Category Archives: Asia

A military brass band in the Riau Islands

The “Sultan of Lingga’s brass band”, as it was dubbed by the Singapore press, or korps musik as it was known locally, was a European-style military band located in the former Netherlands East Indies, owned and operated by the Sultan of Riau-Lingga, not by the colonial Dutch regime. Formed in the 1820s, the band was particularly prominent from the installation of the last sultan, Abdulrahman Mu’azamsyah, in 1885 until he was deposed in 1911.

Despite this history, there is no surviving tradition of military band music practiced in the band’s former home on Penyengat Island and few discernible traces of the band exist in the cultural memory of the Riau region. After reaching its height of prominence in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the history of the Sultan of Lingga’s brass band is now all but forgotten. In this regard, the Sultan’s band differs from examples of military band traditions elsewhere that have grown and thrived long after the withdrawal of colonial regimes that introduced them.

Below: The last Sultan of Riau-Lingga, Abdul Rahman II.

This according to “The sultan of Lingga’s brass band: Music, politics and memory in the Riau-Lingga sultanate” by Anthea Skinner, Performing arts and the royal courts of Southeast Asia I: Pusaka as documented heritage, ed. by Mayco Santaella (Leiden: Brill, 2023, 239–258; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2023-13007).

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Isang Yun: Composer and freedom fighter

Isang Yun’s youth was dominated by his involvement with resistance movements against the Japanese occupation of Korea, which began in 1910. His political activities deeply affected his development as a musician, which was characterized by the constant conflict between his artistic interests and the political commitment that he felt was necessary. Nevertheless, at the age of 17, Yun traveled to Japan, despite his father’s warning, to embark on a college education focused on the study of Western music. After two years, he returned to Korea to continue his studies and his involvement in the Korean liberation struggle. Yun was arrested by Japanese occupation forces in 1943, and it was not until 1948 that he returned to music, this time as a music teacher at an all-girls high school in his hometown. He later began lecturing at a university in Seoul where he received several awards for his compositions.  

These awards enabled Yun to continue studying music in Europe at the Berliner Hochschule für Musik (Berlin University of Music). His frequent participation in Darmstadt’s summer courses for new music led to his acceptance by the European avant-garde, within which he remained an outsider, albeit a respected one. Yun settled in Berlin in 1964 as a Ford Foundation scholarship recipient but the political conflict in his now divided homeland was never far from his thoughts. He was especially critical of South Korea’s leadership and refused several invitations to perform there. Yun hoped for the reunification of Korea, and to make this happen, he made a daring visit communist North Korea in 1963.

The brazen visit concerned South Korean officials, who had Yun kidnapped from Berlin in 1967 in a spectacular operation by the South Korean secret service. He was charged with treason and sent to prison where he endured torture, attempted suicide, and was forced to confess to espionage. After a trial, Yun was sentenced to life imprisonment, a charge that was later revised after massive protests internationally. Subsequently, Yun left Korea in 1969 and returned to Berlin and later became a German citizen. From 1970 onward, he worked as a professor and taught composition while lecturing on various occasions throughout Europe and North America. In 1972, Yun composed the piece Sim Tjong based on a popular Korean fairytale specially for the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich. When asked in a 1987 interview whether he was consciously trying to combine Asian and Western elements in his music, Yun replied,

“No, that would be too artificial.  The inner truth is, in actuality, a music of the cosmos. Realistically seen, I’ve had two experiences, and I know the practice of both Asian music and European. I am equally at home in both fields. I’m a man living today, and within me is the Asia of the past combined with the Europe of today. My purpose is not an artificial connection, but I’m naturally convinced of the unity of these two elements. For that reason, it’s impossible to categorize my music as either European or Asian.”

Celebrate Asian Pacific Islander Heritage Month by reading the entry on Isang Yun (also spelled Yoon) in MGG Online. Listen to Yun’s composition Muak dance fantasy below.

