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Current Research Projects and Conferences Convened

  • PROJECT TITLE 1: “Revitalising the Musical Arts of Indonesia’s  Lampung Province”

How does an Indigenous population recover its self-confidence and socio-economic status in Indonesia’s post-authoritarian era (since circa-2000)? This ethnographic project aims to explore  these concepts through the experiences of the Indigenous people of Indonesia’s Lampung province, Ulun Lampung. It brings together researchers in the field, including Prof Margaret Kartomi (Chief Investigator, Monash University), Assoc Prof Bart Barendregt (Partner Investigator, Leiden University), Dr Rina Martiara (PI, Indonesian Institute of Arts, Yogyakarta), Dr Karen Kartomi Thomas (Monash University) and staff and students from Lampung University. The project is funded by an ARC Discovery Grant (2016-2019)(DP160100195).

Fascinating socio-political activity involving the revitalisation of the of the musical arts has been emerging on Australia’s doorstep in post-authoritarian Indonesia as the Ulun Lampung seek socio-economic empowerment and attempt to re-invigorate their musical arts in a sustainable way.  Much of the past century has seen the Ulun Lampung becoming a neglected minority in their own land. Mass migration into the area was instituted in 1905 by the Dutch colonial government and continued under the Indonesian Government from the 1950s. Palm-oil plantations and mining also caused a creeping loss of ancestral homelands, wildlife and environmental sustainability. The stigmatisation of the Ulun Lampung reached its zenith under Suharto’s authoritarian rule (1965-1998), when the mainly Javanese bureaucracy systematically failed to appoint Indigenous citizens to influential posts and little was done to improve the historically low status of women.

After Suharto fell in 1998 and Indonesia’s Reformation era began, a “sea change” occurred for the Ulun Lampung. In 2004 the first governor of Ulun Lampung descent  was elected and the government began an affirmative action policy, giving Ulun Lampung many administrative appointments and helping establish the Council of Lampung Elders. Despite the people’s loss of land to plantations and mining, the public and private sectors worked to minimize the customary marginalization and of the Ulun Lampung and helped solve some of  their most burning socio-economic problems – in part by pinpointing their artistic heritage as the most distinctive aspect of the emerging official concept of Lampung’s identity and promoting their musical arts in a sustainable way among both transmigrant and Indigenous populations. This project aims to explore and document the musical, cultural and artistic rebuilding exercise undertaken by the people of Lampung in post-authoritarian Indonesia.

Related Publications

  • Kartomi, Margaret. 2016. “The Ancient Gamolan, Lampung’s Musical Identity: An Intriguing Story,” Footsteps of Indonesians in Victoria (Jejak Langkah Orang Indonesia Di Victoria), editors Tuti Gunawan and Iip Yahya, Indonesian Community Association of Victoria, 164-174.
  • Thomas, Karen Kartomi. 2015. “Masks of Sumatra,” Asian Theater Journal, Vol 32, No 2.
  • Thomas, Karen Kartomi. 2014. “Revitalisation of the Performing Arts in the Ancestral Homeland of Lampung People, Sumatra,” Wacana Seni Journal of Arts Discourse, Vol 13, 29-56.
  • Thomas, Karen Kartomi. 2014. “The Indigenous Performing Arts in a Sumatran Province: revival of Sakura Mask Theater, 1990-2012,” Indonesia, No 97, 111-125.
  • Thomas, Karen Kartomi. 2013. “Enchanting the Audience: Dramatic Devices of Mask Theatre in West Lampung, Sumatra,” Asian Theater Journal, Vol 30, No 2, 390-414.
  • Thomas, Karen Kartomi. 2013. “Malay Masked Theare,” Theatre and Performance in Southeast Asia Audio-Visual Documentary Series, funded and produced by the Asialink Centre at the University of Melbourne.
  • Thomas, Karen Kartomi. 2012. “Malay Masks in Sumatra: Lampung, Jambi and the Riau Islands,” Proceedings, First International Conference on Jambi Studies, organized by the Dewan Kesenian Jambi in Jambi (21-24 Nov).
  • Kartomi, Margaret. 1985. “Gamolan,” Musical Instruments of Indonesia, An Introductory Handbook, Margaret Kartomi, 31-32.

