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Antiphonal Histories: Resonant Pasts in the Toba Batak Musical Present

Antiphonal Histories: Resonant Pasts in the Toba Batak Musical Present

by Julia Byl

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<P>Positioned on a major trade route, the Toba Batak people of Sumatra have long witnessed the ebb and flow of cultural influence from India, the Middle East, and the West. Living as ethnic and religious minorities within modern Indonesia, Tobas have recast this history of difference through interpretations meant to strengthen or efface the identities it has shaped. Antiphonal Histories examines Toba musical performance as a legacy of global history, and a vital expression of local experience. This intriguingly constructed ethnography searches the palm liquor stand and the sanctuary to show how Toba performance manifests its many histories through its "local music"—Lutheran brass band hymns, gong-chime music sacred to Shiva, and Jimmie Rodgers yodeling. Combining vivid narrative, wide-ranging historical research, and personal reflections, Antiphonal Histories traces the musical trajectories of the past to show us how the global is manifest in the performative moment.</P>

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780819574800
Publisher: Wesleyan University Press
Publication date: 07/30/2014
Series: Music / Culture
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 336
File size: 4 MB
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

<P>JULIA BYL is a postdoctoral research associate and member of the European Research Council project "Musical Transitions to European Colonialism in the Eastern Indian Ocean" at King's College London.</P>

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Cosmological Cartography

* * *

The Isles of Waq-waq and the Mapping of Sumatra

The charts of early modern Europeans, based on knowledge gained from exploration and grounded in enlightened rationalism, are the best-known ancestors of the modern world map. Less known is an even earlier cartographic tradition that traced the movements of Arab merchants through the Mediterranean, African, and Asian seas. This body of work dates from the ninth century CE. Made up of navigational data, scientific treatises, travel accounts, and, by the eleventh century, visual maps, early geographies integrated the real-life experience of merchants and the theoretical work of Ptolemy. These delicate worlds on paper, like that of Andalusian cartographer Mohammad al-Idrisi (fig. 1.1), may have been tucked away safely in the libraries of wealthy patrons, yet they were utterly permeated by the salt and sweat of actual sea voyages.

Island Southeast Asia was prominent for both merchant and mapmaker. Positioned at the choke point of the trade route between the Middle East and China, its ports were in constant use as stopovers and intermediate trading posts. Due to this steady sea commerce, the coastal cities of Java and Sumatra transformed sailors of many cultural backgrounds into settlers: the port of Barus in northwestern Sumatra boasted Arab, Persian, Nestorian Christian, Tamil, and Jewish residents, both temporary and permanent.

The movements of global merchants enabled Arab mapmakers to gradually piece together the contours of their travels, but the cultural interactions that occurred in these places knit the world together in equally substantial ways. Intercultural trade allowed people from distant regions to gain knowledge of each other and to fit new cultural and religious traditions into their own understandings of the world. The annals of China, whose dynasties also mapped and traded in the area, describe the Sumatran kingdom of Srivijaya as a good place to study Indian Buddhism. And at the thirteenth-century Yuan court, Franciscan friar Odoric of Pordenone heard legends about Sumatra and Java that had a clear Middle Eastern provenance and traversed the entire trade route in an evening's entertainment. Although the people who made it to the shores of Sumatra were technologists and tradesmen, they were also individuals with specific cultural subjectivities, and new experiences were inevitably refractions of their own deep-seated assumptions. The first global ambassadors, visitors and residents alike, used their experiences of other places to flesh out their global imaginations and, in turn, played a role in the imaginings of others.

If you look at al-Idrisi's map, to the spot where our eastern compass point would lie, you will see the physical representation of one such invention. This small cluster of islands on the far edge of the world is Waq-waq, a place that in modern maps coincides with Sumatra. In the crisscross of the ancient globe, the islands of Waq-waq were a most persistent example of the tradition of stories that accompany mapping. Waq-waq is described in a twelfth-century Arabic text as a magical land with a peculiar kind of tree that bears beautiful women as its fruit:

They are suspended by their hair. Their form and statures are most beautiful and admirable. At the beginning of the month of June, they begin to fall from these trees and by the middle of the month there is not one left on the trees. At the moment of falling to the ground they utter two cries: "Waq, Waq." When they have fallen to the ground, flesh without bones is found. They are more beautiful than words can describe but are without life or soul. (fig. 1.2)

Gaining their name from the cries of the tree-women, the islands persist in Arabic accounts, then on maps from the eleventh century until the middle of the seventeenth century, when the longitude of Waq-waq was shown to be in the position of Sumatra. Other islands near Waq-waq earned equally evocative descriptions, such as Bertayil, from which "one continually hears the noise of the drums, flutes, lutes and all sorts of musical instruments, a sound soft and agreeable, and at the same time dancing steps and clapping of hands." When analyzing sources for his maps in the twelfth century, al-Idrisi discounted the rumors associated with the islands, yet he still included their names and positions in his world map alongside the verifiable landmarks of Sri Lanka and the Korean peninsula.

