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From Palm Leaves and Ariya to Oral Histories

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This review takes note of a brief assessment of the nature of the field of Southeast Asian studies, with particular attention given to Southeast Asian history. It then places a most welcome recent contribution of Hakan Lundstrom, a lead researcher and author of the Kammu Folklore Project within this context. Within the rich body of literature that has been produced by the field of Southeast Asian studies it is commonly perceived that there has been a ‘traditional’ approach to writing history that has favored, or at the very least given preference to the hard evidence of written documents, maps, and other physical sources. This has led to a justifiable fascination for topics such as the first evidence of the use of Sanskrit in Southeast Asia: the second to fourth century Vo Canh inscription (Vietnam) and the compilations (VN: biện soạn) of such ‘first histories’ as the Đại Việt Sử Ký Toàn Thư and the Sejarah Melayu and early Buddhist histories (such as the Jinakamali), written on palm leaves manuscripts.

On the other hand, scholars of the field have also long been fascinated by the mediation between literature and oral culture, touching on the importance of folk culture in history and semi-historical legend. Examples of this trend can be found in studies of the Malay Hikayat and the Cham Ariya, Akayet, and Dalikul as mediations between literate and oral culture, along with commentaries on the theoretically nature of historicization. Nevertheless, written versions of oral traditions have consistently served as a vessel of preservation (so long as literacy could also be preserved). In Nicholas Weber’s recent (2012) impressive contribution to The Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, he notes that despite the written form, the essence of the Ariya was in their performative aspect. Nevertheless, as Toshiko Shine (2009) has noted amongst the Cham and the Raglai populations, literacy was a symbolic marker that denoted ethnic differences between the two groups, combined with the role of elevation, despite the reality that individuals from both ethnicities are literate and live in a variety of geographies.

The role of orality and literacy was furthered explored on a regional scale by James Scott’s 2009 book: The Art of Not Being Governed (Yale University Press). While Scott’s argument has occassionally been ciritcized implying that non-literacy has been ‘chosen’ rather than imposed he does argue that oral traditions (VN: truyền khẩu) do offer certain advantages in their pliabiligy, maliability, and wider reach (Scott, 2009, 220-237). The debate between these two points becomes particularly important when applied to the case of Laos, where contemporary illiteracy is most often understood (quite accurately) as a condition that moves with poverty (the majority of the population lives off of less than $2/day). Education is Laos was additionally crippled by a legacy of uneven French colonial development, which put essentially no effort into the development of Laos when compared to Vietnamese and Khmer dominated lowland regions. Furthermore, the legacy of American militarism left Laos as the most bombed territory in world history, and left the countryside riddled with live explosives. It is within this context that I Will Send My Song makes a truly astounding series of contributions to the study of Southeast Asia, in particular in the field of history.

I Will Send My Song is perhaps most astounding for the field of Southeast Asian studies in that it breaks from a traditional methodology of area studies that has been best expressed through the words of Paul Mus who wrote that a scholar should “never confuse a book with a country,” i.e., that one needs to be ‘in country’ to do research. In many cases this approach has its obvious problems; a disconnect from historical, social, political context, language, and developments that occur on the ground can lead one to make statements that are quite damaging to the majority of the population. However, in this case Lundstrom makes a justification for this methodological move by stating that the political conditions created by fallout from American militarism put a hold on access. Furthermore, the entirety of the story behind the research rests on the fact that the focus of analysis is the oral repertoire of Kam Raw, a Kammu from northern Laos who immigrated to northern Europe as a result of the conflict. Therefore, through a detailed focus on Kam Raw’s oral repertoire Hakan Lundstrom offers a deep analysis that is certain to provoke discussion.

Kam Raw’s story begins with learning a number of traditional ‘teem,’ ‘trneem,’ and ‘hrlii,’ or various vocal genres respectively specific to conditions of feasting, orally transmitted poetry, and a genre used outside of feasting. These oral traditions were learned by Kam Raw when he was a boy in Laos. However, they became particularly important to him when he left Laos in 1974. It was through this experience that the experiences of Kam Raw became one of the major influences in the Kammu folklore project, which was founded in 1972. Perhaps the most impressive work of this center is the extreme effort that they have placed into the preservation of Kammu folklore, from deriving a system to transcribe the music and write the Kammu language (in both Lao and phonetic letters). Further impressive work has been done through the detailed translation, and presentation of several recordings and samples of Kammu folk lore, included in a CD, which come free with the book.

Criticism mounted from this volume could most likely focus upon the detailed work of explanation and transliteration, which, for students and researchers who are not familiar with linguistic analysis, could prove quite difficult to read. However, this makes I Will Send My Song even more worthy a contribution to the field of Southeast Asian studies, as it could be used in any classroom to broaden the disciplinary approach. Additionally, the CD included in the volume makes for an excellent listening experience that includes haunting, playful, invigorating, and instructive tracks of Kam Raw’s vocal repertoire. All told, this book represents a distinct contribution to the study of Southeast Asian history and culture as a whole as it broadens the understanding of the field.

 

Resources

Brereton, B.P. and Yencheuy, S. (2010) Buddhist Murals of Northeast Thailand: Reflection of the Isan Heartland. Chaingmai, Thailand: Mekong Press

Geusau, L.A.v. (2000) ‘Akha Internal History: Marginalization and the Ethnic Alliance System’ in Civility and Savagery: the Differentiation of Peoples within the Tai Speaking Polities, ed. Andrew Turton. Curzon Press. 122-153

Penth, Hans. (1994) Jinakalamali Index. Chiang Mai, Thailand: Silkworm Books, The Pali Text Society.

---. ‘A Note on the History of Wat Umong Thera Jan (Chiang Mai)’ in Journal of the Siam Society (JSS). 62 (2) July, 1974 (Reprinted 1987)

Scott, J. (2009) The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Shine, Toshiko. ‘The Symbolic Roll of Literacy as a Standard to Distinguish the Raglai from the Cham’ in Senri Ethnological Studies 72. 2009. 129-72

Weber, N. ‘The destruction and Assimilation of Campa: 1832-5 as seen from Cam Sources’ in Jounral of Southeast Asian Studies (43) 1, 158-180. February 2012.

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