Is local music culture sustainable? Like other humanists, music scholars frequently draw analogies between ecology and culture to examine questions of loss, renewal, and remediation. On October 20, ethnomusicologist David Harnish spoke at the Department of Music’s Valente lecture series on the challenge of preserving local musical tradition in Lombok, Indonesia.
For more than thirty years, Harnish has conducted longitudinal fieldwork in Lombok, an island in the West Nusa Tenggara province of Indonesia. Recently, he has observed the wide-ranging cultural effects of globalization upon the Sasak people, a small, predominantly Muslim group native to Lombok. Mindful of the island’s ecological loss, including unprecedented rates of deforestation, Harnish proposes imagining Lombok’s threatened music culture as an ecosystem.
In exploring the possibility of music sustainability, Harnish builds on the work of Dutch music scholar Huib Schippers, co-editor of the collection Sustainable Futures for Music Cultures (OUP, 2016). In it, Schippers calls for new strategies to renew local music customs around the world. Like Schippers, Harnish acknowledges that sustainability is—fundamentally—a Western concept. Nevertheless, he argues that the Sasak people may benefit from implementing sustainable approaches to arts policy.
When Indonesia declared independence following World War II, its national government pursued a program of Pembinaan Kesenian (Nurturing the Arts), an arts policy that favored the preservation of popular musical traditions, but ignored local customs. Seeking to establish a national musical character, the government funded and promoted gamelan, a traditional percussion ensemble with variants in Java and Bali. According to Harnish, the regional and national government enacted similar policies in Lombok, promoting a processional style of gamelan, gendang beleq (big drum).
The rise of tourism in Lombok has further strengthened the popularity of gendang beleq—at the expense of local musical practices. Adapting to these changing economic and cultural factors, Lombok’s musicians have not always advocated for cultural sustainability. As Harnish sees it, more flexible arts funding would benefit rural and local traditions that are given short shrift by the national government.
Ultimately, however, Harnish plays a supporting role in observing and documenting Lombok’s music culture. For truly sustainable practices to arise, Sasak musicians must advocate for widespread changes to government arts policy, and imagine a future in which local cultures resist the influence of globalization.
Read more about the Department of Music’s Valente Lecture Series.
— Michael Accinno, Graduate Student Researcher and Ph.D. Candidate in Musicology