Images of Lampung Province

 (images courtesy of Karen Sri Kartomi Thomas)


  • PROJECT TITLE 2: “The changing identity and the sustainability of the music-cultures and world-views of the Riau Islands’ Sea Nomads and Sedentary Malays”

This international project draws together current researchers into the music, martial arts, dance and theatre of Indonesia’s Riau Islands Province (Kepulausan Riau [Kepri] by Prof Margaret Kartomi (Chief Investigator I, Monash University), Assoc. Prof. Manolete Mora (Chief Investigator II, University of New South Wales), Prof. Cynthia Chou (Partner Investigator, University of Copenhagen), Dr Geoffrey Benjamin (PI, Nanyang University), and Dr Karen Thomas (Monash University). The project is funded by an ARC Discovery grant (2012-2015)

Two International Conferences on this project were held in Tanjungpinang, Indonesia, in January 2013 and at Monash University, Clayton, in January 2015.

  • PROJECT TITLE 3: “The distinctiveness and revitalization of the marginalized traditional and popular music of Indonesia’s Lampung since 2004”

This international project draws together research investigations into the music, dance and theatre of Indonesia’s Riau Islands Province (Kepulauan Riau [Kepri] in post-authoritarian Indonesia by Prof Margaret Kartomi (Chief Investigator 1, Monash University), Assoc. Prof. Bart Barendregt (Partner Investigator 1, Leiden University), Dr Rina Martiara (Partner Investigator II, Institut Seni Indonesia Yogyakarta), and Dr Karen Thomas (Monash University). It is funded by an ARC Discovery project grant (2012-2015).

An International Conference on the theme: “The performing arts and their historical, social and political implications in Lampung, Indonesia” is planned to be held at Monash University, Clayton, in mid- 2018.

  • PROJECT TITLE 4: “Exploring Aceh’s Culture to Foster Sustainable Development”

Kartomi and Pahlawi are hosting the Second International Conference and Cultural Event of Aceh, Clayton Campus, Monash University on 26-28 September 2016. The Theme is: “Exploring Aceh’s Culture to Foster Sustainable Development.”

The 4 subthemes are:

  1. “Islam in Aceh: Contestations, Negotiation and Compromised Identity;
  2. “The Modern History and Present State of Aceh’s Performing and Visual Arts”
  3. “Aceh’s Experience in Disaster Risk Management, Resilience and Preparedness”
  4. “ Local Governance, Infrastructure, Community Development, and Education in Aceh”

“The changing identity and sustainability of the music-culture and worldviews of the Riau Island’s sea nomads and sedentary Malays” (ARC Discovery Grant 2013-2015).

Chief Investigators Professor Margaret Kartomi and Associate Professor Manolete Mora of the University of New South Wales’ Department of Music are currently working on a 3-year ARC Discovery grant-funded project titled “The changing identity and sustainability of the music-culture and worldviews of the Riau Island’s sea nomads and sedentary Malays” (2013-2015).  This project, which is funded by an Australian Research Council grant, began in November 2012.

The Associate Investigators are Associate Professor Cynthia Chou of the University of Copenhagen’s Department of Cross-Cultural and Regional Studies and Dr Geoffrey Benjamin of Nanyang University’s Centre for Liberal Arts and Social Sciences. Other scholars involved are Dr Karen Kartomi Thomas of Monash University’s Theatre Performance Unit in the School of English, Communications and Performance Studies, Dr Vivienne Wee of Singapore’s SIM University, PhD student Jennifer McCallum of Kings College London, and Nicholas Long of the Department of Anthropology at the University of London.

View further details of the project’s Research Associates.

The project is kindly supported by Bp Sani, the Governor of Kepulauan Riau, Bp Said Parman, the Head of Office of Culture and Tourism, and the Head of Culture Drs. Syafaruddin, for which we are very grateful. Kepulauan Riau (Kepri)-born poets Rida K Liamsi and Hjja Suryatati are also very supportive.

The archivist and research coordinator for the project is Bronia Kornhauser MA at the Sir Zelman Cowen School of Music, Monash University.

Currently the team is carrying out ethnographic trips throughout the province and conducting library research into the history, social uses and functions, ceremonial contexts and performance practices of the performing arts culture.

Aims and Data

The project aims to video, record and research the Sea Nomads’ and sedentary Malays’ traditional and modern music-cultures, including dance and theatre, as expressions of their worldviews and changing concepts of identity in Indonesia’s rapidly modernising Riau Islands (Kepulauan Riau, henceforth “Kepri”).

It will address some historical, religious, gender and island studies issues that have affected the cultures’ sustainability between 1980 (when the CI-1 made the first music recordings) and the present. The ecology of the province, which comprises 95% sea and more than 3,200 scattered islands (nicknamed “a scoop of pepper”), is dominated by its ocean, which has traditionally provided the main means of human communication, sustenance and trade.

