Martial Arts, Dance, Music, Drama, and the Kitchen Sink
08 Oct 2017
Reading time ~16 minutes
Having spent two weeks in the tourist haven that is Bali, the lack of foreigners in West Sumatra feels as striking as the heavy presence of tourists and expats in Bali initially felt. Interestingly enough, while in Bali I mostly connected with expats from other parts of Indonesia and the rest of the world as opposed to the native Balinese. In contrast, since arriving in Padang, West Sumatra last Monday, the majority of people I’ve met with and interviewed here are members of the majority native ethnic group in West Sumatra, the Minangkabau. Minang culture is markedly distinct from the Javanese and Balinese environments I was previously steeped in, which, incidentally, is a fact that Minangkabau are rather proud of. The most commonly referenced aspect of Minang society is its predominantly matrilineal system of marriage and inheritance. In the realms of language, traditional arts, architecture, apparel, and food too, the Minang way of life certainly stands out from mainstream Indonesian culture.
The following are some general scenes from my first several days in Padang.
Interview with Mak Katik, A Venerable Practioner of Minangkabau Arts and Culture
My week in West Sumatra commenced with a charming meeting with artist and educator, Musra Dahrizal Katik Rajo Mangkuto, or in short, Mak Katik. Mak Katik’s example is rather rare in Indonesian society due to his deep background in, knowledge of, and commitment to traditional arts, culture, and customs. He has been a lecturer at the University of Hawaii, Manoa in the US and at the National Arts Academy of Malaysia. While in West Sumatra, he teaches at Padang State University and Andalas University. Though he could not afford to complete his collegiate studies, Mak Katik has been steeped in traditional Minangkabau culture all his life. He’s more or less mastered four of five widely acknowledged fields of Minangkabau arts including pantun (traditional poetry), randai (traditional theatre that blends drama with martial arts derived dance), musical instruments such as saluang (bamboo flute) and talempong (a set of brass knobbed pots), and finally Minangkabau silat (Minangkabau martial arts). From talking with Mak Katik, I learned that it is not uncommon for master teachers of Minangkabau culture and customs to have a solid grasp of the theory, history, and practice of each of these fields, because they are viewed as a cultural package to ideally be passed on to committed individuals of each successive generation. Given the opportune occasion to interview someone of Mak Katik’s standing, I did not mind the fact that my interview with him necessitated double translation. That is, my friend Fajri, a native Minangkabau, translated Mak Katik’s answers from Minang to Bahasa Indonesia for my other friend Aji to then translate from Bahasa Indonesia to English for me to be able to follow along.
Mak Katik shared a number of things about Islam, the arts and culture, and their relation in West Sumatra that were news for me. For one, he turned me on to the existence of an extended repertoire of Minang mantras, which are simply short recitations made for rather utilitarian purposes. The kinds of mantras that I’ce been aware of up till this point in time have been Hindu and Buddhist mantras used during ritual worship and meditation. Mantras in the Minangkabau case, however, are mostly steeped in the thick of Islam. Minang mantras often take form in requests for particular goals, wishes, or immediate desires ranging from the accumulation of wealth to the attraction of romantic or sexual mates. Proper Muslims who rely on such mantras will be sure to precede their requests with a basmillah and conclude their recitations with an amin. Those individuals who refrain from observing these two key steps are likely among the stigmatized ranks of “black magicians”. Such mantra reciters surely constitute a minority group in Minangkabau culture. For the devout Minang Muslim, their ways ought not be replicated. Ironically, however, even those who explicitly place mantra recitation within the fold of Islam aren’t free from facing harsh criticism from their hardliner Muslim counterparts who are quick to label such practices as bidah, or un-Islamic or anti-Islamic innovations.
All major aspects of Minangkabau culture, philosophy, and customs have thoroughly assimilated Islam into their folds since Islam’s introduction to West Sumatra in the 7th, 12th, or 13th centuries (the exact date of the arrival of Islam to the region and en masse proselytization is contested by scholars). What is known for sure is that Sufi merchants/leaders in particular along with various economic/political factors which are beyond the scope of this post were instrumental to the initial spread and establishment of Islam among the Minangkabau. The earliest faces of Islam, were largely that of Sufism, which was and continues to be rather all-embracing with regards to pre-existing adat or customs of indigenous populations. As with most village dwellers in the heartlands of Minangkabau, Mak Katik attended informal schooling in Minangkabau arts and culture and Islam addition to formal, national schooling throughout his childhood and youth. The traditional Minangkabau insititutions that offer such two-fold cultural and religious education under a single roof are known as surao. From the vantage point of an American surrounded by a culture of intense specialization, the burden put on ustads or masters in such environments is extraordinarily high because they must be well-versed in highly diverse subjects. Teachers must have expertise in Quranic recitation, the Hadith, and Islamic history in addition to cultural topics such as the aforementioned subjects of Minangkabau culture such as putan (poetry), randai (dance-drama), silat (martial arts), and sualang bamboo flute, talempong (knobbed-pot gong set), and rabab (spike fiddle) playing. Having been in regular contact with the majority Muslim Bangladeshi diaspora in Los Angeles in which traditional Bengali arts and culture occupies a palpably separate realm of society from religion, I was surprised to learn of the large extent to which traditional elements of Minangese culture have been associated with, clothed in, or otherwise appropriated by Islam. To leave you with an impression of the pervasiveness of this phenomenon of blending indigenous culture with religion, there is a widely known saying in Minangkabau with a history that goes back a century or so with the development of reformist or orthodox groups and movements in West Sumatra that can be paraphrased in the following unwieldy way: individual tendencies/habits of the Minangese can be traced to Minangkabau culture; Minangkabau culture is justifiable by Islamic doctrine; Islam originates and is ultimately legitimized by the Quran. Allow the commutative property to do its magic and you end up with the notion that the daily living of the Minangkabau is in line with the Quran. For devout Muslims, that’s all that really matters at the end of the day.
