Composer for Every Country: Vietnam

When it comes to the US’s image of Vietnam, it should be no surprise the Vietnam War looms large. Granted, it’s usually from the perspective of US troops: Apocalypse Now, Platoon, Rambo, uh… Forrest Gump… King of the Hill... Little to nothing is said of the cultural and historical divide between North and South Vietnam, much less the country’s long history and longer pre-history. As usual in this blog, there’s a bit too much to say, so let's get what we can.

Humans have been in the area since the Paleolithic (Homo erectus) and evidence of Homo sapiens dates back to the Middle Pleistocene. A village in North Vietnam, Đông Sơn, gives its name to the first large culture of Vietnam starting around 1000BC with the rise of wet rice farming. Our understandings of this culture come mainly from Đông Sơn drums, bronze drums decorated with various images depicting a sea-faring people. These groups of people were consolidated into one kingdom, called Âu Lạc, by Thục Phán in 257 BC, but the kingdom was short-lived. The Chinese general, Zhao Tuo, conquered Âu Lạc in 179 BC and the region would be incorporated into Han Dynasty China for the next 1,000 years.

Ngô Quyền achieves independence from China in AD 938, and the next 800 years sees the incorporation of Mahayana Buddhism, the repulsion of three (!) Mongol invasions, a gradual Southward expansion called Nam tiến, or “Southward March,” over the course of which Vietnam would take the shape we know today. Tensions between North and South Vietnam broke into civil war during the 1600’s, a conflict lasting over 40 years. Violence in the area was exacerbated by the arrival of Europeans in the 1500’s, bringing with them colonial interests and Christianity. Religion would be a point of much strife, and France would eventually bring the entire country under their rule by 1884. Resistance to French sovereignty would be constant until Vietnamese independence after World War II.

Artistically, Vietnam draws from three main sources - native Viet culture, Chinese, and French. Traditional arts include a variety of stone and wood sculpture, porcelain and ceramics, and silk screen paintings. From the French were introduced plein air painting, the use of oils, and European style drawing. Musically, there are a number of traditional genres: nhã nhạc, the music of the royal court; Hát xẩm, a style of folk singing from North Vietnam; Ca trù, a story-telling song genre usually performed by women; Hò, a folk style from the south (sorry, can't seem to find an example... probably the term itself is too broad); and many, many others. In current times, pop music reigns supreme, with V-Pop being especially influenced by K-Pop (Korean pop).

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Today’s composer is Phạm Thị Huệ (b. 1973). Self-taught in music from a young age, she went to Hanoi Music Academy at the age of 8 to study the đàn tỳ bà. She studied traditional Vietnamese music from 1992-97 with musicologist Bui rong Hien, and composition with modernist composer Tran Trong Hung from 96-96. Currently, she performs ca trù, teaches at the Hanoi Conservatory of Music, and runs the Ca Trù Thang Long Club, a group devoted to the learning, performance, and preservation of ca trù. She also has an album, Ca trù Singing House, released in 2011. The song linked below is Thét nhạc, the first track from that album.

Composer for Every Country: Gabon

I want to start today with a note about history. Finding any kind of pre-colonial history of sub-Saharan African is… usually difficult. It would be false to say there is no writing at all before the colonial era. Several regions developed their own scripts: Berber languages are written in Tifinagh, developed in about 300BCE; Ge’ez developed in the 8-9th centuries BCE and is used by languages in the Horn of Africa. There are a variety of other native scripts and pseudo-syllabaries, and Arabic script was spread by Islam into the Sahel during Medieval Africa, often changed and adapted to suit local languages.

Nevertheless, it is not an exaggeration to say that most of the cultures in Africa were illiterate. That means that the means by which these cultures understood themselves is through different kinds of oral histories and, well… lets say there’s a bias against such things as being considered “history.” The whats and wherefores of such are way beyond the scope of a little blog like this, but I bring it up because, for a multitude of reasons, there is even less information about pre-colonial Gabon than other Sub-Saharan countries I’ve written about so far. I suspect this lack of credence given to oral history, as well as certain ethical problems that arise when recording the stories of an illiterate culture in writing, is behind this general lack of information.

What can be said is this: the Babongo were the first to settle the area, although my searches have not turned up a date range for their appearance. They were slowly pushed out and marginalized by the Bantu migrations, from 3000BC-500AD and again from the 11th-17th centuries AD. Culturally, the Babongo are known for their animist religion Bwiti, in which the forest is shared by a spirit, Macoi, which is ambivalent to the existence of humans and must be appeased at every turn. Among their rituals is the use of Iboga, a plant with powerful hallucinogenic and dissociative properties when eaten. The list of adverse side-effects is rather long, but the same could be said of many prescription drugs approved by the FDA.

The probable majority Bantu culture of the area is the Fang. We encountered them before, but one thing that I overlooked is the use of masks for various purposes. One example is the ngil mask, used by the Ngil Association in the 19th-century. They acted as mediators and sorcerers, protecting people from poisons or punishing wrong-doers. In addition, Bwiti has merged in some ways with Christianity, becoming a more syncretic religion. Along with Christianity and Islam, Bwiti is one of the official religions of Gabon.

