"Traditional Music Weeps" and Other Themes in the Discourse of Music, Dance and Theater of Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand

By Kartomi, Margaret J. | Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, September 1995 | Go to article overview

"Traditional Music Weeps" and Other Themes in the Discourse of Music, Dance and Theater of Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand


Kartomi, Margaret J., Journal of Southeast Asian Studies


One of the most remarkable features of the past twenty years of scholarship on the Southeast Asian performing arts has been the sparking off of ideas between Southeast Asian-born scholars, whether trained in Southeast Asian universities or overseas, and Western scholars of the Southeast arts who live in North America, Australia, Europe, Japan and elsewhere. In colonial Indonesia (until 1945) and Malaysia (until 1957), research agendas of Dutch and British scholars respectively had complied with the social, economic and political priorities of the colonial powers and associated local court-centred artistic interests, though not always consciously. In Thailand, which was the only country in the region not to be colonized by a European power, Thai scholars had been actively researching their own court performing arts in the late colonial era but were nevertheless influenced by the colonial ethos of the region. In the past twenty years or so, the developing dialogue and contradictions between Southeast Asian and foreign scholars, each with their own partly distinctive assumptions and methodologies based on the priorities of their respective traditions and governments, have resulted in a healthy divergence, convergence, and cross-fertilization of ideas.

Arguably, we are now witnessing a shift from a period of colonial Western hegemony(1) to the forging of an Eastern pre-eminence in the Asian-Pacific arena. Over the past five centuries, during which Europe and later the United States dominated the world, the main elements of Western civilization - feudalism, the renaissance, the reformation, the enlightenment, the industrial revolution, the French and American revolutions and capitalist versus socialist ideas - transformed the nature of Western hegemony, paved the way for its colonial empires, and came to dominate world scholarship, including scholarship on the Southeast Asian arts. With the demise of the colonial powers since World War II has come a shift of values, although the current ideology of "development" in Southeast Asia mirrors many of the key ideas of the colonial worldview, including the Baconian idea of the mastery of nature via science and technology, the hierarchical ordering of human beings, and the belief that people on the higher rungs of the ladder have the right and responsibility to shape the lives of those on the lower rungs. One major change, however, has been the giving of education to some Southeast Asians. As a substantial number of Southeast Asian-born scholars begin to play a major role in the research, some old questions have begun to be superseded by new ones, while some perennial themes remain. One theme that has recurred over the past century, and especially since the 1970s, is the concern that hundreds of ethnic cultural traditions are dying without documentation as a result of the onslaught of Western arts, especially music; as one Sumatran ethnomusicologist put it, "the traditional music weeps" [ILLUSTRATION 1 OMITTED]. Through different lenses both groups of scholars still debate the significance of this issue, whether they really need to feel so despondent about it, and the related questions of the nature of authenticity and the inevitability of creative change in the arts and associated social conditions.

Before examining evidence of recent trends, whether on perennial or new topics, it will first be necessary briefly to discuss the relevant sources and literature of the early-, high- and late-colonial periods, where the early colonial period arguably dates from the early seventeenth to the mid-nineteenth century; the high colonial period from the mid-nineteenth century to World War I; the late colonial period from World War I to the end of the America-Vietnam War; and the post-colonial period from 1975 to the present.(2) We shall then take a more detailed look at the period of post-colonial(3) thought from the mid-1970s, when a critical dialogue emerged among Indonesian, Malaysian, Thai, American, Australian and other scholars about issues important in this high-consumerist, high-technological age, characterized by rapid change. …

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