After the interview, I headed out my trusty duo of translators and Mak Katik to one of the hippest arts/culture spots in Padang run by well-known dancers/choreographers Angga and her husband Ery Mefri. There, the four of us witnessed a fine randai performance followed by a short and sweet sampan dance piece performed by children dancers/actors between the ages 8 and 18 with musical accompaniment provided by adults. For both my friends Aji and Fajri and myself, this was the first time we’d ever been exposed to randai live. Even someone who was born and raised in Minangkabau such as my friend Fajri, much of the knowledge and wisdom vis a vis Minangkabau culture that Mak Katik shared with us and that we witnessed on stage that evening was largely foreign to us. Fajri himself admitted to having a hard time understanding much of the things Mak Katik explained in his rather formal/high Minang, not to mention the highness/formality of Minang of the traditional randai performance we witnessed. Despite understanding virtually nothing being said or sung on stage, the expressiveness of the art form nonetheless succeeded in generating some semblance of understanding in us lesser beings in the audience. Among the various Minangkabau performing art forms, randai stands out for incorporating basically each of the aforementioned, major elements of Minangkabau arts. A given performance is accompanied by a musical ensemble with typical Minangkabau instrumentation including talempong, sualang, etc. The body movements that predominate in randai originate in silat Minangkabau (traditional Minangkabau martial arts), giving way to a marriage of body movements equally informed by physical prowess and aesthetics. In between captivating scenes of randai dance are extended dialogues of various dispositions: happy encounters, laughable banter, collective mourning, as well as fearsome brawls.
Interview with Dr. Rima
The second and regrettably last informant of this week is Dr. Rima, a lecturer at Andalas University with a PhD in hospital management. I was introduced to Dr. Rima at her office in the IKM faculty building of Andalas University. I initially thought that her story and line of work had nothing to do with my research, but I quickly learned that on top of her work at the college and a local hospital, she’s produced a number of albums of music featuring her singing treading diverse stylistic and thematic terrain. Having expressed my research interests to her, she invited me to her home near campus for a formal interview into her musical and religious backgrounds. Dr. Rima’s husband and two of her three kids are all medical doctors (her youngest child is en route to being an MD). Each of her immediate family members are also good enough amateur musicians to form an impromptu family band and put on a show for an eager audience of friends and relatives. Upon hearing this, I was once again confounded at the Indonesian bent for casual yet highly impressive musical encounters and commitments. It just so happens that to write lyrics and sing for multiple albums of music all the while working full-time in the medical field is not only possible but plausible by Indonesian standards.
A few key things that Dr. Rima mentioned during the course of our interview stood out to me given their relevance to my research. For one, several members of her family live strongly Islamic lives and do not consider it a worthwhile use of their time to engage in music making or listening. My sense is that these family members are not of the opinion that musicking is completely forbidden on religious grounds. Due to her mother’s interest in music and the encouragement of her father, Dr. Rima was provided with piano lessons from the age of four. As young girls, Dr. Rima and her sisters formed a vocal group which gained great popularity in West Sumatra at the time of its release. At that time, the prospect of an album of children’s songs in Minangese was either previously unheard of or rarely heard of.
In addition to her exceptionalism in this regard, Dr. Rima attended a Christian primary school during the day and had private lessons in Quranic recitation and Islamic doctrine/history in the evenings. The fact that her parents were fine with enrolling her into a Christian primary school was initially perplexed me. I soon learned that the school Dr. Rima attended was simply the most well-organized and rigorous educational environment in her neighborhood during her childhood. Apparently, the biblical lessons about Jesus, Mary, etc. were not problematic at all for her to be exposed to on a daily basis especially because such information was being offset by Islamic lessons at home with a private teacher. Thus, Dr. Rima absorbed the Christian stories and principles at her day school simply as information to be considered as opposed to divine truths or religious doctrine.
