A Unique Tradition: The Inclusion of Women in Music Making

This song is an example of South Indian karanataka sangeeta, or Carnatic music, which has come to be known as the classical music of South India. Several different layers are pieced together to form this aural experience. These layers include rhythms and melodies (which are complex in nature), and drones, but they all merge to form one fluid movement. The style of this music is indeed unique, but what makes the music truly interesting is the tradition of who performs it. In a stark contrast to many other cultures, women are directly involved in the making of music, much of which is widely performed.

A Mridangam

Drones are ever present in the background, providing what has come to be a very distinctive sound for Indian music. These were traditionally provided by lutes called tamburas, but in recent years many musicians have begun to use synthesizers for the same effect. The rhythms that can be played are called talas, or “time cycles” of reoccurring beats (Titon 286). The main drum used is called a mridangam, which is a large two-headed drum.The clip above provides a very typical example of how these two layers interact; the drone starts at the beginning, while the drummers come in at a later time (Titon 286). These two roles are usually played by men. The melodies of Carnatic music, called ragas, however, are frequently performed by women. These ragas are built upon countless rules which a vocalist or instrumentalist learns throughout his or her training. The melodies, however, are most often vocal and are typically sung upon texts that worship gods, tell tales, and ultimately work to convey a significant emotion (Titon 284).

Starting in the early twentieth century, women in music became so important that it even directly affected the state of society. Scholars in India noticed this connection. In her article, “Gender and the Politics of Voice: Colonial Modernity and Classical Music in South India,”Amanda Weidman states, “If family women could be given a proper grasp and appreciation of music, the rest of society would improve.” (Weidman 209) One scholar, T. K. Chidambaranatha Mudaliar, even suggested that music created by females more embodies the spirit of “art” (Weidman 207). Needless to say, women consequently changed the tradition of music in the South Indian music-culture. The example posted above is famous female singer M.S. Subbulakshmi singing a devotional song to a deity. The piece is interesting because it represents the older traditional style of Carnatic music with a male-dominated background, but also features this extremely well known female singer. This shows the blend between the older music tradition built upon the three layers, and what has become a great new tradition in the last century in South Indian culture: the enthusiastic inclusion of women in the musical scene of South India.

M.S. Subbulakshmi

M.S. Subbulakshmi Singing


Titon, Jeff Todd. Worlds of Music: an Introduction to the Music of the World’s Peoples. Belmont, CA: Schirmer Cengage Learning, 2009. 277-198. Print.

Weidman, Amanda. “Gender and the Politics of Voice: Colonial Modernity and Classical Music in South India.” Cultural Anthropology 18 (2003): 194-232. Web. 30 Nov. 2011.


Karnataka Sangeeta: a Foreign Take on Classical Music

The classical music of Southern India, Carnatic music, is considered one of the oldest systems of music in the world. Carnatic music is a very complex system of music that requires much thought, both artistically and technically. The basis of Carnatic music is the system of ragas (melodic scales) and talas (rhythmic cycles). There are seven rhythmic cycles and 72 fundamental ragas. All other ragas are considered to have originated from these. An elaborate pattern exists for identifying these scales, known as the 72 Melakarta Raagas. Tyagaraja, Muthuswami Dikshitar and Shyama Shastri, the three saint composers of the 19th century, have composed thousands of krithis that remain fresh among musicians and rasikas. The most important specialty of Carnatic music is its highly devotional element. The concept of the compositions is set entirely against a devotional outline. The notes of Carnatic music are “sa-ri-gaa-ma-pa-da-ni”. These are abbreviations of the real names of swaras, which are Shadjam, Rishabham, Gandharam, Madhyamam, Panchamam, Dhaivatam and Nishaadam.
Each note of the pattern (the swaraa) will have up to three varieties. The only exceptions for this are the two base notes shadjam and panchamam, sa & pa which have only one form, and madhyamam, the middle swara, which has only two notes. Spirituality has always been the prominent content of Carnatic music. The beautiful blending of the beauty and devotional element has made it extraordinary and divine.
Carnatic music is usually performed by a small ensemble of musicians, consisting of a principal performer (usually a vocalist), a melodic accompaniment (usually a violin), a rhythm accompaniment (usually a mridangam), and a tambura, which acts as a drone throughout the performance. Other typical instruments used in performances may include the ghatam, kanjira, morsing, veena & flute. Defining elements of Carnatic music are a nasal timbre used both vocally and instrumentally, and improvisation. Carnatic music festivals take place in many Southern Indian Cities such as Chennai, Bengaluru, and Thiruvananthapuram. 
Despite the fact that most of the gods being worshipped in South India classical music take on a feminine form, women in India have only recently (since the mid 20th century) become involved in the performance of Carnatic music. According to Amanda Weidman, whose ethnography on gender and the politics of voice describes the inner merging of the female artist and the musical voice in South India, women of high respect have made their way into the performance of classical music through the redefinition of classical in the 1940’s as a natural expression of devotion. Womanly behavior at that time highlighted naturalness and meaning. “Although seemingly opposite, the roles of artist and respectable woman reinforce each other; the “natural” voice of the artist was-and still is-identified with the chaste body of the respectable woman. To “come into voice” on the classical stage, then, involves engaging not just the conventions of musical art, but the conventions of female respectability.” (Weidman 222) Drawing back on the text, women in India today are very much involved in Carnatic musical performance, however, there are still boundaries that must be overcome. For example, women do not tend to play percussion and reed instruments, and stick mostly to vocal parts. That is not to say, however that there are not many females who have made careers out of their music and have become leading vocalists in India.

