One of the main focal points of my research here in Yogyakarta is to explore the identity of Javanese children. I am analyzing if and how music reflects their identity already, and if Indonesian and Javanese culture allows for children to express their identity creatively. With the children in Kelompok Kecil and Kelompok Besar at SDKE Mangunan, I held workshops over the span of a few weeks discussing the concept of identity, writing lyrics based on the children’s ideas of their own identities, making new songs in small groups, and finally recording these songs for an informal album.
The concept of identity is a common topic of discourse in anthropology and ethnomusicology. However, the purpose of my presenting this theme to the children was not entirely to fuel further discourse, but also to inspire the children to consider their own. This research project lends itself to uncover the most important information when the children are creatively empowered and are the creators of their own lyrics and music. What do they say? How do they say it? What are similarities and differences between boys and girls and the different age groups? These questions were all addressed during this unit and resulted in some very exciting song recordings that illustrate each child’s social and individual identity.
In his book, Music as Social Life: The Politics of Participation (2008), Thomas Turino discusses how the expression of what one chooses to describe within the context of identity tells us about social identity itself. Identity is constructed based on common habits that develop naturally through socialization. Individually, people select which aspects of their own personal identity to highlight based on the context at hand, choosing also what aspects to leave out. “We choose to foreground certain aspects of ourselves (occupation, color, religion, gender, age) for self-presentation, or have those aspects chosen for us, depending on what is socially important in a given context and within the society at large” (103, my italics). Identity is dictated as much by a person’s society as their own interests of how they want to be perceived within that society. Turino continues to explain the role of art when used to express identity: “…we expect the authentic representation of a given social group or cultural position in art to have been directly affected by membership and experiences in that group or position” (107). Art that characterizes social or cultural habits authenticates the artist’s identity, in that he or she has selected certain aspects that have been narrowed down from socially valued to individually chosen (for whatever purpose). This is the frame in which I am analyzing the children’s songs.
I introduced the theme of identity with a character that we could recognize as a cross-cultural reference: Nickelodeon’s SpongeBob SquarePants. With both the older and younger student groups, we discussed characteristics of his identity. I wrote a few examples for the children to understand, and they continued: he is yellow; he is a cook; he likes to help people; he is good at singing; etc. I then passed out a worksheet with the following questions: What does identity mean to you? Is identity important? How can you express your identity? And finally, I asked each child to write ten things that describe their own identity. As expected, this was a difficult concept for the younger students (grades two, three, four) to understand. Some were excused from answering the first three questions, but most had no trouble at all when they came to list points of their identities.
During the next workshops, the children wrote song lyrics based on these lists. For the younger children, I asked that they chose the four most important to come up with a four-line verse. I worked with each child individually to check that their lyrics had an appropriate number of syllables per line. If lines were too short or too long, I would help them chose which words to cut out, change, or add to fit the model. With the older children, song lyrics could hold as many or as few ideas as they chose. It was much easier for them to edit their ideas to write verses that fit the same syllabic model, and they re-wrote and re-worked lyrics throughout the song-writing process (whereas the younger children did not in later song-writing stages).
Following the same composition process from Kelompok Besar (discussed in my previous blog post), the children experimented with melodies by singing their new lyrics. Interestingly enough, three groups (of three children) came up with very similar melodies, but each was just different enough to make the songs distinct. For example, the older girls’ group sang their lyrics slightly slower, and rearranged the notes (using sporadic higher tones) to slightly alter the melody. Two other groups of three, both with the youngest girls in the program, implemented completely different melodies. However, one of these groups had great difficulty maintaining tempo and singing the “proper” melody as practiced.
As for the lyrics, the content provides insight into what each group values. These values vary between ages, and between boys and girls. One group of three second grade girls wrote their song, “Liwana Song,” about playing with dolls, singing, drawing and dancing, cooking rice, and that they like flowers. The second group of second grade girls entitled their song in a similar vein, “Egpriyu Identitas Song” (both groups took the first letters of each of the girls’ names). This group also wrote that they like dolls and dancing, but included where they lived, “I like to help Mama,” and “I am Javanese.” The younger boys, all fourth graders, on the other hand wrote more about sports, namely soccer, bike-riding, and flying kites, in their song “Suka Belajar” (“I Like to Learn”). This group also included two lines about playing music and eating fish. The other boys group, from fifth grade, included a bit more variety in their song “Activitas Kesukaan Kami” (“Activities We Like”), which was indeed oriented toward the topic of activities. They wrote that they like music and dance, playing computer games and PlayStation, eating, playing soccer, and that they go to SD Mangunan. Finally, the older girls, all in sixth grade, wrote lyrics based further on the social aspects of the activities they enjoy in their song, “Mendengarkan Music” (“Listen to Music”). They wrote they like to play and listen to music, play games, swim, joke, help, and learn all with friends, as well as read and draw.
It is interesting to point out how the groups decided to arrange and record their songs. All three groups of the younger children chose to sing the own verses individually and without instrumentation. The younger boys’ group attempted to play while singing, but had great difficulty in doing both at the same time and in transitioning between singers. Both of the older groups decided to choose a single vocalist to sing all three verses, maintaining the narrative as if the singer wrote all the lyrics. In both older groups, the other two performers provided instrumentation (except in the boys’ group, Joko provided his rendition of back-up vocals, mostly for their own amusement but he did sound mature in his comedic timing). For a unit based on identity, the song-crafting and -performing process was very much a collaborative effort in the older groups. In the end, my hope is that the children will be proud of their compositions when the CD is finished. A few parents have already expressed their enthusiasm and support of the children practicing music and writing their own songs. It is very exciting to have the encouragement of the community, and I hope this will later help in sustaining the program after I have left Yogyakarta.