For the majority of her long-lived, semi-amateur musical career, Dr. Rima told me that she mostly never faced any direct opposition to her freedom to sing, write lyrics, and collaborate with instrumentalists to produce music. The content of her music itself could hardly be seen as anything but benign - children’s songs, devotional music, songs for specific causes that she cares about such as disaster relief or healthcare, etc. Soon after getting married, however, Dr. Rima confided to me that certain members of her immediate and extended family opposed her musical involvements. Most of all, they objected to her singing. Some family members even went so far as to reference a rather sinister saying known among natives of Dr. Rima’s husband’s village, which I paraphrase, “There will be many people in the queue to Hell on judgement day, and singers will be the first up in that queue.” One reason for palpable skepticism towards musicians among certain individuals in Dr. Rima’s village and elsewhere in Muslim majority communities around the world is the stigma of alleged sexual promiscuity among musicians. Musicians are perceived to be additionally willing to forgo chaste relationships via marriage in favor of rampant mixed-gender socializing and casual sexual encounters or partnerships.
The conviction among men and perhaps a smaller constituency of women that women, particularly married women, should avoid singing is not an uncommon one in the Muslim majority communities that I’ve had the opportunity to be immersed in my life thus far. Every so often while in Little Bangladesh in Los Angeles throughout my youth, I would overhear mention of the wife of so and so’s husband having to stop singing after marriage in conversations between extended family members and their friends. The necessity to cease performing is even more stark for many women dancers after they’ve committed themselves to their husbands and child rearing. I should say that the majority of married women singers that I’m aware of among the Bangladeshi diaspora in Los Angeles faced little to no difficulties in continuing to practice and perform music after their marriages. Comparatively liberal members of this community commend the husbands in these cases for being “good men or good husbands” simply for not prohibiting their spouses to make music.
I can’t speak with as much certainty about the numbers for women dancers after marriage in this community, but I suspect the percentage of individuals who were able to freely exercise their talents after marriage is much less. The motivation especially on husbands’ and fathers’ parts to limit women’s freedom to sing and dance after marriage stems from a concern to protect or maintain women’s honor and chastity of marriage. To sing or dance in front of an audience is perceived especially by conservative and orthodox Muslim actors as inviting the potential for extra-marital affairs, no matter how slight the gesture may be. Such people view that a good wife should not seek to entertain or entice anyone other than her husband with the beauty of her voice or body through vocal or choreographed movement. As an American who strongly believes in liberal and secular values, I must express my disappointment with individuals who propagate such ideas and behaviors in society. Such an obsession with women’s honor and chastity on men’s part goes hand in hand with men’s obsession with related qualities such as a woman’s virginity or “purity” before marriage. To bring things back to Dr. Rima’s predicament, her immediate family members eventually accepted her desire to continue singing and producing music.
A Traditional Minangkabau Wedding
So this section is seemingly non-sequiter vis a vis my research, and it mostly is. However, like the obsessed musical anthropologist that I strive to be, I happened to make some interesting observations about music and religion in the context of a Minangkabau style wedding celebration I attended today. My time at the event mostly comprised gorging myself with delicious West Sumatran food. During my down time, however, I took some random footage and pondered just how normalized the presence of music making and in particular popular music making is in the context of such festive occasions. One of the most well cited Hadith by Muslims in the pro-music camp in their defense of musicking is the story of how the Prophet Muhammad was greeted by the locals of Medina with music (specifically voices and daf (frame drums)) after the sacred hijra from Mecca. Other Hadith cited by pro-music Muslims in a similar vein include an incident involving two girls singing and playing the daf during Eid season who were rebuked for playing music. The Prophet Muhammad is said to immediately have approached one of his companions from his resting place nearby to advise him to let the girls alone in their festivities especially given the holiday season. In a third and final Hadith I will mention for now, the Prophet Muhammad is purported to have even reproached a local population for not engaging in musical festivities upon his arrival to their town or in his presence more generally. The locals’ behavior in this scenario suggests that they assumed playing music in front of the Prophet would be immodest or otherwise cause controversy. On the contrary, the Prophet demonstrates in this Hadith via his explicit reaction to the situation that the opposite is true. In short, these three frequently referenced Hadith constitute a clear exception for the permissibility of music making in Islamic law, i.e. holidays and traditional festivities. Thus, seeing this reality play out at this particular wedding celebration was validating. The stage was open to anyone willing and able to sing a song or two with the aid of backing musicians hired for the occasion to instantaneously realize one’s desire to sing a Celine Deon or Coldplay tune.
Tasty Treats in Padang
As far as I’m aware, it’s relatively uncontestable that some of the best food in Indonesia can be found in Padang. Most of the destinations I’ve been to so far in Java and Bali have had traditional Padang food stands/shop known as ampera’s all over the place. I was thus overjoyed to have my first ampera experience in the motherland of ampera’s, i.e. West Sumatra.