Titon, Jeff Todd. Worlds of Music: An Introduction to the Music of the World’s Peoples. Belmont, CA: Schirmer Cengage Learning, 2009. 277-298. Print.

Weidman, Amanda. “Gender and the Politics of Voice: Colonial Modernity and Classical Music in South India.” Cultural Anthropology,. . 2Blackwell Publishing, 2003. 194-223. Print.

“Ardhana NH.” About Carnatic Music. N.p., n.d. Web. 6 Dec 2011. <http://www.aradhana-nh.com/carnatic_music.php&gt;.

“South Asian arts.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online Academic Edition. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2011. Web. 06 Dec. 2011. <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/556016/South-Asian-arts&gt;.

Just the Same Old New: The Bollywood Palimpsest

After briskly glossing over 4,500 years of Indian history in Chapter 6 of Worlds of Music, David B. Reck introduces a fascinating idea of India as a palimpsest. He references the first prime minister of independent India, Jawaharlal Nehru, who used this word to indicate that in Indian culture, “the new is constantly added on, but the old, the traditional, continues” (Titon, 267). Bollywood provides an excellent medium through which this development can occur. In these movies the audience experiences themes that have been recycled throughout centuries of Indian culture set to music that draws on tradition, while simultaneously forging ahead into the future by “absorbing the new, as it always has” (Titon, 272).

The following video is a perfect manifestation of this palimpsest concept. This is a song called “Munni Badnaam Hui” from the movie Dabangg, released in 2010. Instantly, the audience is introduced to traditional Indian architecture and dress (save, perhaps, the extra sparkly sequins) with lights and billboards reminiscent of a circus fair. After a minute or so, to add to the excitement, Indian police officers race to the scene in Jeeps to investigate with sirens blaring. Yet the music provides an even more interesting amalgamation of elements young and old.

“Munni Badnaam Hui” (translated lyrics) begins with a computer-generated Latin rhythm and a repetitive guitar riff reminiscent of Malean blues. Lest the audience begin to think it is in fact watching Jennifer Lopez’s new music video, the next four minutes of the song provide “cine song” staples: extravagant group dancing, a high female voice with a male counterpart, interspersed tablas, a slightly punji-esque flute and complicated romance. Yet, the song also includes parts that are certainly not traditionally Indian: a harmonium, “electro-fuzz” ubiquitous in current electronic music and a male chorus of ‘hey!’s evocative of House of Pain.

A Dance Scene from the Bollywood-inspired "Slumdog Millionaire", released in 2008

What is most fascinating and, frankly, impressive about this piece is the ability of the composers (Sajid-Wajid and  Lalit Pandit) to combine so many foreign elements into one piece and still succeed in creating something with a distinct Indian “flavor.” We have listened to music that has incorporated elements from other cultures such as Navajo country music or mbira music played on electric guitars, but neither of these genres has been able to retain their traditional flavors in the same way while introducing foreign instruments or musical styles. This piece can provide the world with hope not only for pop music in general, but also for the ability of cultures to withstand and even thrive on the effects of globalization while maintaining their unique and distinctive essences.

Click here for an extreme example of globalized Indian Bollywood/pop music.


Titon, Jeff Todd. Worlds of Music: An Introduction to the Music of the World’s Peoples. Belmont, CA: Schirmer Cengage Learning, 2009. 265-276. Print.

India’s Syncretic Music-Culture: The Diverse Religious Origin of North Indian Hindustani Classical Music

Two diverse religious traditions in India: on the left, a Hindu temple, and on the right, an Islamic mosque, both located in New Delhi

“Again and again over the centuries, foreign cultural ideas have migrated into India. Once there they have been absorbed, assimilated, digested, played with, and combined with indigenous cultural elements, merging eventually in a new and undeniably Indian synthesis.” (Titon 270).

The history of the Indian subcontinent is extensive in both time and breadth; it spans several thousand years and involves an abundance of diverse religious and cultural influences.  The classical music of North India, known as Hindustani, shares this rich history since it developed out of two prominent yet differing religious traditions in India: Hinduism and Islam. Although the majority of India is Hindu, a sizable minority of the population is Muslim. In the last century, these religious traditions have related by communal behavior because of differences in belief; however, they inevitably share the same classical music tradition (Booth 69). The commonality of Hindustani music-culture has resulted in controversy between Hindus and Muslims, as there are “conflicting interpretations of identity and priority…[as well as] musical authenticity and authority” with regard to this shared tradition (Booth 73).  Ultimately, each of these religious traditions have entitlement to the Hindustani music-culture, as each contributed significantly to its development.

