Gender, Media, and Performative Shifts in
Toba Batak (North Sumatra, Indonesia) Pop Laments:
Referencing, Reframing, and Re-presenting Grief
W. Robert Hodges, University of California–Santa Barbara
The Toba Batak practice of lament singing (mangandung) has undergone significant change since it was first documented in the early nineteenth century by European colonial and missionary visitors. Existing primarily as a women’s domain within the context of funerary mourning rituals, Toba Batak lament singing has been dramatically reshaped – primarily in connection to processes of Westernization, Christianization, and out-migration from the North Sumatran homeland of the Toba Batak – during the past 150 years. These processes have prompted an exchange of musical, technological, and contextual features which, from the late 1970s, have provided a new locus for public expressions of grief namely, the Toba Batak popular music industry. In this paper I address some of the ways in which the movement from funerary mourning practice to popular music genre have impacted the conceptual and perceptual construction of Toba Batak laments. Within a theoretical framework of nostalgia studies, I discuss a number of significant shifts in the production and use of lament in Toba Batak society. Notable among them are shifts in gender participation as popular lament singing has become decidedly male dominated; shifts in performance media as popular laments incorporate the instrumental and harmonic trappings of Western pop music; and performative shifts relating to the construction of an “audience.” In addition, the paper addresses features which serve to sonically, textually, and performatively reinforce the categorization of popular laments as “lament,” thereby underscoring the idea of a musical exchange.