Later, the more prosaic charms of Sumatra dominated Arabic maritime accounts: camphor, benzoin, and pepper. In their conventional guises, Sumatra's port towns and people figure among the earliest entries in Arabic mercantile lore. But merchant myths hint that scientific exploration and opening markets are shadowed by the unquantifiable experiences of their agents. Their boats followed the shores of a real island, perhaps even near enough to hear the sounds of drums and voices. When they came ashore, their assumptions were grounded by the human and cultural interactions of Sumatran ports. These exchanges, which we can only imagine, are preserved in both the commodity accounts and the fantastic tales of its participants. In their worlds, the global was not experienced as the geographic totality we know now but as a series of places visited and contacts made. As the knowledge of the world became more concrete, navigational tools replaced travel logs as fundamental resources. The island of Sumatra replaced Waqwaq, and the details of the ports were lost to the emerging picture of the continents.

Tallies and charts are not the best curators. The island and the myth claim a more permanent record in literary texts and artistic traditions. Friar Odoric's recollections are now cataloged in Italian archives, and Thai poetry describes the magical tree as late as the nineteenth century. O. W. Wolters, a historian of Southeast Asia, asserts that the region's art can excavate the details smoothed over in the interest of historical overview. Indeed, an eighteenth-century Thai illustration of the Waq-waq story subtlydemonstrates the region's long memory of cultural confluence, global in scale but locally inflected: the women still grow downward from the magical tree, but their grace is now rendered through Thai versions of hand mudras. The Waq-waq women, originally an Arab way of imagining Sumatra, have become part of a Thai artistic tradition, clothed in a local set of meanings themselves shaped by Indian religious practices. The trajectory of the myth, and that of many cultural and artistic traditions in Southeast Asia, follows the path set by the navigators, taking on new meanings in each port of call.

A modern traveler to North Sumatra could find, among the Toba Batak, legends of both maidens descending to the earth via trees and musical traditions replete with drums, flutes, and lutes. Nevertheless, the members of this ethnic group are unlikely kin to the denizens of Waq-waq and Bertayil. Having settled on the mountainous backbone of interior North Sumatra, they are an inland, not a coastal, people, and their cultural and linguistic background, shared among six related peoples grouped together under the name Batak, differed in many ways from the surrounding coastal societies. The Toba Batak are more rice producers than traders, with a society organized around a clan-based, egalitarian kinship system, unlike the sultanates that dominated the North Sumatran coasts and river mouths. Nevertheless, the global influences that washed up on Sumatra's shores reached Toba highlands quickly. They seeped up the river valleys, on paths made for the inland commodities so coveted by foreign merchants. Inverting the Waq-waq myth, in which a Sumatran reality was transported to a foreign place and assumed a foreign guise, Toba people absorbed aspects of these same foreign cultures into their own traditions. The Toba cosmology is populated by Shaivite Hindu deities, the Toba language is written in an Indic script, and ahobar (T), a mutation of the first phrase of the Arabic call to prayer, is featured in Toba mantras.

The most recent foreign influence on Toba society was brought about by the expansion of the European colonial sphere. The Dutch expedition that reached Sumatra in 1595 was, like previous mercantile expansion, driven by hopes of commercial gain. During the seventeenth century, the increasingly exploitative trade relationships were confined to established commercial ports or centers of power. By the high-water mark of colonialism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, however, the Dutch sought to control and administer all of the lands and peoples within the East Indies, the territory now known as Indonesia. This was a second age of maps, but with a crucial difference: the primary object of these maps was no longer to locate the best routes or places to trade but to represent controllable territory. Sacking and burning, destroying economies and killing locals were of course not unique habits of Europeans — the eleventh-century naval raids by the South Indian Chola empire tilted Srivijaya into a spiral that would lead to its historical obliteration until a dramatic scholarly rediscovery in 1918. But the European imperial impulse was intensified by the fixing of memory in records and the use of this knowledge to control. Where the travel maps of the Arab sailors were multidirectional in spirit, focusing on sites of mutually beneficial interaction, the Dutch administrative maps increasingly represented a one-sided intention to document and control. By the 1720s, when Jonathan Swift was looking for a remote setting for his blistering satire of Enlightenment progress, he was forced to place Lilliput and Blefescu off the coast of Sumatra. The island itself was already too familiar for his modern myths.