The Mughal Empire.

Hindustani classical music originated with the ancient Aryan people, who created a set of literary works known as the Vedas, which are sacred texts comprised of prayers, incantations, and rituals whose deities were predecessors to the many gods of Hinduism. This sacred text was chanted by Aryan priests, and the melodic qualities of these chants eventually evolved into the scale system of Hindustani music (Titon 268). More importantly, though, the Aryans interlaced religion and music, establishing an essential aspect of the syncretic Hindustani music-culture. However, the development of Hindustani music did not remain static. In the 12th century, invaders of Muslim decent penetrated into the Indian subcontinent and established the Mughal Empire. Music thrived in the courts of the Mughal emperors, who imported musicians from all over the world. Instruments derived from the Muslim tradition such as the sitar and tambura, which are plucked lutes, and the tabla, a pair of drums, became central instrumentation in the Hindustani music-culture. A fusion of the Islamic and indigenous Indian music systems was achieved (“Story of Hindustani”).

During the period of the Mughal Empire in the 16th century, a musician by the name of Mian Tansen became a central figure in the development of Hindustani classical music. Tansen was born into the Hindu Brahmin caste, which traditionally was responsible for all classical music performance (Booth 74). Eventually, he became a court musician for a Mughal emperor. Because “success in the acquisition of royal patronage correlated highly with religious identity,” Tansen is said to have converted to the Islam religion in order to maintain his high status in the emperor’s court (Booth 74). Like all court musicians, he sang in the dhrupad style, which originated from the chanting of Vedic sacred text and thus furthers the synthesis of Hindu and Muslim musics (Sankrityayan). Therefore, Tansen contributes to the parity of Hindu and Muslim identity of the Hindustani music-culture. Greg Booth states the following:

“Tansen embodies the inherent ambiguity in later claims to authenticity or priority; both Hindus and Muslims can (and do) claim authority [of Hindustani music] as the result of Tansen’s importance and their discipular connection with him” (74).

Mian Tansen, as depicted in "Baiju Bawra" (1952). Here he is portrayed as having a predominately Muslim indentity, and is shown playing the tambura, an instrument of Islamic origin.

Furthermore, this conflict for control of the historical identity of Hindustani classical music is demonstrated through three films produced by the Hindi cinema industry in the mid-twentieth century, all which stage the life story of Tansen. Two of these films clearly portray Tansen as having a Hindu identity and at odds with the Mughal emperor, whereas the other bestows upon him a Muslim identity, portraying him foremost as a devoted and favorite member of the Mughal emperor’s court musicians (Booth 78-9). Although there may be truth in both depictions of Tansen, it is apparent that the distinction of the two religious cultures and their contributions to Hindustani music-culture is desired by both Hindus and Muslims. Hindustani music is indeed an irresolvable contest of religious identity, since history lends itself to favor both traditions equally in their contributions to this music-culture. Ultimately, this leads to a unique situation within the abundance of music-cultures tied to a singular religion throughout the world, as two distinct religious traditions contend with sharing a music-culture born out of each.


Booth, Greg. “Pandits in the Movies: Contesting the Identity of Hindustani Classical Music and Musicians in the Hindi Popular Cinema”. Asian Music, Vol. 36, No. 1: 60-86. Web, 30 Nov. 2011.

Sankrityayan, Ashish. “Dhrupad: Classical North Indian Temple and Court Music.” Dhrupad Kendra. Dhrupad Kendra Bhopal, n.d. Web. 3 Dec. 2011. < http://www.dhrupad.info&gt;

“Story of Hindustani Classical Music.” ITC Sangeet Research Academy. ITC-SRA, n.d. Web. 3 Dec. 2011. <http://www.itcsra.org/sra_hcm/sra_hcm_chrono/sra_hcm_chrono_1200ad.html&gt;

Titon, Jeff Todd. Worlds of Music: an Introduction to the Music of the World’s Peoples. Belmont, CA: Schirmer Cengage Learning, 2009. 265-276. Print.

Image Credits:

BAPS Swaminarayan Akshardham.” Photo. http://www.bbc.co.uk. 5 Dec 2011. <http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/galleries/hindutemple/&gt;

“Jama Masjid Ddelhi.” Photo.  http://www.hotelkhoj.com. 5 Dec. 2011. <http://www.hotelkhoj.com/tours/rajasthan.html&gt;

“Mughal Empire BR.” Photo. http://www.paradoxplace.com. 4 Dec 2011. <http://www.paradoxplace.com/Insights/Civilizations/Mughals/Mughal_Images/Mughal%20Empire%20BR.jpg&gt;

“Tansen practises his singing.” Photo. http://dustedoff.wordpress.com. 4 Dec 2011. <http://dustedoff.files.wordpress.com/2010/04/pic21.jpg&gt;

Playback Singers, the Unseen Celebrities of Indian Cinema

The Indian film industry is the largest in the world. It is the source of most Indian popular music these days. In the 40s, 50s and 60s it was also the source of popular music, but they took a more semiclassical or classical approach to style and instrumentation (Titus 276). Since the music took a more classical approach they had to use musicians well trained in the classical style to sing all of the music.

