Song in the Sumatran Highlands is an “interactive, interpretative multimedia ethnography and archive” created by ethnomusicologist Jennifer Fraser and centered on saluang, an important vocal and flute performance genre of Minangkabau people of West Sumatra, Indonesia.1 Drawing on the author’s extensive fieldwork of several decades, it focuses on saluang as lived experience, with rich contextualization of over four hundred performances (audio and video) by a range of musicians, and documentation of around four hundred songs in the repertoire. The project is important in several ways. It is the first scholarly study of saluang on this scale in any language: there have been articles on different aspects of the genre and recordings with documentation, in Indonesian and in English,2 but there has so far been no study of such breadth. Fraser’s choice of a digital platform as the mode of presentation for this research is not only timely, but also carefully tailored to fit the nature of the material it presents, illustrating its flexibility and the nuances in its performance. More broadly, the project is a thought-provoking example of what a digital humanities–based approach might be able to contribute to the future of ethnomusicological scholarship.

Saluang is named after the long bamboo flute that accompanies this type of vocal performance. It involves female vocalists, performing in pairs with saluang (flute) accompaniment (always by a male) for largely male audiences. The nighttime performances that characterize the genre involve interplay between vocalists and audience members, who can request songs from a large repertoire. The songs are strophic and in pantun form, which is also found in other parts of Southeast Asia. One of the key features of saluang performance is the flexible relationship between text and melody: “texts for a given song are not fixed: they can and do change from one performer to the next, vocalists fitting stock verses to melodies or creating them anew in response to the performance context and attendees.”3 It is a genre associated strongly with the darek, the highland region that is the Minangkabau homeland, but it is also found in other regions where Minangkabau people live.

Digital humanities is a dynamic and growing field, continually undergoing redefinition by its practitioners. Johanna Drucker uses “digital humanities” as an umbrella term for work done

at the intersection of computational methods and humanities materials. … [D]igital humanities projects begin with materials (images, texts, maps, three-dimensional models, sound and media files, or any combination of these) that are central to the research project. These materials are subject to computational processing (data mining or statistical analysis). The outcomes are organized in a presentation that may be web-based or offline, depending on the needs and goals of the project.4

While digital humanities projects of different sorts have become increasingly familiar research outputs in several areas of music studies, as well as in the social science disciplines that employ ethnography as a methodology, digital humanities projects produced by ethnomusicologists remain few and far between. (A recent example is Jennifer Kyker’s 2019 project Sekuru’s Stories.)5

The project is organized into twelve units or chapters (see figure 1). The first, “Getting Oriented,” covers the conceptual framework of the project and other preliminary material, including definitions of the genre. This is followed by the core discussion of saluang, which is divided into four chapters: “Songs,” “Places,” “People,” and “Performances.” Next comes “Modules,” a unit that approaches the core via three cross-cutting topics (“Anatomy of Songs,” “Music and Gender,” and “Music and Place”). The final six units comprise the following: “Glossary,” “References,” “Technical Notes,” “Project Team,” “Acknowledgments,” and “License, Citation and Use.” An index rounds off the contents.

Figure 1

Screenshot from Song in the Sumatran Highlands, showing the home page and “Table of Contents,” https://songinthesumatranhighlands.com/song-in-the-sumatran-highlands/index

Figure 1

Screenshot from Song in the Sumatran Highlands, showing the home page and “Table of Contents,” https://songinthesumatranhighlands.com/song-in-the-sumatran-highlands/index

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Though the “Table of Contents” layout evokes a book, the platform is much more than a digitized document. In the section “Why Digital?” in the “Getting Oriented” chapter, Fraser addresses several conceptual and philosophical reasons for the choice of this form of presentation. The philosophical reasons—open access, multimodality, nonlinear structure, tagging and cross-referencing capabilities, among others—are encountered in most digital projects. The conceptual reasons, however, are strongly rooted in the ethnographic dimensions of her research: “to present these texts in the medium most proximate to their original presentation”; “[t]o represent the multimedia riches of ethnographic research on performance, rather than relying on the written word”; and “[t]o map the geographic imaginary, the way Minangkabau people conceptualize place in and through song titles, texts, and even stage names.”6

The site’s home page—which consists of one of the author’s photographs of a saluang performance—links to the “Getting Oriented” unit, which Fraser suggests should be read first, before exploring the site, and which is worth describing here, as it contains important framing material, summarizing the contents, nature, scope, goals, key definitions, and tools of navigation. The four principles of the project are discussed here (and remain clear throughout): that it is ethnographic, archival, interpretative, and interactive. Fraser also emphasizes the collaborative nature of the project, not only in the research and the development phases, but also positioning herself carefully and explicitly as only one of several actors in the documentation of this genre.

