Negotiating Women’s Modesty in the Gendered Dynamics of Minang Society

M. Rizal Abdi | CRCS | Wednesday Forum Report

img_4753-brightThe woman knelt down, supporting her body wrapped in traditional Minang cloth. She held a microphone that echoed her reedy singing and reverberated with the sound of flute from the man next to her. Suddenly, the sound of electronic music rushed in, disrupting the serene and heartbreaking melody with the upbeat dangdut rhythm. Still kneeling down and the female singer continued her sad singing with contradictory backsound as if it is synchronized to each other.

“Two decades ago, this wouldn’t be happening,” said Jennifer A. Fraser, Associate Professor of Ethnomusicology and Anthropology from Oberlin College, US. The contradictory yet fascinating scene above was shown during Fraser’s presentation in CRCS-ICRS Wednesday Forum on Wednesday, 8th August 2016. Entitling her presentation “Playing with Men: Female Singers, Porno Lyrics, and the Male Gaze in a Sumatran Vocal Genre”, Fraser shared her latest findings on Saluang Jo Dendang (literally flute with song), one of the Minangkabau music arts which is celebrated for its refined poetry based on allusions and its sad songs that induce tears in a listener. Using ethnographic research in West Sumatra dating from 1998, she tracked the gendered dynamics and increasingly sexualized interactions between female singers and their male audiences. In the 1960s, Saluang Jo Dendang was predominantly a male performance. Based on Minangkabau Islamic modesty, it was not considered appropriate for women to attend such an exclusively male event, let alone become the center of attention. The only possibility for a woman to participate as a performer was when her husband was the flute player. However, by the 1990’s, women started to displace men as the singer or pededang so that nowadays male pedendang are extremely rare. In fact, as one of male singers admitted, no one wants to listen to a male pedendang anymore.

Moreover, Fraser showed that there are shifting relations between the padendang and pagurau or attendees. In the past, with male singers, the pagurau usually listened to the song and fell into deep reflection on the lyrics. Sometimes the pagurau could also make song requests to the padendang directly. Nowadays, the pagurau usually tease or seduce the padendang by throwing some off-color jokes or requesting particular themes like divorce, asking for marriage, or other private matters. However, according to Fraser, the porno lyrics in the saluang performance refer to something different from the common understanding of pornography. Rather than explicitly using sexual vocabulary, most of lyrics categorized as porno by the audiences refer to anatomical description through allusion that tends to be not harmful but playful. For example,

Caliek Ketua mangacau kopi
Rasa ko tiba di nan inyo
Kok lansuang niak jo nan kini
bantuak orang arab katurunannya


Look at Ketua stirring his coffee
He want to stir what she has
If his interest goes directly with this one
The kids will look Arab

Spontaneously arranged by the padendang right on the stage, the lyric was intended to tease the leader of village and Fraser herself as part of warm cordiality to guests.

As illustrated above, becoming a padendang is not easy task. In the saluang genre, songs are defined by the melodies, not the lyrics. Thus, a saluang singer not only has to memorize hundreds of songs in the repertoire but also needs to creatively adjust or create a new lyrics in the moment of performance. Given the fact that every night a saluang performance performs at least 40 songs, this knowledge and ability to quickly adapt are important skills for the saluang jo dendang performers. Hence, as Fraser underlined, the female padendang become popular not simply because of her bodily existence on the stage but also the nimbleness to response the moment and attendees’ requests. Interestingly, the female padendang also utilize this skill as self-defense to counter the male pagurau who sarcastically try to tease them with dirty jokes. The smart answer is needed in order to remind the audience about the manners without embarrassing them. Furthermore, as Fraser noted, the female padendang have considerable economic power among Minang society. “The standard payment for a female padendang is more than Rp 300.000 a night. Not including the tips from devoted fans,” said Fraser.

However, earlier concerns that it was not appropriate for women to perform on stage in this deeply Islamic society did not disappear entirely. There are still questions about the morality of singers who are out working late at night. Moreover, the existence of Saluang Organ and Dangdut which display different presentation in costume, song, and performance make the situation more problematic. Even though using the name “Saluang” or flute, this new subgenre seldom utilizes the flute instrument and instead uses only the keyboard as main instrument. Furthermore, the padendang do not hesitate to dance with the audience like in dangdut music spectacle. This image is worsened by the frequent presences of alcohol and prostitution in the show. Fraser underlined this variant as the downfall of the genre that indicates the shifting morality in Minangkabau society.

In “Question and Answer” session, Dr. Samsul Maarif asked about the relation between stage performance and everyday life in Minangkabau society. “The stage is constructed reality in very specific situation and purposes,” answered Fraser. It implies that the stage becomes a liminal space when many things which are forbidden in daily life become permissible only for particular moment.

Yet, this doesn’t change the fact there are shifting mores in Minangkabau Society nowadays.  Furthermore, rather than romanticize the past culture, the Saluang jo Dendang portrays the complex reality of local Islamic culture as it negotiates women’s modesty in the gendered dynamics society of Minang Society. As Fraser concluded, one of the fascinating features of this art is its ability to continuously share the wisdom while offering strong entertainment nuance. Hence, the climax of Saluang performance is deep reflection by the audience who listen carefully the padendang’s sublime wordplay. When the audience’s tears fall, it means the Saluang jo Dendang performance has succeeded.




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