“The actors and actresses always lip-sync with words, which are actually sung by “playback singers,” who along with the “music director” (composer/arranger) and lyricist are the true stars of India’s pop music scene.” (Titus 273).

Playback singers are highly respected and honored for their distinguished contribution to society, the real celebrities of film.

Lata Mangeshkar and Manna Dey

In this video, Manna Dey and Lata Mangeshkar are the playback singers, both regarded as being two of the most respected classical singers in India, and each having recorded thousands of songs in their lifetime. In this particular video they are singing a Darbari Kanada Raga, which is considered one of the most difficult styles of Indian classical music to master but it also as the ability to be the most emotional (Parrikar). Like any typical story, the man is trying to win over the woman with his singing ability. He is “employ[ing] all manner of rhythmic intricacy, speed, technique, dramatic gesture, loudness, and sheer self-assertiveness” in order to impress her, but she not does not move a single inch whereas all of the onlookers are shown thoroughly impressed by his abilities (Booth 60). Once he finishes singing, the closed lotus flower, which the camera kept switching to while he was singing, opens because of his singing and a bee flies out. This is a symbol of his musical prowess being so impressive that he is able to move nature. This scene helps to further illustrate Booth’s first point about the instrumentality of musical virtuosity’s effect on the physical world.

But the difference in this video from Booth’s analysis is that Booth hardly mentions a woman as the star. In response to his virtuosic singing trying to woe her, she shows her own musical ability by matching his virtuosity if not outdoing him. After she finishes singing the bee flies back into lotus and the flower closes back up. This is unique since the women is not trying to impress the man with the ability to move nature, but instead trying to prove that her musical ability is just as impressive in that she can undo his work with her own abilities. But this clip helps to strengthen Booth’s idea that  the

“filmmakers must visually represent that heroism in ways that will allow their viewers to admire the heroic powers of their protagonists, whether or not those viewers understand or even like classical music.” (Booth 64).

The fact that a woman can outdo a man trying to show off his valor on equal terms certainly impresses the audience. This short clip, even though fictional, shows that women playback singers are on par with men’s singing abilities and they are both outstanding musicians.


Booth, Greg. “Pandits in the Movies: Contesting the Identity of Hindustani Classical Music and Musicians in the Hindi Popular Cinema”. Asian Music, Vol. 36, No. 1 (Winter – Spring, 2005): 60-86. Web, 30 Nov. 2011.

Parrikar, Rajan P. “The Kanada Constellation (Part 1/3)”. South Asian Women’s Forum. 11 Dec. 2000.  Web. 4 Dec. 2011. <http://www.sawf.org/newedit/edit12112000/musicarts.asp&gt;.

Titon, Jeff Todd. Worlds of Music: an Introduction to the Music of the World’s Peoples. Belmont, CA: Schirmer Cengage Learning, 2009. 265-276. Print.

Tripathi, S.N., dir. Rani Rupmat. Ravi Kala Chitra, 1957. Film. Online Posting. Ud Ja Bhanwar Maya Kamal Ka.” YouTube, 7 Sept. 2008. Web. 4 Dec. 2011.

Image Citation:

“Lata Mangeshkar & Manna Dey’s pictures: Lata Mangeshkar & Manna Dey.” Photo. http://www.last.fm/ 4 Dec. 2011 <http://www.last.fm/music/Lata%2BMangeshkar%2B%2526%2BManna%2BDey/+images/15223041&gt;

The Emishi: Japanese Culture Meets The West and Africa

Princess Mononoke is one of the most successful animated films in Japan and around the world, directed by Hayao Miyazaki. The film features a great deal of Japanese historical information and introduces an innovative historical perspective, which makes us rethink the culture of Japan, and explores ethics of life. The film is multilayered with thorough details including the tribes and technological advancements that occurred in the Muromachi era, which corresponds the years 1336-1573. The film depicts a teenage boy, Ashitaka, living in the village of Emishi and his journey to the west to remove his curse casted by a giant boar-demon.

The Emishi

The Emishi

The Emishi, called “the tribe of trees”, were the minority group in the Muromachi era. They practiced nature worship and wished harmony between humans and nature. Since their inhabitants were far from other tribes, the Emishi nurtured unique culture and isolated themselves even further creating several communities within the common tribe. The Emishi are said to be the decedents of the ancient tribe, the Jomon, who first built civilization in Japan. After the political war in the 800’s, the Emishi started to lose its power and were at a risk of dying out. The head of the tribe, Aterui, was killed during the war and the rest were forced to leave their inhabitants and live in even deeper forests. The protagonist of the film, Ashitaka, is the prince of the Emishi and, although it is not clearly mentioned in the film, he is the descendent of the head, Aterui, according to Miyazaki.