 Originally part of the Riau province in of Sumatra, the Riau Islands became a separate province in July 2004. The province consists of thousands of inhabited and uninhabited islands, of which the largest is Bintan Island, where the provincial capital Tanjung Pinang is located. Batam Island to its west has experienced high population growth since becoming part of a Special Economic Zone with Singapore in 2006. Members of the team hope to visit parts of Kepri’s five regencies (kabupaten) and two cities (kota).

Most of Kepri’s 1.5 million people are sedentary Malays who practice their traditional and modern musical, dance and theatre forms, especially those of the former Malay palaces, in the towns and rural interiors of the larger northwest Riau-Lingga Islands. About 3,000-5,000 people are roving fisherfolk and collectors of sea produce known as Orang Suku Laut (literally “People of the Sea”, hereafter Orang Laut), who live in houseboats at sea , venerate the spirits of nature and the ancestors, and are referred to in English by such terms as “Sea Nomads” (Sopher 1965), or “Sea Tribes” (Benjamin 2002). With navigational habits based on a deep knowledge of ocean currents, tides, winds, fishing grounds, and the positions of the sun, moon and stars, they are considered to be the indigenees of the Malay World, which includes maritime areas ranging from Burma through Malaysia and Singapore to the Philippines. Besides fishing, they collect sea products such as trepang, agar-agar, birds’ nests, tortoise shell, and pearls, formerly supplying them to the Malay sultanates till their demise in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and since then selling their products mainly to Chinese middlemen for international trade.

Some Southeast Asian government authorities, however, claim that the Orang Laut are primitive and backward and need to change their ancient lifestyle, give up their territorial rights over areas of the sea, agree to be Islamised, and settle in housing provided for them on islands chosen by government. Some Orang Laut still persist in leading semi-nomadic lives by returning from their houseboats in inclement weather to stay in houses built over the sea or strand, while big fishing trawlers and other businesses seriously deplete their sea territories. Others have succumbed completely to the pressures and have assimilated into the majority Riau-Malay community, though some families consist of all three lifestyles – nomadic, semi-nomadic and sedentary. Around half of the Orang Laut are true nomads and the remainder are semi-nomads (Lenhart 1997).

The project’s basic data will comprise field recordings made in the Riau islands in 1980-81 and early 2011 (by the CI-1), Ashley Turner in 1984, Philip Yampolsky in the early 1990s (Yampolsky,1996), Geoffrey Benjamin and Margaret Kartomi in 2011, and much more extensively and systematically through the team’s field work in 2012-2014.

Kepri Malay

Kepri, which consists of 3,200 islands, is considered to be the birthplace of the modern Malay and Indonesian languages, which has been developing since the 14th century in the Malay courts in Melaka and Johor on the Malay peninsula, and the Riau-Lingga courts at Daik in the Lingga archipelago in the southwest and on Penyengat Island, off the southwest coast of Bintan Island which is located about two hours southeast of Singapore by ferry.

The islanders are well-known for their ability to improvise formal speeches and poetry in Riau-Malay pantun quatrains, and to improvise melodies and melodic variants as they improvise or vary the poetry. Many write and publish their own poetry and local composers set some of it to music.

The Genres

The project team is investigating the songs, musical communicative devices, dances, theatre forms and story-telling genres of the majority of the Malay population who live in settled areas on the islands and the minority Orang Suku Laut (Ethnic Sea Dwellers), i.e. around 5000 people who prefer to live on house boats at sea in clement weather and in huts on the beaches or small islands during the monsoon season. The genres include (i) songs from everyday life such as informal lullabies and love songs(ii) formal songs accompanied by a biola (violin), pair of gendang  (double-headed drums), rebana  (frame drums), and hourglass drums (gedombak). (iii) group religious songs such as rodat, pencak silat / the art of self defence, alu-alu rice-stamping music, and theatre forms including mak yong and bangsawan in the Lingga archipelago and Mantang Island in western Kepri and , mendu, lang-lang buana and bangsawan in the Natuna archipelago in eastern Kepri. The team is also studying the popular music, including rock, hip-hop and Muslim pop, the centres of which are on Batam and Bintan Islands.

Images of the Riau Islands

 (images courtesy of Karen Sri Kartomi Thomas)

 Images of Pencak Silat

 (images courtesy of Dr Geoffrey Benjamin)

Margaret Kartomi’s other research and supervision interests include the music-cultures of Southeast Asia, Jewish music in Australia and Asia, Chinese music in Australia, organology, youth orchestras and public policy in the arts.

Margaret warmly acknowledges the grant funds she continues to receive from the Australian Research Council under its National Competitive Grants Program, and the moral and material support from the Faculty of Arts and Sir Zelman Cowen School of Music, Monash University.

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