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Filed under 20th- and 21st-century music, Asia, Musicologists, Politics

Vocal music of the southern Philippines

Among the non-Islamic highland communities of Mindanao in the Philippines, singing is not just a form of entertainment but is also embedded in formal or ritualized gatherings. The Agusan Manobo healing ritual is a good example of such context where the tud-om song genre is performed by a medium (acting as the host) before family members and the sick patient (the guest). The same song is always sung in this ritual as a way to resolve misunderstandings among members of the community.

The T’boli people have a song genre called setolu, which is performed after a woman has accepted a gift offered by the man courting her. Setolu represents a sung debate where two singers–a man and a woman, who respectively embody the roles of wife-taker and wife-giver–compete against each other to negotiate the marriage arrangement as a type of social exchange. This is similar to the Maguindanao dayunday and the Sulu sindil, both of which also represent a vocal debate or dialogue between male and female singers, often heard after weddings and ceremonial events to welcome visitors and give thanks. As a form of entertainment, the dayunday is a competition between two men and a woman or two women and a man, who take turns singing with a Western guitar from eight o’clock in the evening until four o’clock the next morning. The performers openly debate the worthiness of the marriage suitor, usually taking the form of humorous denigration.

In the neighboring island of Palawan, a vocal music called kulilal features sensual and metaphorical images of love. Kulilal does not represent a courtship but is a song of seduction in which a woman playing the zither is invited into an adulterous relationship. During the performance she is flanked by two men who take turns singing and playing their two-stringed lutes (pictured above).

Learn more in a new entry on the Philippines by Jose Buenconsejo in MGG Online.

Below is a contemporary performance of dayunday in Maguindanao.

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Cyclist/masseurs and their shakers in urban Vietnam

Hồ Chí Minh City, December 2003

“During my visit to Hồ Chí Minh City I heard a distinct sound, short and accented, coming from the small lanes in District 1. Listening, I tried to determine if there was an ostinato or sequence to the rhythms, but there wasn’t any. Fascinated by the sound, I ventured outside the guesthouse where I was staying to try to determine from where this sound was coming. I was unsuccessful in finding the source of the sound, so I made an enquiry with the guesthouse management. I was told it was a shaker type of instrument commonly heard at night, played by bicycle-riding masseurs offering their services.

Dining out on the following night, I heard another distinct sound that was accented with shorter sounds. That’s when I saw, for the first time, a type of shaker that belonged to one of the hundreds of people who commonly carry these instruments on their bicycles. Within minutes of this initial finding, I noted two more cyclists with their shakers.

After dinner, I approached one of them to ask as to what these were called. Unfortunately, he spoke almost no English and instead offered a massage. Upon returning to the guesthouse, I asked the management to write my question in Vietnamese. I was then able to communicate with another cyclist/masseur to establish the instrument’s name, function, and measurements. The effort was successful for his answer was a chuông gõ.

On my second trip to Hồ Chí Minh, I made a similar enquiry of several cyclists/masseurs to confirm the name of the instrument given to me on my first trip. Though this time the names of chuông gõ, cál lắc, and lắc lắp were given. I noted the variations in the construction of the instrument. The best-constructed ones of the lot were the chuông gõ, which seems to have been made with wire, pierced through the middle of bottle caps, and attached to a handle. Some handles were made of old garden trowels, while the most creative used an old squash racket grip. All variants combined recycled resources.”

Read more from Terry Moran in Vietnamese musical instruments: A monographic lexicon (2020). Find it in RILM Music Encyclopedias.

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The nobat in Malay court life

The nobat, a percussion-based music ensemble, has performed in the Malay courts of maritime Southeast Asia since the coming of Islam to the region in the 13th century. The nobat originates in the Islamic traditions of the Middle East and has long been incorporated into the sacred court regalia as a symbol of a sultan’s power and sovereignty. The ensemble also is revered for its perceived mystical powers and its ability to consolidate and maintain sociopolitical order. The spread of Islam saw the nobat and its musical practice travel via ancient land and sea routes across Asia to develop by accommodating different local cultures and belief systems.