As far as music, again I am presented with a distinct lack of information. There’s not much music industry to speak of, although radio stations like Africa no.1 and Studio Mademba play a big role in disseminating music across the country. 

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Today’s composer is Pierre Akendengué (b.1943). Currently serving as cultural advisor for Gabon, he started with studies in psychology at the University of Caen in France. Encouraged by French musician/actor Mireille Hartuch, he turned to music and released his first album, Nandipo, in 1973. The songs are in both French and Nkomi. Later in life, he turned to the study of religious music, but Catholic (plainchant) and religions of the Nkomi. He currently has released 21 albums. The linked track, Oyangayanga, is from his 2009 album, Vérité d'Afrique.

Composer for Every Country: Equatorial Guinea

Reading the colonial history of Equatorial Guinea's island, Bioko, is a little bit like that skit in Monty Python's Quest for the Holy Grail where the dude is recounting his attempts to build a castle in a swamp. Successive centuries of colonial failures largely left the island untouched by either plantations or slavery until the mid-18th century. Europe's first contact with the island was made by the Portuguese explorer Fernando Pó in 1472 and, like any self-respecting colonial power would do, the Portuguese immediately set about trying to figure out how to make money off of it. They settled colonies in 1474, and by 1507 were attempting to farm sugarcane on the island, emphasis on "attempting." Between the local Bubi tribes putting up stiff resistance and diseases including (but not limited to) smallpox, yellow fever, and African trypanosomiasis (see: tsetse flies), this attempt marked the first castle falling into the swamp.

Another attempt wouldn't be made until after 1778, when the Portuguese gave up on the island and handed it to Spain in the Treaty of El Pardo. Spain picked Brigadier Felipe José to set up the second castle that would fall in the swamp. In this case, he didn't last long, dying of fever pretty much the day of arrival, along with a whopping 80% of the crew. Naturally, they mutinied and left for São Tomé where they were imprisoned by the Portuguese. The mortality rate was too high for Spain's taste, and they left the island as a stopping point for slave ships for a good while (note: the Bubi were still fighting strong at this point, and not really subject to slaving themselves).

It wouldn't be for another hundred years until somebody had the bright idea to move the administration of the island away from the disease filled coasts and up to the highlands where, much to everybody's surprise, people didn't die of fever every five days. Granted, this wasn't as much an improved standard of living as it was an improved standard of not-dying. Ethnographer and explorer Mary Kingsley said the island was "a more uncomfortable form of execution" for people sent there. Not really a glowing recommendation. In any case, this marked a turning point for the island and it didn't take long for cocoa to be established as a key crop for export.

Most of the history reading I was able to find focused on Bioko, but just at the last minute, I did come across a fantastically detailed article Adriana Chira, Assistant Professor at Emory University, who wrote an excellent summary of the entire country: Currently, Equatorial Guinea is listed as on the the worst of the worst countries in the world by measures of political freedom. The country is rife with corruption made worse by an oil boom in the 1990's, resulting in extreme wealth inequality. The current president, Teodoro Obiang, is busy building a cult of personality around himself, but might still be considered a step up from his uncle, Macias Nguema, who claimed to be a sorcerer and collected human skulls. You know, as you do.

Culturally, the mainland is a thin layer of Spanish plastered over a number of Bantu speaking tribes, primarily the Fang. They are known in the art world for their wooden reliquary figures, and also for their religious ceremonies involving puppet theater. One artist who reached international fame was Don Leandro Mbomio Nsue whose sculptures are heavily influenced by Fang art. Music and dance are tied at the hip, with the balélé coming from Bubi and the ibanga from the Fang. The primary melodic instrument is a kind of harp called the mvet, whose main proponent was a man named Ekong Eyi Mone. There's not much of a music industry in Equatorial Guinea, and many of the musicians who want to make a name for themselves have had to travel elsewhere, usually to Spain.

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Speaking of musicians who expatriated to Spain, today's composer is the travador urbano, Barón Ya Búk-Lu (b.1967). An Equatoguinean of Fang heritage, Mr. Búk-Lu (I assume that's an appropriate title? Maybe "Ya" is already a title. Quick! Somebody get angry at me on the internet so I can stand corrected!) is a singer, actor, activist, and is also a producer. That last job title was out of necessity. After immigrating to Spain, Búk-Lu found it difficult to attract the interest of record labels, who found his music either "too African," or "not African enough," or that he was singing in the wrong language (spoilers: there was no right language for him to sing in). In addition to self-producing his three records, Ya Búk-Lu is the driving force behind the Festival Africanos en Leganés, a music festival featuring African artists and various fusions of local Spanish styles. The link is to the title track of his third album, Fangolosofia.

Composer for Every Country: Philippines

Modern humans have been around the Philippines for quite a long time. The oldest human remains yet found are those of the Tabon Man, dating to, oh, 47,000 years ago, give or take 10,000. Seems like… Well, I don’t want to presume, but it seems like that margin of error doesn’t make for great betting odds, but it’s the best we’ve got right now. While the first humans arrived via long-submerged landmasses, another strong wave of humans, the Austronesians, arrived by boat and established trade between the islands and along the coast of East Asia. Sea-faring trade would be a staple of the islands basically its entire existence from this point onwards.