Because Ashitaka came from the Emishi, the music needed to be different from the typical Japanese classical. There could not be any use of Japanese traditional instruments such as “shamisen” or “shakuhachi” in its music because that would trigger the feeling of the typical historical image of Japan, which often prompts Samurais. Miyazaki wanted to depart from this stereotypical lingering picture of Japan and swerve to a world where humans and nature coexist in harmony. However, this attempt was not a simple task for the composer, Joe Hisaishi. He was expected to compose music that provides a historical and tribal feeling without using instruments that the Japanese do not think as traditional. Furthermore, since the era in which the film featured is very old that there was little left about the Emishi’s music. Despite these challenges, Hisaishi could not disregard the importance of its music. A film like Princess Mononoke can be greatly influenced by its music due to the fact that viewers will sense the time period and atmosphere from its music. In Global Soundtracks, Rey Chow says,

“folk music complicates any simple analysis of the film’s politics. (Page 55)”

In this chapter, Chow talks about how folk music gives depth to film, which is difficult to achieve through dialogue. With this in mind, one can state that bringing folk music with an ambiguous purpose and sense could end up leading to wrong understanding for the viewers.

Princess Mononoke in Germany

Princess Mononoke in Germany

To cope with this obstacle, Hisaishi chose to insert western classical music. This may sound like nothing original, but he had right intensions. The structure of the music is certainly western classic, but the music also embraces elements of European folk music and African traditional music, making it sound worldly tribal. Additionally, this technique adds not only a tribal feeling but also gives depth to the world of Princess Mononoke. Viewers might not be familiar with Japanese classical music but if the music has a global quality which sounds tribal and historical to larger audiences, the world of Prince Mononoke becomes boundless. It is no doubt that this style of music helped Princess Mononoke to become popular in various countries outside of Japan.

Works Cited

“Analyzing Princess Mononoke.” Analyzing Princess Mononoke. Web. 05 Dec. 2011. <http://www.yk.rim.or.jp/~rst/rabo/miyazaki/m_yomitoku.html&gt;.

“Beats21 – 『もののけ姫』と喜納昌吉.” Beats21 音楽評論、ポップ・ミュージックの総合サイト. Web. 05 Dec. 2011. <http://www.beats21.com/ar/A03013101.html&gt;.

Slobin, Mark. Global Soundtracks: Worlds of Film Music. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 2008. Print.

More Than Just a Number: How Music can Humanize the Fight Against AIDS

December 1st is internationally recognized and celebrated as World AIDS Day. HIV and AIDS have plagued the global community since the 1980s. Prior to this time very little knowledge can be confirmed, but the history of AIDS shows an interesting progression. So how does the history and significance of this global burden intertwine with a music-culture?

Music has served many different purposes and functions within the context of the culture producing it. This concept has been evident in every unit we have studied this semester. While some music is traditionally used for homecoming ceremonies, there are others that are used for funerals or to be played at courthouses. Music can easily play different roles depending on the musician, the audience, and the setting. During the 1980s when the AIDS epidemic began peeking out of hidden corners institutions, public health workers, and musicians recognized the importance of using music as a both a teaching and coping tool in the wake of this issue. However, it was not until the later 1990s when the disease had jumped out of these hidden corners screaming, “I’M HERE!” that audiences truly appreciated these songs and their meanings.  This progression is apparent through Jennifer Kyker’s article on the career of artist Oliver Mtukudzi.


Mtukudzi began his involvement in the fight against AIDS as part of a competition that the World Health Organization (WHO) initiated. While his initial interest was in the competition itself, Mtukudzi’s exposure through this competition increased his investment in the issue and furthering the awareness and resources about HIV and AIDS in his own community. His approach encompasses “a variety of perspectives, accommodating multiple ways in which Zimbabweans might understand and respond to the disease” (Kyker 242). Because the topic of HIV and AIDS is taboo in many communities and so difficult for many people to talk about it was important and necessary that Mtukudzi went about creating his music the way that he did. Though he had gained recognition on the international stage, his presence in his local community was not equally appreciated.


Even with this approach, Mtukudzi initially had difficulty garnering interest and attention. He reported in an interview with Deborah Korfmacher:

“People were so arrogant about AIDS. They didn’t want to hear it.”

As the epidemic became more unavoidable people began to pay closer attention to this music and both the education and comfort it could provide. Kyker writes of four of Mtukudzi’s songs and analyzes his lyrics. Mtukudzi’s broad approach is revealed through this analysis. While he is certain to hit on the issues of prevention, he still produced songs that dealt with pain this disease brings to families and how to cope with it.

In our world statistics are being thrown at us left and right. These facts are important to knowing what the disease is doing the world as a whole. Seeing these numbers is definitely jarring and captures the attention of people, but after a while numbers seem overwhelming and begin to lose their meaning. Furthermore, it creates a disconnect. In terms of diseases and death tolls, these facts are important to knowing what the disease is doing the world as a whole.  The use of music in public health and specifically with the issue of HIV and AIDS gives context and emotion. Instead of just reading how many people are affected by this disease people can listen to music like that of Mtukudzi to become more aware, but also to hear stories and feel more connected to the issue. Mtukudzi is revered not only for his efforts in HIV and AIDS prevention awareness, but also for the other issues he brings up. He is not afraid to use his music to address the more complicated issues of “the relationship between gender, agency, and HIV/AIDS within a larger social context” (Kyker 255). Mtukudzi’s braveness in confronting these issues helps this social movement in keeping the world aware progress forward.


