Wednesday Forum: Playing with Men; Female Singers, Porno Lyrics, and the Male Gaze in a Sumatran Vocal Genre

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Abstract
Saluang jo dendang, flute with song, is one of the most important arts of the Minangkabau heartland, celebrated for its refined poetry based on allusion and sad songs that induce tears in a listener. Performed late at night into the wee hours of the morning, two to three singers deliver a series of 40 or so songs according to the requests of the attendees, choosing from a repertoire of hundreds. In this genre, songs are defined by the melodies, not the lyrics, which are variable from one performance to the next. Singers choose texts from stock verses memorized and create them anew in the moment of performance, all delivered in pantun and therefore rhyme with verse lengths varying from 4 to 22 lines. The knowledge, skill, and nimbleness demanded of the performers is considerable.

Once the exclusive purview of male performers, women started singing publicly in the 1960s. By the 1990s, women had displaced male singers and nowadays it is extremely rare to encounter male singers. The predominantly male audiences are not terribly interested in them. However, earlier concerns that it was not appropriate for women to perform on stage in this deeply Islamic society did not disappear entirely and there are still questions about the morality of singers who are out working late at night.

In this talk, Fraser uses ethnographic research in West Sumatra dating from 1998, including interviews with top singers who’ve been active since the 1970s, to track the gendered dynamics and increasingly sexualized interactions between female singers and their male audiences. She also addresses the expansion of the genre to include forms still called Saluang but more rooted in popular styles, including dangdut. The talk explores changing aesthetic standards and behaviors, including “porno” and “naked” lyrics, racy dress styles, and arguably “loose” morals.

Speaker
Jennifer Fraser is Associate Professor of Ethnomusicology and Anthropology at Oberlin College, Oberlin, Ohio, USA. Her research, focused on the music of the Minangkabau, has been published in leading ethnomusicology journals and presented at international conferences. Her book,  “Gongs and Pop Songs: Sounding Minangkabau in Indonesia” (Ohio University Press 2015) investigates the ways Minangkabau people use gong ensembles to articulate community, ethnicity, and their place in the world. She is at work on a new book project focused on saluang, a vibrant flute and vocal genre of the highlands.

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