Music and Media in the Dutch East Indies, 1903-1942


A review of Music and Media in the Dutch East Indies: Gramophone Records and Radio in the Late Colonial Era, 1903-1942, by Philip Bradford Yampolsky.

Philip Yampolsky’s dissertation, dense of information and refreshing in its approach, demonstrates the dynamic potential of a massive data set expertly applied to humanistic inquiry. In this particular case, Yampolsky has aggregated, over the course of decades, a discographical corpus from which he is able to draw compelling arguments within a predominantly ethnomusicological context, that reveal much regarding the evolution of mediated music performance in the former colonial Dutch East Indies (now mostly, though not completely, Indonesia). The work postulates that music, inscribed and captured, offers a new perspective on a place, society, and period already deeply studied through multiple lenses. In his own words, “Recordings and radio in the colonial era also offer a map of Indonesia, seen through its music, and that map, too, registers certain features while omitting many others. The process of mapping Indonesian music into media, and the nature both of that map’s inclusion and its omissions, are the subject of the present study” (p. 54).

Yampolsky first asks his reader to consider the gramophone record as a historical document, rich in its own inherent complexities. Before one even hears the audio content of a recording, one is presented with potent socio-culture information about the recording. From the label adhered to a 78 rpm record to the relationships implied across company identities, catalog numbers, and the recording matrix number inscribed into a disc, the physical artifact alone demonstrates layers of meaning. Yampolsky notes that small yet detectable idiosyncrasies in the textual impressions of a recording offer a glimpse into the life of its sounds, not only the people who came to make it but also the people and places for which it was intended. And the realities of colonial life in the Dutch East Indies certainly presented a diverse range of personal origin, identity, class, and culture. Yampolsky argues that recordings, as a measure of intent in commodification and ability in acquisition, serve as insightful markers within a society for which stratification was anything but cleanly delineated along any single classification. What is recorded? Who is engaged in the performance? For what audience is the recording ultimately produced? What are the meaningful limitations of particular formats (especially the 78 rpm record at about three minutes per side)? How does the industry behave, and what does it tell us of a budding Indonesia?

As a means of grounding himself theoretically, Yampolsky, like many ethnomusicologists, demonstrates the multi-disciplinary nature of the field by situating himself within a diverse range of previous work. Certainly, watershed texts in the study of popular music figure largely, both as a function of engaging purely with matters of music (Bruno Nettl, “Persian Popular Music in 1969,” Ethnomusicology 16 (2), 1972), but also in an effort to demonstrate what popular music may reveal culturally to the scholarly community (Peter Manuel, “Formal Structure in Popular Music as a Reflection of Socio-Economic Change,” International Review of the Aesthetics and Sociology of Music 16 (2), 1985). Notably compelling is Yampolsky’s problematization of matters of aesthetic taste, as this particular project pushes at the boundaries of previous work, especially Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, trans. Richard Nice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984. And, while few Indonesianists escape the foundational work of Benedict Anderson, what Yampolsky adds here is refreshingly adept. The nature of the emergent competition and capitalism characteristic of this period finds new dimensions as Yamplosky makes the case for the expansion of the “national” media we consider (Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso, 1991).

The investigative core of the dissertation considers recordings by multiple, mostly oppositional, means. First, there are divisions of time, largely determined by the disruptions of conflict. An early period, 1903-1917, begins with the arrival of adventurous European engineers and ends with the onset of World War I. A revival, driven by a shift from acoustic to electrical recording techniques and a growth in local companies, emerges in the interwar period, 1925-1942. Secondly, there are divisions of format, wherein the emergence of radio reifies some aspects of fixed recorded media while challenging others, especially with regard to locality, professionalization of musicianship, hierarchies of aesthetic in genre, and access across class divisions. Finally, there are the resultant evolutions of specific genres themselves in recorded popular music, specifically kroncong (very much the center of focus, and rightly so), stambul, and gambling kromong. If there is a link across each of these three high-level lenses, Yampolsky seems to ask the reader to keep this one idea in mind: that the ultimate purpose of mediated music is that it should be consumed. And, as such, matters of art and culture necessarily intersect with business and commerce.

Interestingly, Yampolsky finds a natural evolution in recording production across the two primary periods established in his study. While pre-1917 production relied heavily on the direction of Western companies, a business model driven by contracts and structured on obligation, and the employment of predominantly anonymous artists, the later period saw the emergence of a greater local agency. After 1925, the scholar finds a significant expansion of home-grown recording companies, some with lingering ties to those from the West, but certainly a growth in independence. Perhaps more importantly, though, concepts of identity are seen to shift, where local agents begin to drive decision-making in production and celebrity artists become the norm. There is no shortage of detail in Yampolsky’s research over the whole of the work, but the detail added to the discographic record here is particularly rewarding to the connoisseur.

If the expansion of commercial recording began to enable an increasing diversity of genre and locality, then radio certainly pushed those possibilities even further. Fixed in a particular place and driven primarily by local demand, radio stations not only catered to local tastes (and those are hardly ever monolithic), but also opened up broadcast opportunities on both sides of the medium. Local musicians, previously occluded, found new opportunities. Genres left out or limited by the brevity and fixed nature of the recorded format, were welcomed into live broadcasts. And, perhaps most importantly, the class barriers to being a part of the audience began to inch lower. It would be ideal to think that radio both democratized and de-ethnicized communities through listening, but Yampolsky is not certain that either is cleanly true. He notes that “there is considerable likelihood, and some evidence, of listening across racial boundaries. In the discourse of Indies radio, however, everyone stays in his or her box” (p. 213). And further still, “By forming a mass audience of listeners, radio can be said to have shaped an Indonesian public, but I think it anachronistic to say that in 1938 this public had an Indonesian consciousness. It was instead, I believe, a consciousness directed towards entertainment, and ultimately towards consumption” (p. 226).

The dissertation concludes on a dissection of genre, which offers similar insights into the evolution of communities and identities, among musicians and their listeners both. What remains most interesting within the scope of Yampolsky’s work is the notable role that the media played in that evolution. Of note, “kroncong, by moving out of the streets and becoming a professionalized music, had greatly increased its appeal to the audience that could afford to buy gramophones and records… After the resumption of recording in 1925, kroncong was a bourgeois music, in musical style and lyric content… Moreover, it had become ethnically various: whereas before World War I kroncong seems to have been mainly the province of Eurasian singers, after the war there were many pribumi stars, along with Eurasians and Peranakan Chinese” (pp. 329-330). And these changes are demonstrable due in no small part to the considerable effort Yampolsky has expended towards the collection of hard data through the composition of his discographies and research into radio programming, all on beautiful display within the dissertation, in addition to his important publication backlog. In the end, Yampolsky has offered an interesting new perspective on the historical development of what we now know as a very complex modern Indonesia. He concedes that no lens is perfect, and yet this one offers much to the intrepid reader.

Christopher A. Miller
Assistant Professor and Archivist
McConnell Library
Radford University

Primary Sources

Radio Programs: Berita VORL; De Nirom-Bode; Pewarta VORO; Soeara Nirom; Soeara Timoer
Newspapers: Darmo-Kondo; Hong Po; Persamaan; Pewarta-Deli; Pewarta Soerabaia; Sin Tit Po; Sinar Pasoendan; Soera ‘Oemoem.

Dissertation Information

University of Washington. 2013. 407 pp. Primary Advisor: Philip D. Schuyler.

Image: Malay opera on Hindenburg label, issued 1928. (Courtesy of Du Jun Min.)

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