Kyker, Jennifer. “”What Shall We Do?” Oliver Mtukudzi’s Songs About HIV/AIDS.”The Culture of AIDS in Africa: Hope and Healing in Music and the Arts. By Gregory F. Barz and Judah M. Cohen. New York: Oxford UP, 2011. 241-55. Print.

Remmy Ongala: Heavy Thinking Music for AIDS Awareness

"I am successful in Tanzania because I write songs about serious topics… the lyrics are the most important part, all my songs have meaning" --Remmy Ongala

On March 14, 2000, the UN Secretary General Kofi Annan announced a jarring statistic: between 1999 and 2000, more people died of AIDS in Africa than in all the wars on the continent (Brittain). After the OPEC oil embargo in the 1970s, African countries have found themselves paying off mountainous debts that accumulated from previous corrupt regimes. Attempts to democratize instead resulted in military governments, one party states, or dictatorships.  These corrupt dictatorships embezzled billions of dollars from their own country into private savings, furthering the lack of action towards fighting and preventing HIV/AIDS by African leaders (Bates). Furthermore, of the 33 million people living with HIV, almost 23 million of them live in Africa (UNAIDS).

During this time when the AIDS epidemic was becoming more pervasive in Africa, the Tanzanian musician Remmy Ongala emerged as a prominent social and political symbol in the battle against HIV/AIDS. Through his music, he was able to speak out against and increase awareness of HIV/AIDS, as well as openly oppose certain actions of the Tanzanian government. His music had strong themes of poverty, corruption, mortality, faith and Tanzanian pride. Because of Remmy’s concern towards poverty and sexual health, his fans in Tanzania nicknamed him ‘Doctor Remmy’ (A. Ongala).

In 1990, Remmy Ongala released a lively dance track called “Mambo Kwa Soksi” (“Things With Socks”).  Its lyrics urged men to use “socks,” which is a reference to Tanzanian slang for condoms. He asked young men to help slow the spread of AIDS by practicing safe sex. This song uses very honest and open language and explicitly tells people how to use a condom (Kirkegaard 61). As a result, Radio Tanzania refused to play it. However, the song sill circulated widely in black-market cassette recordings and Remmy continued to perform the song at live events. It became one of Remmy Ongala’s best-known songs and later appeared on the AIDS awareness compilation Spirit of Africa and gained international attention in 2001. This version of the recording can be found here.

As the recording shows, Remmy Ongala’s music emanates his ideals. Every word that he sings is filled with passion for the issues that he so vehemently opposes: racism, social injustice, poverty, and HIV/AIDS. But beyond his blatant political commentary and intense lyrics, his music is made for dancing.  The rhythms in this song follow the principles of Congolese rumba style. Remmy Ongala was born in Congo and grew up very close to the Tanzanian border. He was heavily influenced by both Congolese and Tanzanian music; one of his largest influences was the fluid guitar rumba style of ‘Franco’ (François Luambo Makiadi), the founder of OK Jazz in Kinshasa (A. Ongala). This style is heard in the first half of “Mambo Kwa Soksi,” with most of the focus on the guitars. The instrumental section contains closely interwoven guitar lines in very close counterpoint, supported by a repetitive bass line that changes rhythmically to supplement the guitars and vocals. The repeating ostinatos creates a sense of tension in the music, being resolved later in the piece through the introduction of the brass section, which picks up the dance beat. In the song, Ongala begins by asking the audience to listen to him and understand the scope of the AIDS epidemic. He then uses a football metaphor that forces the audience to interpret his true message:

My dear brothers and sisters, please listen to me.
Listen to me, listen my song.
The world is at war between people and AIDS.
This plague is killing many people, there is no medicine
For it is up for us. 

National Geographic-- World Music

He dubbed his music “ubongo beat,” which translates into “heavy thinking music”—ubongo is Swahili for “brain” (Pareles). The use of a metaphor both puts his message into terms that can be easily understood, but his audience must also decipher his message. Ongola wanted his music to be appreciated on both a physical and mental level, further establishing music as a means of communication and attachment with his audience. This is supported by Kirkegaard who connects musicians and politics in a way that enhances the importance of the community aspect in Titon’s performance model:

“..in Tanzania in particular, music has been a political means of communication used with much skill by the state and political leaders. Even in more traditional areas of life, the musicians are important actors and initiators within the social life of the community,” (Kirkegaard 61).