Drawing patrons from some of the greatest Muslim empires, the sounds of the nobat in palaces symbolized the installation of new rulers, announced the arrival of dignitaries, signaled prayer times, and instilled courage among soldiers on the battlefield. The emergence of the nobat as a court institution was less a result of the collective agency of the masses than a desire of the Malay ruling elites. The ensemble developed during a period when societies were governed by absolute monarchs, military commanders, and regional governors who had the means and purpose to patronize it. Along with the nobat, ruling elites also were responsible for supporting the advancement of the arts and sciences generally, and many musicians, poets, painters, philosophers, and scientists found themselves under court patronage.

By the late 20th century, the nobat mostly went silent as sultanates declined in visibility and power. The few that have survived continue to perform in the sultan’s courts of Kedah, Perak, Selangor, and Terengganu in Malaysia and in Brunei.

Read more in “The nobat: From Muslim antiquity to Malay modernity” by Raja Iskandar Bin Raja Halid in Performing arts and the royal courts of Southeast Asia. I: Pusaka as documented heritage, edited by Mayco A. Santaella (Leiden: Brill, 2023) 139–160. Find it in RILM Abstracts of Music Literature.

The video below features a performance of the nobat in Kedah, Malaysia.

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Filed under Asia, Religious music, World music

Celebrating Tyagaraja ārādhana in South India

The social organization of musicians in South India is often reflected in the Tyagaraja ārādhana, the annual death-anniversary celebration in honor of the revered composer Tyagaraja (1767–1847, pictured above). Thousands of musicians appear at this huge annual celebration, including men and women of different social communities and performance traditions. These musicians include performers in the Karṇāṭak art music tradition–ubiquitous in the contemporary concert halls of South India–as well as two closely related performance traditions sharing the Karṇāṭak musical language of raga and tala: the periya mēḷam instrumental tradition of Hindu temple ritual music and the music ensemble (formerly known as cinna mēḷam) that accompanies the South Indian classical dance form bharatanāṭyam.

After Tyagaraja’s passing in 1847, some of his disciples (śiṣya) would visit his gravesite at Tiruvaiyaru on the anniversary of his death each January. The commemorations were at first extremely simple; the disciples would pray, sing songs, and return home. As Tyagaraja’s lineage of students and students’ students multiplied, more musicians came to the site to offer their worship. About 60 years after Tyagaraja’s death, the commemoration became institutionalized, due to the efforts of two Brahmin brothers from the village of Tillaisthanam, adjacent to Tiruvaiyaru. These brothers, Narasimha Bhagavatar and Panju Ayyar, collected sufficient money and food to feed the Brahmins who would assemble for the rites. Narasimha Bhagavatar, a disciple’s disciple of Tyagaraja, also published a major edition of Tyagaraja’s kriti compositions and a biographical account of the composer in 1908.

The dynamic nature of the Tyagaraja ārādhana, which takes place over three days each January, in the town of Tiruvaiyaru, Tanjavur district, in Tamil Nadu, facilitates the study of two parameters at the heart of India’s changing social organization: gender and caste. Attention to these two central parameters illuminates other aspects of social organization such as the patronage, presentation, and transmission of music, and people’s attitudes about music, musicians, and music making. In locating caste and gender relations within the history of the Tyagaraja celebration, the roles played by two important transitional figures, namely Sri Malaikottai Govindasvami Pillai and Srimati (Smt.) Bangalore Nagaratnammal, illustrate the changes in the gender and caste organization of South Indian musicians in the 20th century.

Read on in The Garland encyclopedia of world music. South Asia: The Indian Subcontinent (2013). Find it in RILM Music Encyclopedias.

Below is a video of the 172nd Tyagaraja ārādhana circa January 2019.

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Qamar: A pioneering singer of Iran

In the post 1970 revolution era, women musicians in Iran, especially women vocalists, have represented a challenge to societal norms and have inspired new musical trends. Such trends, however, have largely been inconsistent with the gendered restrictions of the Iranian state’s cultural policies which limit the musical activities of women, especially singing in public. Iranian society has long been one where religion and politics have been integrated into everyday life. With Islam as the official state ideology, this integration has been felt even more deeply. There is, however, a significant gap between such cultural policies, dominant official discourse, and the changing spiritual, intellectual, and cultural needs of Iranian society.