Visitors interacting with the project may choose either to navigate through the site via curated paths (accessed through blue tabs marked “Begin with … ,” “Continue to … ,” etc., at the bottom of each page) or to adopt a freer form of exploration: “This website is built with the assumption that each user will follow a unique path and that no-one will or should visit every single page. Indeed, unlike a book, there is no single, logical path through all the material, but rather a multitude of avenues.”7 This is one of the attractions and strengths of digital platforms. It is also one of the challenges—balancing the potential of interactivity and the multiple pathways through the material with overall coherence.

Fraser’s project is built using Scalar, a popular open-source platform for digital humanities projects.8 The nested nature of Scalar’s architecture and the liberal use of unit numbering (1/1, 1/2, etc.) help visitors maintain their sense of place within the structure (see figure 2). “Getting Oriented: How to Navigate this Site” (1/3) is particularly useful in this respect, as an overview of options. There are the usual search tools and menu (“Table of Contents”), embedded links, timelines of performances, and so on. There is also a section entitled “Wayfinding,” which includes several visualization tools that reveal connections between the various elements of the site as well as tracing the visitor’s pathway through the project’s architecture (see figure 3).It is important to emphasize that these are tools intended to facilitate movement around the site, the accessing of detail, and the making of connections, comparisons, and synthesis across and within these areas. The visitor can pick and choose according to personal interest. While at times I have found the number of connections revealed by visualizations to be overwhelming, they come into their own in certain contexts, such as in connecting songs and places via use of the interactive maps, where the spatial dimensions they demonstrate are insightful.

Figure 2

Screenshot from Song in the Sumatran Highlands, showing the site’s use of Scalar’s nested menu system (accessed from any page of the site, shown here above the page for “Places,” https://songinthesumatranhighlands.com/song-in-the-sumatran-highlands/places)

Figure 2

Screenshot from Song in the Sumatran Highlands, showing the site’s use of Scalar’s nested menu system (accessed from any page of the site, shown here above the page for “Places,” https://songinthesumatranhighlands.com/song-in-the-sumatran-highlands/places)

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Figure 3

Screenshot from Song in the Sumatran Highlands, showing the visualization tool for “Songs Named for Places,” https://songinthesumatranhighlands.com/song-in-the-sumatran-highlands/songs-named-for-places

Figure 3

Screenshot from Song in the Sumatran Highlands, showing the visualization tool for “Songs Named for Places,” https://songinthesumatranhighlands.com/song-in-the-sumatran-highlands/songs-named-for-places

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While the aspects of the project I have focused on so far may not seem closely related to the content, anyone who contemplates presenting research in a digital humanities format soon realizes that deciding on the platform, and on the kinds of tools to include from the many options available, requires careful consideration of both the nature of the content presented and the goals of the project. And it is here that the effectiveness of this site becomes apparent. Whatever tools are employed, or routes followed, it is difficult to lose sight of saluang as a living, breathing tradition, embedded in place, performance, and the lives of performers. The high-quality audio and video recordings, as well as pictures and maps, are carefully chosen to draw the visitor in to the complexities of the genre. The textual dimension of the site is carefully balanced with the other media, and is insightful and concise, but at the same time does not shy away from the complexities of performance. The platform is especially effective in exploring the parameters of variation in performance, particularly in terms of the dynamic relationship between text and song, and the subtleties of performer style. I tried several routes through the material to see if I could isolate items of data in ways that became confusing, but the thoughtful planning of the site and of the categories of data (plus extensive annotation) ensured that saluang was always closely associated with important contextual information such as translation of the title, the composer (where known), place affiliation, and so on.