The need to map the territories of the East Indies corresponded with the impulse to categorize the characteristics of its peoples, and so in the mid-nineteenth century the Dutch began efforts to consolidate knowledge of their new subjects. With the cities of the coast under partial control, their attention shifted inland, to the blank space in the middle of the island (fig. 1.3).

In the absence of information and contacts, the Dutch turned to scholars sponsored by missionary organizations to initiate contact, and during the middle of the nineteenth century a German mission society was allowed to establish an outpost in inland Sumatra. Isolated geographically from the Islamic coasts, the Toba were seen as the ideal group for conversion. When for various reasons Toba people responded positively to Christianity, the previous influences of foreign cultures were minimized through government policies that forbade indigenous religious practices and scholarship that highlighted the unique traditional character of the group. Ironically, to many Dutch and German thinkers, the rapid acceptance of Christianity was not seen as evidence of Toba adaptability to foreign influences. Rather, it was proof of their ordained place in God's kingdom. Any previous resistance to non-Christian influences was recast as the work of Divine Providence, lying dormant until the arrival of God's servants, at the appointed time. As it happened, colonial administrators arrived shortly after, and interior North Sumatra was filled in and adequately controlled by 1907.

In modern Indonesia, up to 90 percent of over two million Toba people identify themselves as Christians, forming one of the largest discrete religious minorities in normatively Muslim Indonesia. As members of one of the most recognizable cultural minorities, many Tobas have also embraced the alterity fostered by the Dutch, carving out a distinct identity by defining their ethnic group as traditional, conservative, and unique. Representing an ethnic group as one thing or another inevitably involves a selective engagement with history. In colonial times, divisions between the Toba and neighboring ethnic groups were emphasized at the expense of persistent, common roots. In midcentury Toba scholarship, conducted by native scholars educated in Germany or the Netherlands, Orientalist explanations were applied to Indic influences, and glossed as glancing. Such representations are always linked with power: the nineteenth-century Dutch policy of separation was an attempt to create a Christian buffer between rebellious Muslim pockets; the modern Toba interpretation, a move to enhance local power through affiliation with the prestige of Christian and European knowledge worlds. Yet the totalizing narratives shaped by religious, colonial, and political interests tell a partial story. After all, if even 90 percent of Tobas follow Christianity, the remaining 10 percent — a population for which Islamic experience, cross-cultural marriage, and the pressures of national identity politics is intensified — still surely counts for something.

History writing is necessarily selective, whether undertaken by colonial officials, members of the Indonesian government, Toba leaders, or American ethnomusicologists. In the maps of later centuries, the world began to take shape as a totality, displacing the myopic experiences of the ports, and their fantastic yet recognizably human representations. As history moves toward a specific perspective, guided by its writers, it is easy to lose sight of the details that lie outside its thrust. Although the perspectives of map and history have come to dominate, billed as objective, scientific, and verifiable, there is also much to learn about the past from the unconfirmed, the unquantifiable, and the subjective. Indeed, without these investigations, the past may appear empirical but remain opaque.


The cultural currents from South Asia, the Middle East, and Europe have shaped Toba cultural history and left behind musical evidence — in a new genre and redefinition of an old one, the addition of a new instrument and a recalibration of musical affect. This book pivots around these musical and historical legacies, with the aim of investigating how they are both recognized and contested in contemporary Toba musical life. Musically, it encompasses seven genres with as many cultural and historical geneses: the gondang sabangunan and gondang hasapi ensembles that played ritual music in the precolonial Toba world (fig. 1.4); the polyphonic choral hymn tradition brought by Lutheran missionaries in the nineteenth century; the brass band repertoire imported from Europe to replace banned ceremonial genres; the folk theater troupes that toured the Batak lands in the early twentieth century; the songwriting and recording traditions pioneered by musicians who listened to global radio broadcasts; and contemporary popular Toba performance influenced by the regional musics of neighbors and mainstream Indonesian popular culture.

