Negotiating Women’s Modesty in the Gendered Dynamics of Minang Society
M Rizal Abdi | CRCS | Wednesday Forum Report
The 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,