At the time, Ongala’s community was mostly Tanzania and Congo. His songs exhibited astute philosophical and political ideas, proving himself to be a symbol of awareness, education, and change. Additionally, Kirkegaard argues that Remmy Ongala’s use of musical performance to influence the masses is the result of the material culture in the country. Research into the material culture in Tanzania and Congo can help us understand their music cultures (Titon 29). Kirkegaard explains:

“Music in a poor country, traditionally based on the oral mode, has priority as a means of communication. It is cheap to distribute and it can reach a large number of people. Also, musicians…make use of a number of different media such as radio, phonograms, television and live concerts which relate the performer to fixed images and thus creates popularity,” (Kirkegaard 66).

His live performances contain direct talking and calling with the audience, which enhances the performance dynamics of communication and overall affect on the audience. As Titon explains, music’s affect is “its power to move” (Titon 15). Ongala is able to emphasize his message through “invoking this vigorous presence of the audience by highlighting the movements through the use of rhythmic melodic musical structure” (Kirkegaard 67). In other words, Remmy Ongala’s musical performances make his audience embody his music, taking action together as one entity. The power of music is manifested in the movement and presence of the audience– a truly beautiful way to change the world.

HIV/AIDS still remains an issue of great gravity. Since the beginning of the epidemic, more than 60 million people have been infected with HIV and nearly 30 million people have died of HIV-related cause (UNAIDS). Nonetheless, there has been increased efforts to spread awareness and raise funds for research and medicine. Through his musical gifts and global viability, Remmy Ongala was an influential musician who became the voice of the Tanzanian, writing songs that were both funky as well as a conscientious.

For further listening:

On Stage With Remmy Ongala and Orchestra Super Matimila 1988


Brittain, Victoria. “More Die of Aids than War in Africa Says Kofi Annan.” The Guardian. The Guardian. Web. 28 Nov. 2011. <http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2000/mar/14/unitednations&gt;.

Kirkegaard, Annemette. “Remmy Ongala– Moderating Through Music.” Sounds of Change: Social and Political Features of Music in Africa. Stockholm: Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, 2004. 57-69. Print.

Ongala, Aziza. “Dk. Remmy Ongala Foundation.” Dk. Remmy Ongala Foundation | Home. Web. 28 Nov. 2011. <http://thedkremmyongalafoundation.com/index.html&gt;.

Pareles, Jon. “Remmy Ongala, Tanzanian Musical Star, Dies at 63.” New York Times. 16 Jan. 2011. Web. <http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/17/arts/music/17ongala.html?_r=2&ref=todayspaper&gt;

Thubauville, Sophia. “Remmy Ongala.” Journal of African Music and Popular Culture. 15 July 2003. Web. 28 Nov. 2011. <http://www.uni-hildesheim.de/ntama/index.php?option=com_content&gt;.

Titon, Jeff Todd. “Chapter 1: The Music-Culture as a World of Music.” Worlds of Music: an Introduction to the Music of the World’s Peoples. Belmont, CA: Schirmer Cengage Learning, 2009. 1-32.

UN. UN AIDS Global Report Fact Sheet. Raw data. Geneva.

Gamelan of the Islands: An Indonesian Identity

Due to Indonesia’s past under Dutch colonization, it has become a very diverse country of people, language, religion and music. Sutton points out that the gamelan is an unique aspect that identifies Indonesia. These percussion ensembles predominately exist in the neighboring islands of Java and Bali. A typical Javanese gamelan ensemble includes the categories of “gongs, metal instruments, at least one drum and may have other kinds of instruments: winds, strings, and wooden percussion instruments” (Sutton 302). In regards to gongs, there are hanging gongs and kettle gongs. Bronze is typically used to create the metal instruments due to “its durability and rich, sweet sound quality” (308).

Traditional Javanese Gamelan

Within Javanese gamelan there are two performance styles. The first is the loud style that is played in outdoor settings with only instruments. The other genre is a soft style performed indoors that can use voices. But since both styles are representative of the traditional theme, the music seems to be somber and harmonious. Javanese gamelan is also utilized in wayang kulit as well as bedhaya performances. In addition, Javanese gamelan is important to life events. This is played as background music during “birth, circumcision or wedding” (309). This shows that music is tied to the lives of Javanese people.

The aspect of community seems to be prevalent in Balinese society. The article mentions that in Bali, “every village and household compound possess three temples, and numerous other temples” (Davies 23). On a typical day following work, people will gather together and rehearse the gamelan ensemble. While Javanese gamelan can involve a soloist, pesindhen, Balinese gamelan is strongly a group effort. Even non-performing members will help out to contribute to the performance. Davies states “the arts are the lifeblood and pulse of the community existence” (28).

Balinese Gamelan stresses on the use of metallophones

Compared to the Javanese style, Balinese music has a distinct style which gives a fast, virtuosic, lively tone. This music also uses an interlocking technique. This is produced by utilizing “more metallophones than gongs” and also “cymbals to create fast rattling sounds” (SEAsite – SE Asian Languages and Cultures). This tone reflects the lifestyle of the villagers. The music is played in such a way to give references to a particular gong pattern and well as animals or nature. Due to ties with nature, Balinese are known for being superstitious and believing that everything happens for a reason. This is why gamelan instruments are made and decorated in accordance to rituals.

