cut down to local size."

Diana Pabst Parsell is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.
Sumber: Majalah FF Report,
Spring 2000

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