In this context, the emergence of women solo singers performing in public is unprecedented in Iranian history and must be understood in terms of the political, social, and intellectual changes of the late 19th and early 20th century. These changes included different processes of modernization including greater communication politically with the international community, the opening of modern schools, the establishment of a printing press, the creation of a modern educated or intellectual class (munavar al-fekr), the emergence of a literary renaissance movement (Bazgasht-i adabi), and a change in the country’s constitution. The Iranian public, especially the urban educated class, at the turn of the 20th century longed for changes in gender norms and for the participation of women in social and cultural spheres, including in the public performance of music. The early period of the Constitutional Revolution marked the beginning of Iranian classical music concerts performed in public. It was not until 1924, however, when the singer Qamar al-Moluk Vazirizade (better known as Qamar) gave her first concert at Tehran Grand Hotel, that an Iranian woman would perform before an audience of men in public.

Qamar was born in the small city of Qazvin but later moved to Tehran where she adopted her family name in honor of Ali-Naqi Vaziri, an Iranian musician who improved the social status of musicians and expanded the role of women in music. Qamar lost her father a month before she was born, and her mother died when she was only 18 months old. She was raised by her grandmother, Khair al- Nesa’, a reciter of the Qur’an and a religious professional narrator for women-only audiences (rouzeh-khani). Khair al Nesa’, who was known for her strong reciting voice, quickly took notice of Qamar’s interest in singing and encouraged her to join the performances–making them more captivating and helping Qamar to cultivate her singing voice. Qamar later recounted, “Those singing experiences in my childhood gave me the courage to sing in public”. Similar to the renowned Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum, Qamar’s professional career as a singer was influenced by and connected to her religious background.

From 1927 to 1937, Qamar’s career flourished, and she became one of the first Iranian singers to record for the gramophone market. Some of her songs reflected the social conditions and hardships faced by Iranian people after World War I. Furthermore, her recordings were even performed in public spaces such as theaters. Qamar is generally known to have played a significant role in the development of Persian classical music as a genre and expanded its popularity in aristocratic circles to wider society in the early 20th century.

Learn more in “Voicing their presence: Postrevolution Iranian female vocalists in context” by Malihe Maghazei [Popular communication XV/3 (2017), 233–247]. Find it in RILM Abstracts of Music Literature.

Listen to a recording by Qamar al-Moluk Vazirizade below.

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Filed under Asia, Popular music, Voice, Women's studies, World music

Teresa Teng and Hong Kong’s colonial modernity

Teresa Teng (鄧麗君, born Deng Lijun) was one of the most influential singers in Asia during the Cold War era. She rose to fame in 1960s Taiwan, and by 1971, at the age of 18, shifted the focus of her career from Taiwan to Hong Kong. This decision would become the most important chapter in Teng’s music career, as she would live in Hong Kong for next 20 years. Her preference for Hong Kong was expressed in the release of two singles, namely Night of Hong Kong (香港之夜,1982) and Hong Kong, Hong Kong (香港香港, 1989), which she recorded specifically for her local fans. Teng’s other well-known songs also told the stories of small rural towns in China, where many of her other loyal fans lived.

Teng recalled that as a second-generation migrant from China to Taiwan, she frequently experienced discrimination by Taiwanese people towards her. Unable to overcome of the feeling of being a stranger there, she found safe harbor in Hong Kong‘s immigrant community. Teng’s rise to become one of Asia’s most influential singers is also the story of Hong Kong’s expanding political and economic influence in the region, along with the cross-cultural appeal of Hong Kong’s popular culture during the Cold War period. A series of albums entitled Island love songs (島國之情歌), produced when Teng was employed by PolyGram Music in Hong Kong, as well as her two albums in Cantonese, and the album Light exquisite feeling, which promoted the idea of a transnational “imagined China”, aurally evoke a sense of Hong Kong’s colonial modernity.

Celebrate the first day of women’s history month by reading “Love songs from an island with blurred boundaries: Teresa Teng’s anchoring and wandering in Hong Kong” by Chen-Ching Cheng, in Made in Hong Kong: Studies in popular music (Routledge, 2020). Find it in RILM Abstracts.

Below, Teresa Teng sings one of her most popular songs The moon represents my heart (released in 1977).

