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Ethnomusicologist returns to Indonesia for new research on Islamic music

  • Researching Islamic music
    Researching Islamic music  Music Professor Anne Rasmussen (center) with some academic colleagues at an event in memory of the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad in the Jakarta area of Indonesia.  Courtesy photo
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Anne Rasmussen’s connections in Indonesia have helped build the evolution of her research there, and over the years, the way she does it as well.

Rasmussen, William & Mary professor of music and ethnomusicology and William M. and Annie B. Bickers Professor of Middle Eastern Studies, spent the first six months of this year as a Fulbright U.S. Scholar in that nation, traveling extensively in Java and Sumatra.

She was expanding on her earlier work, which took her to the area more than 20 years ago and back several times since, including two full years of living there. Those efforts resulted in her award-winning 2010 book, Women, the Recited Qur’an and Islamic Music in Indonesia, among other works.

Rasmussen’s research focuses on female religious authorities and practitioners in Indonesia. The country is notable because it is home to the world’s largest Muslim population and also because women play prominent, public roles in what Rasmussen calls “the business of religion.”

“The project that I began in the late ‘90s and about which the book was published in 2010, focuses on women as religious authorities, as religious practitioners and as people who are empowered by their knowledge of religion,” Rasmussen said. “Women are valued as teachers and particularly as reciters of the Quran.”

The Quran, the holy book of Islam, is experienced not just as a written document but, most importantly, as an oral performance. Recitation of the Quran is done in a lyrical way that is essentially musical. This art, while technically demanding and hard work, is also considered sacred.

Rasmussen, the current president of the Society for Ethnomusicology, spent half of her sabbatical year expanding her network in Indonesia and discovered more performances and opportunities to learn about the religious traditions and practice there than she had time to document.

In addition to interviews and conversations, musical performance is also part of Rasmussen’s methodology, and she made herself available to sit in or perform on her oud, a lute, with a wide variety of performers of what Indonesians refer to as Islamic musical arts.

Rasmussen, director of the W&M Middle Eastern Music Ensemble, has been playing, singing, teaching and studying Middle Eastern music for the duration of her career, and, because this music is so closely associated with religious practice in Indonesia, people welcome her performances with enthusiasm. All told, Rasmussen was invited to give 18 public lectures, mostly in academic settings, and 30 musical performances.

“I am interested in expressive culture — music, dance, poetry, ritual,” Rasmussen said. “And I am particularly interested in the ways that religion is made manifest in them.”

Indonesia has a very rich culture of music, dance, language, visual arts, material arts, textiles and sculpture, and all of the arts find their way into religion, she added.

Women and girls study and recite the Quran in Muslim communities around the world and are authorities in terms of religious knowledge, but Indonesia is different.

“In Indonesia, women are very public in terms of being religious in a performative way that’s meant for others to hear and to experience,” Rasmussen said. “And that’s unique in Indonesia.”

One of the reasons that this is interesting in terms of the study of world religion, and particularly of Islam, is that sometimes Indonesia is thought of as on the margins because the center of Islam is considered to be the Middle East, or more specifically, the Arab world, she said.

Rasmussen’s latest project focused specifically on Islamic music in Indonesia, honing in on all the different varieties, venues, performers, audiences and reasons it is performed.

She takes into account that Indonesians have to learn to read and pronounce the Quran in Arabic, and some do not know what they are reciting.

“I’m really interested in the way that in Indonesia when they make all this kind of Islamic music, they’re often drawing from Arabic musical and rhythmic aesthetics and techniques and combining them with all kinds of local Indonesian musical styles and instruments,” she said.

“All of this adds up to a cornucopia of musical styles and genres that are performed throughout Indonesia.”

And each event, or style, or musician may be positioned somewhere at the intersection of traditional arts, local religion, contemporary politics and global Islam.

“You can look at music as a reflection of all of these things and ask how that music, the contexts in which it is performed, and the people involved in its performance embody particular kinds of ideas,” Rasmussen said.

She arrived in Indonesia the week of the U.S. presidential inauguration in January and discovered that there was a good deal of curiosity and confusion about the results of the election. This year was also a time of Indonesian political tumult and transition, and Rasmussen was able to make a number of observations regarding the reactions of local people to current events and the rise of populism and the tension between religious extremism and local culture in Indonesia. A forthcoming article will explore these topics in more depth.

Gathering information came by way of working her network and accepting just about any invitation that came her way, sometimes by chasing down details on events that were mentioned in passing and wangling an invitation or a ride.

She sat in on performances large and small, sometimes with upwards of about 5,000 attendees, some of which lasted from evening into the wee hours of the next morning. Gatherings where music was performed ranged from formal performances to festivals, competitions to religious services.

Talking to people around the periphery at musical events, as well as taking questions at her various public talks, gave her opportunities to collect information while also sharing her project and ideas with her hosts. Opportunities were frequent as she immersed herself in the experience of communicating on multiple levels.

“The people I meet in Indonesia welcome collaboration,” Rasmussen said. “They expect you to share what you’ve got. And so one of the ways I let people know who I am and what I do is by speaking, teaching, performing and, of course, by singing — singing in Arabic, playing the oud and performing a repertoire of Arab music that is familiar in Indonesia, and which, of course, for them really triggers ideas about spirituality.”