It is important to note that Javanese style is much stricter in regards retaining traditional values. Sutton notes that “it was forbidden to copy the tuning and design of palace gamelan instruments, as these were reserved for the ruler and were directly associate with his power” (Sutton 308). Court gamelan performances have been very essential in two particular cities, Yogyakarta and Surakarta. The fact that gamelan ensembles are still played in royal courts such as Mangkunegaran palace signify the Javanese adherence to cultural tradition. Javanese people tend to retain the old status quo and thus the music remains original. However the Balinese “gamelans are extremely competitive….and seek to improve their skills” (Davies 25).  Thus Balinese stress on greater variety and “are innovative in the readiness with which they adopt and adapt new media and technologies” (27).  They seem to be trying to improve what is already there by incorporating new forms of gamelan such as contemporary fusion gamelan. The Saratuspersen Bandung is one popular example that combines gamelan with Jazz and other Western musical influences. Despite these differences, the neighboring islands of Java and Bali have unique styles of gamelan which are essential toward promoting this musical identity to the rest of the world.


Davies, Stephen. “Balinese Aesthetics.”  The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 65, (2007): 21-29.

Han, Kou-Huang. “Balinese Gamelan.” SEAsite – SE Asian Languages and Cultures. Web. 14 Nov. 2011. <http://www.seasite.niu.edu/indonesian/budaya_bangsa/gamelan/Main_Page/main_page.htm&gt;.

Titon, Jeff Todd. “Chapter 5: Asia/Music of Indonesia.” Worlds of Music: an Introduction to the Music of the World’s Peoples. Belmont, CA: Schirmer Cengage Learning, 2009. 299-311.



Not Your Average Pop Music: The Fusion of Indonesian Tradition and Western Modernity

“Pop” music is known as music of the masses, but it takes different forms in every culture. With the common thread of Western influence, it is interesting to see what other cultures create. In Indonesia, these creations take multiple forms. The videos below demonstrate different aspects of Indonesian pop music that involved the incorporation of social, political and religious ideas as well as the integration of tradition and modernity. Both videos allow the viewer to see and hear the fusion of East and West. Play the videos first without watching it and then play it again to see the instruments that are being used to make this music. The interesting combinations of sounds and genres can be noticed through both the audio and video.

The impact of Western culture on the creation of pop music began simply with the introduction of Western instruments to this part of the world. The Europeans brought with them “their string and brass instruments along with European vocal styles” (McGraw). These introductions were important to the growth of Indonesian pop, but the generation that brought about the more contemporary incorporation of Western culture and influence to Indonesian music came with the style of dangdut that is demonstrated in this video below. Dangdut appropriately falls into the category of pop music for the masses because

“Dangdut grew out of poor, urban Indonesian culture and sung of the hopes, loves and destitution of the country’s lower classes” (McGraw).

The artist highlighted in this video and in the textbook is Rhoma Irama. His motivation to create this fusion music was fueled by an initial interest in Western rock, so he wanted to be able to provide an Indonesian sound that also suited the musical tastes of the younger and more modern generation.  This performance shows the combination of rock instruments and traditional instruments and how they are incorporated to make a more Eastern sound.

With this analysis of this aspect of Indonesian culture I wanted to point out that there are interestingly different styles of Indonesian pop music. This video shows an aspect of Indonesian pop music with a performance by the Krakatau group. In the text Titon mentions, “Krakatau involves a careful synthesis of Sundanese gamelan and fusion jazz” (347). In many of the videos of Krakatau performances the vocals are not present, but the addition of vocals in this video accentuates more of the Sundanese  themes as opposed to the jazz themes. The singer uses the same dynamics and whispering techniques that many jazz musicians and singers use, but the language in which she is singing as well as the tones she uses infuses the Sundanese aspect of the music.

Globalization is very apparent through both of these videos. However, as we have spoken about in class it gets difficult to trace back the origin of many different sounds, styles, and instruments because we do not know if things developed simultaneously in different countries or if they were introduced through merchants. While these videos show apparent differences and influences they may be harder to recognize through just sound. For example, Irama’s use of Indian and Malaysian influence could easily be lost in the future. Not only are the sounds of these performances very interesting in understanding the evolution of Indonesian music, but watching them also shows the performances are very different in scale and social setting from the traditional gamelan music. They are used for very different purposes. The physical juxtaposition of the different instruments in these videos looked peculiar to me at first, but the sound and harmony they create together makes a very pleasing sound. Even though the Krakatau group uses the gamelan the music they produce would not be used at festivals or rituals like in the Javanese culture or in processions like in the Bali culture.

McGraw, Andrew. “Indonesian Pop Music.” National Geographic. Web. <http://worldmusic.nationalgeographic.com/view/page.basic/genre/content.genre/indonesian_pop_731/en_US&gt;.

Sutton, R. Anderson. “Asia/Music of Indonesia.” Worlds of Music: an Introduction to the Music of the World’s Peoples. By Jeff Todd Titon. Belmont, CA: Schirmer Cengage Learning, 2009. 345-52. Print.