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Southeast Asian Instruments, Research Paper Example

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Research Paper

The music of Southeast Asia is as varied as the numerous countries where it originates. The geographical specification of Southeast Asia includes many nations. Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, Vietnam, and Singapore are all included in this region as well as the Philippines and East Timor. The number of musical instruments that have originated in this region or which are commonly associated with the countries of this region is vast. Many of the instruments of Southeast Asia are percussion instruments and are played with striking implements such as sticks or mallets. The following discussion will examine four instruments form the Southeast Asia region in order to give a general feel and flavor of the traditional musical instruments of this highly diverse region.

The discussion will also attempt to show through a brief description of these four instruments and their histories, the way in which musical instruments and political and social issues are deeply connected in Southeast Asia. The use of musical instruments in both ancient and modern times in the region is considered to be an expression of both religious and political significance. In ancient times musical instruments in Southeast Asia were viewed as implements of magic and also as signs of personal power. In contemporary times, through the expression of pop-music, music is viewed in Southeast Asia as being deeply connected to social criticism and political protest. These views not only shape the way in which musical instruments are viewed, but in the type of music that is created and in the way in which the role of music is viewed culturally and socially throughout the region.

The four instruments that will be discussed are: the rain drum, the T’ryng Xylophone, the Damno, and the gong. Obviously, the gong, proper is the most well known of these instruments in the Western world and has been adopted for use even in Western classical music. The other instruments are rare in Western music. Each of these instruments has a common ancestry in that they each originated in the area of Southeast Asia that is now known as Viet Nam. In the case of all six instruments, the evolution of music in the region has witnessed the spread of specific instruments from Viet Nam to the far reaches of Southeast Asia. Another very interesting aspect of the instruments presently under review is the strong preponderance of percussion instruments.    Unlike Western music where percussion instruments serve a fairy narrow and straightforward purpose, the use of percussion instruments in Southeast Asia is varied and introduces the concept of percussive melody along with the  traditional use of percussion instruments for creating rhythm. This emphasis on percussive instruments in the music of Southeast Asia is not an arbitrary condition but one that is based on an ancient an enduring connection betwen spiritual and aesthetic ideas in the region.

As Henry Spiller remarks in Focus:  Gamelan Music of Indonesia (2008) according to the musical ideals of Southeast Asia, “music (and drumming) that motivates good movement is judged to be aesthetically pleasing — good music… to encourage the nature spirits” (Spiller, 162). This connection between music and nature and rhythm and spirituality is a common and connecting attribute between all of the musical instruments that will be looked at in the following survey. It is also a rudimentary part of the way that music is regarded across all of the cultures of Southeast Asia. As the following examination will show, the connection between percussive instruments and spirituality is one of the key ideas in the music of Sutheast Asia.

One of the more unique percussion instruments that is found in the music of Southeast Asia is the rain drum. This instrument is  native to Viet Nam and was traditionally created from bronze. A typical; construction is one where a raised drumhead is surrounded by concentric ovals, The rain-drum, is also known as a “frog-drum” or moko drum. The earliest known examples date to 1,000 BCE. Though these drums are believed to have originated in the Dong Son era of Vietnamese history they are evidenced throughout the entire Southeast Asia region and are popular in Burma s well as China. These drums, like many other ancient instruments in Southeast Asia were originally designed as magical and religious implements. They were believed to control supernatural forces. Also, due to their being made of bronze, the rain-drums of ancient times were     viewed as a sign of social status. A person who owned one of the drums was considered both powerful and wealthy. The sound of the rain drum was intended to convey the sound of the monsoon rains of the region.

As well as being believed to hold spiritual influences, these drums were also believed to influence politics and government. This is a tradition that persists in Southeast Asia to this day and not only relation to rain-drums but in relation to music as a whole. Some nations in Southeast Asia have also used the rain-drum as a military implement in order to foster courage and marching-orders when sending armies to war.  The tradition of music and politics being closely aligned is very important to the history of the rain-drum and it is also an important aspect of the way all instrument are viewed in Southeast Asia. Not only in ancient times, but in persent–day Southeast Asia music is considered to be an important political device.

This is a significant factor that plays a role in the descriptions and examination of all the instruments that will be discussed in this essay. The fact is that not only the construction of each of the instruments examined in this discussion, but the way in which these instruments are used retains a political and cultural significance that is not always a part of the way Westerners view music or musical instruments. For example, Craig A. Lockard  notes in his book: Dance of Life: Popular Music and Politics in Southeast Asia (1988) that even in the twentieth century, Southeast Asia retained a strong musical-political heritage. He writes that “in the 1960s the country-style luktoong represented the sentiments of impoverished rural folk […] in the 1970s the folkish “songs for life” appeared to articulate the anti-Establishment views of radical urban students” (Lockard 162). He goes on to say that the 1980’s pop-rock became “the major vehicle for oppositional and countercultural expression” (Lockard 162). Music in Southeast Asia is not merely a form of entertainment but a cry against oppression and poverty.

Musical instruments of the region, such as the rain-drum, therefore, must be regarded not only as instruments of art, but of instruments of social adn political resistance. This is true not only in modern times but in thew ancient heritage by which now-contemporary popular forms of music are created. The strong influence of percussive instruments ion Southeast Asia is also a component of the belief that music exerts both a magical and political influence. Percussion instruments can be regarded as instruments that “call” together masses in unification and also which disrupt the veneer of political and cultural complacency.

