Dance of Life: Popular Music and Politics in Southeast Asia. By Craig A. Lockard. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1998. [xix, 390 p. ISBN 0-8248-1848-2 (cloth); 0-8248-1918-7 (pbk.). $49 (cloth); $29.95 (pbk.).]
Book review by Jason Gibbs
Notes (September 1999) vol. 56, no. 1, pp. 168-170.
Southeast Asia, today as populous as Europe, has known a tumultuous century of colonial occupation, world war, and struggles for independence and power. There is not a country in the region that has not experienced some form of violent political upheaval, and Southeast Asia's people currently live under conditions that range from total repression to democracy. Craig A. Lockard's Dance of Life: Popular Music and Politics in Southeast Asia looks at the voicing of opposition, dissent, or mere dissatisfaction through popular music, concentrating on the recent history, music, and politics of four Southeast Asian nations: Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Malaysia. (The nation-city of Singapore is grouped with Malaysia.)
Lockard aims to study how musicians "have used music as a weapon or tool ... with the goal of changing, challenging, or overthrowing governments or socioeconomic systems that they consider as unjust" (p. ix). The book's first chapter is a survey of a variety of philosophical approaches to popular music. Lockard views popular culture as an arena of contradiction and struggle, and potentially, of resistance; he rejects the Frankfurt School's view that it is too standardized and degraded to be of value. He wrestles with the question of whether popular music has a revolutionary and liberating influence or is ultimately conservative and preserving of institutions, and he comes down on the side of the music's liberating potential. Sympathetically reviewing John Fiske's reading of popular culture--he cites Fiske's Reading the Popular and Understanding Popular Culture (both published in Boston by Unwin Hyman, 1989)--Lockard asserts that popular works contain multiple meanings, some in accord with what is commercially and politically allowable, others that may be "[reinterpreted] in a form of guerrilla warfare in order to achieve some degree of empowerment" (p. 16).
American folk and rock minstrels of change and dissent from the 1960s serve as a basis for discussing many of Southeast Asia's musicians; each of the four countries that Lockard considers have their own Bob Dylan-like figures--Iwan Fals in Indonesia, the group Caravan in Thailand, M. Nasir of the group Kembara in Malaysia, and Freddie Aguilar in the Philippines. Like American protest singers, these musicians find their core audiences primarily among middle-class youth and university students. Yet unlike their American counterparts, they live in societies where governments not infrequently respond to their critics with repressive measures. Thus a musician like Iwan Fals, while eschewing politics, makes music that is an "articulation of popular resentments" (p. 110). As a result of this outspokenness, he has been detained and interrogated by the Indonesian authorities and thus has had to be careful in his dissent.
Freddie Aguilar is perhaps the seminal figure of pinoy, a movement to create songs in Tagalog, the official language of the polyglot Philippines. Aguilar helped bring this music to a mass audience; one of his songs that spoke frankly about the difficult life of the poor sold one hundred thousand copies in two weeks, inspired a television series, and was subsequently recorded in fourteen languages. His revival of a patriotic song from 1898 became the soundtrack of the "people's power" movement that eventually toppled dictator Ferdinand Marcos. In a country where political opponents could be and were assassinated, Aguilar had to avoid explicitly political messages. Instead, his songs offered moral guidance by poetically examining the inequities of Philippine society.
Other countries have had their own popular-culture icons who express societal concerns without overtly political goals. Malaysia's P. Ramlee was an extremely successful and influential entertainer from the late 1940s until his death in 1973. Active as a singer, songwriter, actor, and director, his popularity was due in large part to his ability to reflect the realities of life of the average Malay. Furthermore, he skillfully and eclectically mixed Western elements with Malaysia's native, Indian, and Chinese musical styles. Rhoma Irama of Indonesia has also been a successful entertainer, in no small part because of the moral, populist image he projects, usually based on an Islamic message. While Lockard may assert that "Rhoma Irama's social criticism has been subtle when compared to 1960s American protest rock" (p. 97), Irama's comparative impact and relevance to his people is greater than that of such American counterparts.
Lockard's consideration of forms of music enjoyed by poor and rural peoples, who constitute an overwhehning majority of the region's population, is welcome. These musics, often scorned by national elites, play a significant role in the lives of the truly downtrodden. A genre like Thailand's luktoong deals frankly with the daily realities of the poor, though its musicians often express these through humor or satire to avoid censorship. Lockard nonetheless remarks that Thailand's "always practical peasants ... cared less for revolution than improving their living standards" (p. 177). Peasants want their burdens lightened, and students want to seize power; politically and musically, the two groups rarely meet, though rural and lower-class music provides a means of expressing the deprivations of laborers and the poor.
Dance of Life is Lockard's third pass at this subject. His article "Reflections of Change: Sociopolitical Commentary and Criticism in Malaysian Popular Music since 1950" (Crossroads 6, no. 1 : 1-112), though centered on one country, examines as a basis of comparison the music of the other three countries considered here. "Popular Musics in Modern Southeast Asia: A Comparative Analysis" (Asian Music 27, no. 2 : 149-99) is a shorter version of Dance of Life, discussing the same countries and many of the same artists. Though Lockard never explains his selection of only four countries in the region, one suspects it is due to the paucity of English-language information about the popular musics of the others. Furthermore, each of the countries he examines has been at least partially democratic, allowing some degree of political opposition, while nations like Myanmar, Vietnam, Laos--and until recently, Cambodia--have had totalitarian regimes that have brooked no dissent.
Lockard's endnotes and bibliography are extensive, running to one hundred pages. The first chapter alone has 212 notes. This density of documentation at times makes for choppy reading, especially in paragraphs that career through several disjointed subjects. Though Lockard has taken pains to find all of the English-language scholarly studies of the region's music, he also relies on many journalistic accounts from newspapers, weekly news magazines, and consumer guides to world music. These sources are uneven in quality and often anecdotal in their coverage, and they lack detailed documentation. Further, the nature of the Western press is to seek subjects that are newsworthy (i.e., outlandish or confrontational) but have a glimmer of familiarity to their audience--topics like teen rebellion or a third-world Dylan.
It is also regrettable that Lockard provides no discography and suggests no avenue for the reader to find and listen to this music. He does not mention the Internet, a forum that many of these media-savvy musicians and their fans have used extensively. Since many Web sites also include audio, the reader would profit from studying this book with a browser open to one of the larger search engines.
While Lockard is very sympathetic to this music, he seems to expect too much of it. He laments that Freddie Aguilar's songs "were hardly among the crucial factors in forcing Marcos into exile" (p. 270), yet Aguilar was there, a full participant in this historic event; it is difficult to think of a contemporary American musician who has played a comparable role. Lockard unfairly uses Americans of the 1960s as barometers for these Southeast Asian artists. Americans may express themselves with absolute freedom. Southeast Asians create their music in far more dangerous circumstances, yet despite the necessary subtlety of their message, they have at times been able to engage their countrymen more powerfully.