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Filed under Asia, Performers, Popular music, Uncategorized, Voice

Batanghari sembilan in South Sumatra

Batanghari sembilan is a genre of popular guitar music performed in the province of South Sumatra, Indonesia. The sound of batanghari, for many locals, evokes a strong sense of cultural pride for their natural and agricultural surroundings, especially for the long winding rivers that flow across the elongated island’s mountainous landscape. Some have described the genre as melancholic or romantic for its minimalistic sound. In earlier times, the sound of batanghari sembilan was more dense as it was performed in small ensembles comprised of a gambus (a lute instrument similar to an oud), suling (an Indonesian bamboo flute), and small hanging gongs. Today, however, it is performed primarily on solo acoustic guitar.

In the village of Batu Urip, batanghari sembilan accompanies the sekedah bumi, a ceremony performed to summon the spirits of the deceased as a form of memorialization, expression of gratitude, and to repel future misfortune. The version of batanghari sembilan performed here in sekedah bumi is unique in its incorporation of pantun, a Malay poetic form, in this case, used to express deep sadness and longing for ancestors or recent relatives who have passed away.  For instance, in the popular pantun phrase below, the third and fourth lines describe a sense of seduction that can be attributed to either an ancestor or perhaps a lover.

Betang hagu umban di tebang

Betang duku di buat hahang

Jengan ragu jengan bimbang

Linjang ku tuk ngas suhang

In this context, the performance of batanghari sembilan in sekedah bumi is not merely intended as entertainment but as ritual function, conveying the social values and history of South Sumatran cultures while strengthening local communities.

Learn more in “The function of pantun in the art performance of batang hari sembilan solo guitar during sedekah bumi ceremony held in Batu Urip hamlet, South Sumatera” by Imelda Tri Andari and Suharto (Harmonia 20.2, [December 2020], 195–204). Find this Indonesian journal in RILM Abstracts of Music Literature.

The video below features the guitarist Sahilin, one of South Sumatra’s most renowned contemporary batanghari sembilan performers. The second video features Suarasama, an Indonesian band that incorporates elements of the batanghari sembilan sound.

Pictured above are Randi Putra Ramadhan and Rosa Jannatri Harkha, two younger batanghari performers.

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Turkmen genocide and the Geök Tépé muqam

The 1881 genocidal massacre of Turkmen people by imperial Russian troops in the village of Geök Tépé forever altered the musical culture of the Muslim nomadic tribes of Central Asia. During the 18th and 19th centuries, Tsarist Russia’s thirst for conquering new territories fueled a desire to access commercial routes and the warm water ports of the Indian Ocean. Occupying the Turkmen lands was as a primary goal as the Turkmen nomadic lifestyle in the area presented a threat to the stability of the southern part of the Russian empire. Russians decided to attack the Tekke Turkmens who lived in Akhal to subjugate them. The vast conquest was accompanied by the mass killing of people to gain access to their lands and resources while expanding the Russian empire. In the battle fought at Geök Tépé, approximately 15,000 Turkmens, mostly innocent civilians, were killed while the Russian army suffered only around 400 casualties.

In the absence of written history, Turkmen collective memory predominantly relied on songs and melodies. For the Turkmen, the most important events, including the massacre, were remembered in music passed down from generation to generation, thereby building a collective cultural identity. The melancholic instrumental and vocal muqam performed by traditional musicians have for generations expressed collective grief. Turkmen muqams include three main categories: music inspired by real events in society, heroic and lyrical muqams, and descriptive muqams. In the music inspired by real events in Turkmen society, bagşys performed the role of historians or narrators of the Turkmen history and communicated historical facts through their music. These muqams are often found in times of war conflict, or injustice. The Geök Tépé muqam is likely the most famous of them all.

Learn more in “Geok Tepe muğam: A musical narrative of Turkmen massacre in 1881” by Arman Goharinasab and Azadeh Latifkar, an essay included in the volume Music and genocide (Peter Lang, 2015).  Find it in RILM Abstracts of Music Literature.

Below is a video featuring a contemporary muqam performance by Zuleyha Kakayewa and Hatyja Owezowa on television show in Turkmenistan.

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