Bodies of Sound, Agents of Muslim Malayness: Malaysian Identity Politics and the Symbolic Ecology of the Gambus Lute
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In this dissertation, I show how Malay-identified performing arts are used to fold in Malay Muslim identity into the urban milieu, not as an alternative to Kuala Lumpur’s contemporary cultural trajectory, but as an integrated part of it. I found this identity negotiation occurring through secular performance traditions of a particular instrument known as the gambus (lute), an Arabic instrument with strong ties to Malay history and trade. During my fieldwork, I discovered that the gambus in Malaysia is a potent symbol through which Malay Muslim identity is negotiated based on various local and transnational conceptions of Islamic modernity. My dissertation explores the material and virtual pathways that converge a number of historical, geographic, and socio-political sites—including the National Museum and the National Conservatory for the Arts, Culture, and Heritage—in my experiences studying the gambus and the wider transmission of muzik Melayu (Malay music) in urban Malaysia. I argue that the gambus complicates articulations of Malay identity through multiple agentic forces, including people (musicians, teachers, etc.), the gambus itself (its materials and iconicity), various governmental and non-governmental institutions, and wider oral, aural, and material transmission processes. Thus, I define transmission in its widest sense to include any mode of transmitting cultural information through performance. To focus the discussion, I isolate the gambus as a potent symbol and anchor from which cultural identity transmission emanates. In developing my argument I explore three interrelated issues: Malay and wider Malaysian identity politics, including the historical and contemporary concept of Islamization in Malay society; the concept of agency and how expressive phenomena emerge as identity markers through competing forces of materio-symbolic agency; and musical transmission, specifically as it relates to the gambus as a Malay identity symbol and its role in complicating articulations of Malay identity. I consider transmission from its broadest perspective, one that includes pedagogy and performance in various institutions, but also how instrumental materials, style characteristics, and the use of virtual and physical spaces transmit identity formations using the gambus as a materio-symbolic mechanism. In many ways, I show, the materials underlying identity performances are as powerful as their human counterparts, all operating in their own kind of symbolic ecology, which I define as the way symbols emerge and how they are organized within a physical and conceptual environment. I investigate the unique role of sound bodies—both nonhuman and human—in creating, restructuring, and reinforcing collective ideas of Malay identity in contemporary Malaysian social life.
- Music