One important aspect of digital platforms is their potential for improving accessibility to a range of audiences. In this project, it is possible to engage with saluang at a relatively basic level, at the same time as being able to take a “deeper dive” into the complexities of saluang performance, engaging with micro-detail, or exploring numerous tangential perspectives on the material. Combined with the possibilities for different types of synthesis of the data, this also makes the project a flexible teaching tool. With this in mind, the author has suggested several topic-focused modules (chapter 6), which group materials together in effective ways. At present, some are more rounded out than others. The “Music and Gender” module has been fully developed, and is an interesting example of how teaching modules can be constructed from the available resources in engaging and highly informative ways.

Many scholars are frustrated by the ways in which some traditional formats for scholarship, and their distribution models, can limit the accessibility of their work to those operating outside academic environments. In this respect, the type of project under review is an example of open-access, public-facing scholarship. Leading on from this, it is worth mentioning that many researchers—particularly those who teach at undergraduate-oriented institutions, such as liberal arts colleges—are often faced with difficult decisions when developing research outputs: Do they address their scholarly communities, or their students, or other communities? The use of this kind of publishing platform with its ability to reach different audiences simultaneously introduces more flexibility and may even sidestep the necessity of making these kinds of limiting output choices.

As mentioned above, not every part of the current framework is fleshed out to the same degree. The visitor will occasionally encounter songs, performer profiles, and so on that are not yet documented to the same extent as others. Given the large amount of data, this is hardly surprising. It is also important to remember that the openness of the structure is one of its characteristics and strengths. This is not intended as a “closed” work of scholarship: the current form of Songs in the Sumatran Highlands is conceived of as the second of several stages of development. Fraser states that the next stage will involve the development of a parallel site in Indonesian. The completion of this next stage will realize more of the project’s decolonizing potential in engaging feedback from, collaboration with, and contributions from the performers, audiences, and other scholars of saluang in Indonesia.

While Fraser’s choice of Scalar as the platform for the site complements the nature of her material, it is important to note that there are other platforms that have different emphases and strengths, and that might suit other types of project better than Scalar. Some of these are open-source, others are not. Many offer similar features, but often with one component that is more centered than others, and that may prove to be critical to the presentation of the particular material at hand. Most platforms accommodate sound to some extent, but “sound first” projects might feel constrained by the dominance of text and visuals as gateways to sound on some of the more popular platforms. However, the situation is dynamic, and changing. Since I began a project a few months ago, a platform I am using has released a key sonic feature that addresses a frustration I had experienced with that particular format. Perhaps connected to many disciplines’ “sonic turns,” there appears to be an increasing awareness of sound’s capabilities and potential in platform building. There is also the important issue of sustainability. Will the platform still be here in ten years’ time? How, aside from contemporary popularity, is the platform being supported? These are important, somewhat open-ended questions to be considered in making decisions about the appropriate platform for a project.

In conclusion, Fraser is to be congratulated on a project that is an important contribution to Indonesian music scholarship, an archival and interpretative work on the flexibility and artistry of saluang performance. It is also a useful and adaptable model of an ethnomusicological “big data” engagement with the digital humanities. As someone who participated in conversations with the author about the potential of the medium at a very early stage in the project’s formation, I am excited to see these ideas come together in such a stimulating way, one that engages a range of audiences, at different levels, as well as demonstrating the potential to be a powerful teaching tool. The project offers insights into the ways in which digital platforms might be used to engage productively with ethnographically based sound projects, opening up forward-facing and potentially more inclusive models for the future.

1.

“Getting Oriented,” Song in the Sumatran Highlands, https://songinthesumatranhighlands.com/song-in-the-sumatran-highlands/introduction-to-the-project. The links cited in this review were accessed in April 2022.

2.

See, for example, Philip Yampolsky and Hanefi’s 2008 liner note supplement to Night Music of West Sumatra: Saluang, Rabab Pariaman, Dendang Pauah, vol. 6 of Music of Indonesia, Smithsonian Folkways SWF 40422, 1994, CD, available at http://media.smithsonianfolkways.org/liner_notes/smithsonian_folkways/SFW40422.pdf. An up-to-date summary of research in this area can be found in the “References” section of the site: https://songinthesuma tranhighlands.com/song-in-the-sumatran-highlands/references.

4.

Johanna Drucker, The Digital Humanities Coursebook: An Introduction to Digital Methods for Research and Scholarship (Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 2021), 1.

5.

See Thomas Turino, review of Sekuru’s Stories by Sekuru Tute Chigamba and Jennifer Kyker, this Journal 73, no. 2 (Summer 2020): 451–58.