Jennifer Fraser Reflects on Winter Term in Indonesia
For three weeks this past January, a team of ten Oberlin College and Conservatory students and two faculty members traveled around several provinces in Indonesia to explore music, Islam, and disasters. For some students it was the first time traveling outside of North America. For others it was their first time in a developing country. For most it was the first time in a country where Islam is the predominant religion. For all it was an eye-opening experience. To read a varied account of the Oberlin group’s experiences visit Oberlin in Indonesia. Professor Jennifer Fraser reflects on her month with Oberlin students in Indonesia.
While we witnessed a number of performances, I believe we gained far more from the interactive workshops with local artists where we studied arts ranging from meukeusat (an Acehnese seated form that integrates song, movement, and body percussion)…
…to randai (a Minangkabau theater form that combines martial arts, song, dance and pant-percussion).
Learning these styles helped illustrate the intricate relationship between what we call “music,” “dance,” and “theater” and that in some other parts of the world there aren’t necessarily words to distinguish between these different arts. Learning these arts sometimes also demanded new skills: listening rather than watching, following and doing rather than having everything explained.
Several of the students cite playing gamelan (a large, mostly bronze percussion ensemble) in a wayang (a shadow puppet play) in Yogyakarta as a highlight of the trip. Oberlin students were the primary musicians for the show–and after just two gamelan workshops in Java! While they played one tune most of the time, they experienced how the music functioned in a way that passively watching would not allow. As Gigi Brady writes in her blog post about the experience, it “was nothing short of exhilarating; knowing you can make or break a performance is an extremely humbling experience…” We were fortunate to have long-term Shansi friend, Pak Eddy Pursurbyanto, as our dalang (puppeteer). A faculty member in the English department at Shansi partner Gajah Mada University, he used English for most of the dialogue allowing us to easily follow the intricacies of the story. Just as it would be for an Indonesian audience, there were interactions with the musicians and audience members during the clown scene, meaning that some of us were interviewed and requested to sing on the spot!
One of the most meaningful experiences for me—and something that was even productive for my research—was attending a Batagak Pangulu (a ceremony to install a lineage leader) where arts were an integral part of proceedings, including silek galombang (waves of self-defense practitioners) and talempong (gong row music). It just so happened that one of our hosts for our planned activities in the village of Paninjauan, Pak Ediwar, was being installed and he timed it to coincide with our visit. These are rare events because a chief is only installed about once every thirty years! I’d never seen this ceremony before myself.
A snapshot of the ceremony to install Pak Ediwar in the village of Paninjauan
detail of the installation ceremony
The personal connections made with Indonesians made this trip special. When we landed in Banda Aceh after 48 hours of travel (yes, it really takes that long to get there when you have four flights and some longish layovers) we were greeted by a group of students and faculty at the airport. The sixteen(ish) Indoneisan students quickly bonded with our students, helping ease their way into Indonesia, providing insight into student lives in another country, and forging bonds that continue over social media networks. As Maurice Cohn writes, “Hanging out with college students, most of whom were within a year of our ages, helped connect the Indonesia we were learning about from workshops and formal discussions to the Indonesia they grew up in and experience every day.”
Maurice Cohn (left) hangs out with a new friend
We also had the pleasure of being invited into a number of personal homes: visiting Harri Santoso, Oberlin Shansi Visiting Scholar last fall, in Banda Aceh was a highlight along with visiting my host family in Padang Panjang, West Sumatra. Students got brief insight into how Indonesians live and tried home-cooked food. We also hung out for two days in the village of Paninjauan where I’ve been working for ten years. The talempong musicians there—women in their 60s and 70s—were just delighted to have my “progeny” there to learn talempong directly, even if it was challenging to learn the fast and complex melodies by ear and by watching. On our end, the students loved hanging out with the women: they wished there was no language barrier and could communicate directly!
Students are welcomed by Jennifer’s host family in Padang Pajang, West Sumatra
Being on-site and having visceral experiences offer so much more than theoretical discussions about distant places and cultural practices in the classroom. This was particularly true for the other two themes of the trip: Islam and disasters. Traveling to a predominantly Muslim nation meant that students got to engage, if only briefly, with Islam in lived experience: e.g., Islam was a constant presence in the soundscape through the call to prayer projected over loudspeakers five times a day (enough to wake us up at 4:30am if our hotel was close to a mosque), and we witnessed the range of ways that people express and engage with their faith in the different provinces, including through women’s veiling practices. We also visited a school where pupils ranging from 5 to 60 were learning to recite the Qur’an and were taken to a mosque in a village in West Sumatra where we met elderly practitioners and learned about elements of worship.
So-called “natural” disasters that were only thought about in abstract terms before the trip, like the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that killed an estimated 240,000 people and 60,000 in the city of Banda Aceh alone, came to life in very sobering terms on-site. As Alex Frank writes, “the 2004 Tsunami never really felt real to me until I walked through the dripping dark hallway of the Tsunami Museum in Banda Aceh.” The disaster was made palpable in a way that was not possible from news media coverage when we visited Lampulo (a neighborhood of Banda Aceh that lost 75% of the population). Standing on the porch of a two-story house located next to a boat that landed on part of the roof, we spoke with the guide who had survived the tsunami but lost one of his sons.
Jenny and Oberlin students talk with a guide who lost one of his sons to the 2004 tsunami
An example of the destruction caused by the tsunami, this boat rests atop a house
Likewise, Maurice Cohn writes that standing on the pile of lava flow rubble left from Mt. Merapi’s eruption three years before meant nothing until he asked the guide what was there before: a village. While sobering encounters, these experiences made the realities and fragility of life in an earthquake- and volcano-prone country very tangible. We also learned how some Indonesians cope with the threat by explaining that it is the will of God.
Nothing can quite replace the educational experience of traveling abroad and witnessing a country firsthand. We are incredibly grateful for the sponsors who made the dream become a reality, including Oberlin Shansi, the Julie Taymor ’74 Fund, Oberlin Conservatory, the Winter Term Office, and H.H. Powers Travel Grant. We are also grateful for the support of all the individuals across campus who made this trip possible, along with families who allowed their loved ones to fly half-way around the world for an adventure of a lifetime.
*All photos and video are courtesy of Professor Jan Miyake and Professor Jennifer Fraser. We can only fit so much into a blog post. If you would like to see more videos, visit Oberlin Shansi’s Youtube Channel by clicking on the hyperlinked text or on the YouTube thumbnail at the top right corner of this page.