I also explore the broader systems that frame these traditions: the cultural matrix of Hindu-Buddhism and the expansion of Islam in Southeast Asia; the relations between Sumatran groups conditioned by an uneven spread of foreign contact and local affiliation; the reality and legacy of Dutch colonialism; the formation of the modern nation-state and its shaping of modern Indonesian lives; and the movement of Toba people within a modern global paradigm.

One might be hard pressed to define such a mass of music and ideas as a "focus," since each one leads the interpreter into a seemingly new arena where aesthetics, core concepts, and habitual interpretations cannot be taken for granted. The close harmony of a brass band composition contrasts markedly with the loose heterophony of a gondang piece; issues of patronage and power resound differently in a processional march with colonial instruments than they do in a ritual kinship feast. Yet these disparate, sometimes cacophonous legacies are given play simultaneously; they are all evident in the Toba historical record, and they bleed through into almost any example of current Toba musical practice. Brass band music and gondang music by themselves may share few common musical or cultural assumptions, but their inclusion in a single afternoon's wedding ceremony aligns these genres in the present, creating a performative alliance.

Toba ritual musicians have no problem with such entanglements. Hired to play for such ceremonies, they expect this mixing of genres. Business cards offer lists of musical programs that could be played during a day's event. If the family in question is Christian, the musical duties could include instrumental music for a quiet private gathering in the morning, a brass band processional to and from the church (complete with euphonium), and the sounding of the gongs, drums and reed of the gondang sabangunan ensemble to accompany the family's entrance into the ceremonial hall. After the event begins in earnest, the ceremonial and musical pace accelerates, and more and more genres are requested with less and less time for transitions: gondang hasapi (bamboo flute, two-stringed lutes, clarinet, and xylophone) playing traditional repertoire followed by "La Paloma" with trumpet solo backed by keyboard and drum set; the melody of a popular Toba-language song celebrating the rice fields of the host clan, and then the tuned-drum ensemble again, but only halfway through because, suddenly, the preacher wants to say something. The emcee waves his hands at the musicians and they leave off mid-breath, then "number thirty-two, red hymnbook" is communicated sotto voce, gong mallets and drumsticks hastily put down and replaced with trumpets and saxophones. The strains of the seventeenth-century German hymn "Lobe den Herren" rise from the musicians' corner, followed shortly by the voices of the guests.


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Table of Contents

<P>Acknowledgments<BR>Notes on Translation and Music<BR>I. BINDU / INTRODUCTION<BR>Orientation<BR>Cosmological Cartography<BR>Two Interludes and Some Family History<BR>II. TAROMBO / GENEALOGY<BR>Orientation<BR>The Aunties in the Lake Meet Batara Guru<BR>Grandfather Nommensen and Raja Stambul<BR>Guru Nahum and Uncle Olo<BR>IV. PARTUTURAN / POSITIONING<BR>Orientation<BR>Lapo Life<BR>"Jehovah Fights for Me"<BR>Artists from the Capital<BR>Jambar Hata / Portion of Words<BR>IV. AFTERWORD<BR>Four Short Studies in Time and Space<BR>Notes<BR>Glossary<BR>Bibliography<BR>Index</P>

What People are Saying About This

Jeremy Wallach

“Well-written, smart, and honest, Antiphonal Histories is an innovative juxtaposition of historiography, ethnography, musical analysis, and reflexive autobiography. There are also moments of poignant insight, brilliant induction, and hilarity.”

From the Publisher

"Well-written, smart, and honest, Antiphonal Histories is an innovative juxtaposition of historiography, ethnography, musical analysis, and reflexive autobiography. There are also moments of poignant insight, brilliant induction, and hilarity."—Jeremy Wallach, author of Modern Noise, Fluid Genres: Popular Music in Indonesia, 1997–2001

"Julia Byl's book is a major contribution on the music of Indonesia's outer islands. Its use of local myths and oral histories provides a powerful context for understanding contemporary musical practices. The vivid ethnographic accounts make this a beautifully written work that is both informative and moving."—René Lysloff

Rene Lysloff

"Julia Byl's book is a major contribution on the music of Indonesia's outer islands. Its use of local myths and oral histories provides a powerful context for understanding contemporary musical practices. The vivid ethnographic accounts make this a beautifully written work that is both informative and moving."

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