Sumatra’s performing arts: a historical account

After 40 years in the making, the first book to document the history of musical arts and culture in Sumatra was launched in Melbourne last month.

Written by the Sir Zelman Cowen School of Music’s Professor Margaret Kartomi, Musical Journeys in Sumatra looks at the musical arts and cultural history of the Indonesian island of Sumatra. It is the world’s sixth largest island, and home to more than 44 million people.

This unique work examines the complex diversity of Indonesian music from the early 1970s on. It provides a fascinating record of vanishing musical genres, traditions and practices that have been compromised by the pressures of urbanisation, poverty and policy.

Professor Kartomi said she decided early in her academic career to produce the book, which covers the gamelan, a traditional musical ensemble from Indonesia, and the music of six of Sumatra’s 10 provinces.

“My husband and I made innumerable trips throughout this huge region and its offshore islands, and collected musical, visual and textual materials, including musical instruments,” Professor Kartomi said.

“The main obstacle, especially in the 1970s and 1980s, was the difficulty of reaching many areas of Sumatra, especially in the mountain ranges, due to the poor communications, with many major roads having been built only in the past 20 years or so.

“Yet this was also an advantage in that the performances we encountered were virtually untouched by the outside world.”

Professor Kartomi said she had vivid memories of Sumatra’s still-unspoilt natural environment in the 1970s and the kind and hospitable people who were proud of their ancient cultures.

“Hundreds of musicians, instrument makers, dancers, poets, story tellers, shamans, headmen, fisherfolk, farmers, merchants and corporate and government officials helped us record, photograph and study the wealth of music encountered on our journeys,” Professor Kartomi said.

“I hope the book will increase the appreciation among Australians and Indonesians of the little-known performing arts of Sumatra, and that artists will learn to perform some of the repertoire.”

The book examines all forms of music in Sumatra including vocal, instrumental, body percussion, dance, the art of self defence, the bardic arts and the musical theatre performed in rituals, processions, government and commercial events.

Musical Journeys in Sumatra is available through University of Illinois Press.