Another instrument of Southeast Asia that is the percussion family is the t’rung xylophone. This instrument is traditionally created out of bamboo bars that are carved in such a way as to vibrate to specific musical tones when struck with light mallets. This allows for the percussion instrument to also express melody. The usual range of notes for a t’rung xylophone is two octaves. The sounding-bars are lashed to a light bamboo frame which leaves the instrument with the ability to me mobile. Again, the traditional instruments of Southeast Asia are “people’s instruments’ in that they are almost always designed to be portable and also to be evocative of  sounds such as those that would be heard in nature.

This instrument, according to J. Askin in his book Traditional Percussion Instruments of Asia (2006) was “closely associated with the spiritual life of  […] people living in the Giala, Kontun, [and] Daklak province and other ethnic minorities.”  Similarly, the religious significance of the instrument was so strong that for centuries “t’rung was forbidden to play at home and only played in festivals” (Askin, 83). The idea of an instrument being too powerful, in a spiritual sense to be played in the home is one which many Westerners will undoubtedly find difficult to understand. However, it is just this type of reverence and sacredness regarding musical instruments that shapes the attitudes toward music in Southeast Asia that elevate music to an important religious and political position in society.

The danmo is another percussion instrument that is important to the traditional music of Southeast Asia. This instrument was originally designed to be used in the Pogoda ceremonies of Viet Nam.  Danmos are carved from a special kind of wood. That wood is from the Jack Fruit tree. The wood gives this instrument a unique sound. The structure of the danmo is comprised of a stron wooden stand that supports five “temple” blocks and four “tone” blocks that are struck with two-ended sticks. This is an instrument that originated in Southeast Asia, specifically in Viet Nam, that is popular in countries all over the world. As with the other instruments of Southeast Asia, the danmo was originally designed to be used in religious ceremonies but has attained a popular role through its evolution.  It is a large instrument that is not  necessarily designed to be mobile but is nonetheless still light enough to be moved when needed. Of all the instruments examined in the present discussion, the danmo must be considered the most exotic, both in visual appearance and in sound.

The sound of the danmo is unusual to Western ears because it incorporates not only a hollow-sounding “beat” aspect, but a scraping aspect as well. The  way that the mallets are used by the musician who plays the danmo creates a combination of “slur” sounds and “opping” sounds that are distinctive and quite bright and sharp. The scraping sounds allow rfor an elongation of a single phrase or note while the short and brighter “drum” sound acts as a method for punctuating the slurs and scrapes. There is no equivalent to the danmo in western music. The way that the instrument utilizes both tone and rhythm is not only unique but extremely expressive. As with the “rain drum” and t’rung xylophone, the danmo is meant to evoke the spirits of teh natural world and tehre is something quite provocative about its particular voice.

The idea of creating tonal range for percussion instruments i snot unique to Southeast Asia, but may have reached its fullest articulation in the region. This fact is tied, as previously mentioned, to the idea that the most important aspect of music in Southeast Asia was traditionally its ability to create harmonious and “good” movement in the listener. The devising and integration of so many various percussive voices in the music of Southeast Asia is a testament to religious connotations that were attached to the idea of body-response and the evocation of the sounds of nature. The attempt to evoke nature is based on the ancient belief that nature was the ground where spirits and gods were revealed. Therefore all kinds of spiritual music were articulated through instruments that held as their purpose the mimicking of the sounds of nature.  The danmo is no exception to this idea.

The most well-known instrument of Southeast Asia in regard to Western music is the gong. This instrument is the simplest and loudest of all of the instruments being discussed in the present examination. A gong is a disk-shaped instrument that, like the rain-drum, is most often made of bronze. According to the  Columbia Encyclopedia, the gong is “Of ancient origin—[with} representations of the gong date back to the 6th cent. AD” (“Gong”). As well as being a part of the modern Western orchestra, the gong has been widely incorporated into the “gamelan music of Bali and Java” and is also common throughout all of the music of Southeast Asia.  The gong is generally struck with a soft mallet to produce a loud but simultaneously gentle burst of shimmering percussion.

Obviously, as the preceding examination shows there is a similarity between many of the percussive instruments of traditional Southeast Asian music. There is also a similarity in the way in which the instruments were designed to function as religious and spiritual tools. The modern era of Southeast Asia has preserved many of the ancient beliefs about the power of musical instruments and particularly the power of percussion instruments. However, much of this preservation includes a change from strictly religious ideals to social and political ideals. Another change has been the eradication of elitism in regard to the ability to own or play instruments such as the t’rung xylophone or the danmo. The musical instruments of Southeast Asia have experienced an evolution that has brought them out from a strictly sacred adn religious role to a level of popular participation and social political expression.

Works Cited

Askin, John. Traditional Percussion Instruments of Asia. Routledge, 2006.

Gong.” The Columbia Encyclopedia. 6th ed. 2012.

Lockard, Craig A. Dance of Life: Popular Music and Politics in Southeast Asia. Honolulu, HI: University of Hawaii, 1998.

Spiller, Henry. Focus:  Gamelan Music of Indonesia Routledge, 2008.

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