As far as historical records go, there’s the Laguna Copperplate, dating to 900AD, which exists as an assurance that the debts of one Honorable Namwaran have been paid. Found in 1989, the plate was deciphered in 1992, and I can only imagine the excitement in the room when it was revealed the artifact was, in fact, an 1100 year old receipt. Not to say it lacks historical import! It is written in Old Malay, and its date marks it as contemporaneous with the Tando settlement and Javanese Medang Kingdom.

Unlike Indonesia, there were no overarching empires that united the islands under one polity. Various Indian cultural influences spread from the Indonesian Majapahit Empire during the 10th-century AD, while Islam came rather later, in the 15th century. Until Ferdinand Magellan arrived in 1565, the Philippines were home to a multitude of cultures and political units centered around various trade cities like Maynila, Tondo, Namayan, and many others. These operated in city-state-like organizations called barangay. Or maybe the city-states are formed of alliances between barangay? It’s a little unclear to me. In any case, there was no central bureaucratic state to speak of.

So then, Magellan shows up, asks who is in charge, and, I assume, receives an answer not unlike King Arthur got from Dennis, the Peasant. He then gets himself killed at the Battle of Mactan, which granted the islands only a temporary reprieve before Spain successfully conquered the area in the 1570’s. Spain would rule the islands as colonies until 1899, when the Philippines established the First Philippine Republic, only to become a colony pretty much immediately when Spain loses the Spanish-American War, and America, being the pro-democracy country it is, went “Yeah, no.” 

Thus, I imagine Filipine attitudes towards the US could only be described as “complicated” when American soldiers began liberating the islands from the Japanese Empire. Estimates say nearly a million Filipinos were killed during WWII, which included both combat and war atrocities like the Bataan Death March and the Manila Massacre. In the end, the US recognized the Philippines as an independent state in 1946 after the war.

Musically, there are two sides to the Philippines: indiginous music, and Spanish. Also, some American music. One of the more surreal moments in my listening this week was a Filipine choir singing an American folk-tune, “Louisiana.” It was great, but… unexpected. The indiginous music is predominantly played by gong ensembles called kulintang. Exact practices vary by region. From Spain came the tradition known as the rondalla, usually made up of a banduria, guitar, double-bass, and some kind of drum. It might also include accordion or violin. Of massive popularity is P-Pop (Pinoy-Pop, of Philippine-Pop) which is largely composed of sentimental pop ballads. I can’t say I’m personally a fan, but it might be up your alley. Popular styles of American origin are also widespread, especially rock and hip-hop.

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The composer today is Lucrecia Roces Kasilag (1918-2008). Growing up in Paco, Manila, Ms. Kasilag was a pianist and composer, although her performing career was cut short by a congenital weakness in one hand. Her musical education ranged from the Philippine Women’s University to Eastman School of Music, and her compositions typically blend elements of Filipino culture with European concert music. Ms. Kasilag was also deeply involved with Philippine cultural preservation, helping found both the Bayanihan Folks Arts Center and the Bayanihan Philippine Dance Company.

Linked below is her Toccata for Percussion and Winds, which uses percussion from both the Philippines and Europe in its orchestration.

Composer for Every Country: Malaysia

Reading the etymology of "Malaysia" on Wikipedia, I'm not sure I've ever seen so many words used to say "we dunno." The country's name is a combination of "Malay," which is the name of the majority ethnicity, and the suffix "-sia," meaning "land." So, "Malay Land." Ok, so far so good. But whence Malay? Well, could be Sanskrit. Could be Javanese. Could be Tamil. Regardless, by the time Europe found them, the locals called the Malaysian peninsula "Tanah Melayu," or... "Malay Land." Seems humans are human when it comes to naming conventions, after all. (Can I take an aside here and suggest that Disney Land was so named because they were attempting to create their own country? It seems like there's a lot of countries whose names come out to "something-or-other land," is all I'm saying.)

Human habitation of the Malay peninsula is old, going back 40,000 years or so. There are a few different indigenous peoples, locally grouped as Orang Asil, which include the Semang, the Lanoh, the Jahai, and a number of others. Most of the tribes are part of a larger group labelled "Negritos." Wait... Really? That's what we're going with? Sigh... ok. These tribes are in danger of extinction. In at least one case, the Jahai, study of their language has helped explore elements of human perception, specifically, smell. Their religion includes supernatural forces called "Karei," which can be attracted or repelled with various odors. Their language includes a rich vocabulary or scent words, and they consistently show superior ability to identify specific scents. One must assume this ability comes in handy for hunter-gatherer lifestyles.

Located at a crossroads area on mainland Asia, Malaysia is demographically diverse, with the Malay ethnicity being the majority, and substantial minority populations of Chinese and Indian (specifically, Tamil) groups. The culture is strongly influences by two of the kingdoms discussed in my blog on Indonesia: the Buddhist Srivijaya Kingdom, and the Hindustani Majapahit Kingdom. More particular to the Malaysian peninsula was the Malacca Sultanate, founded by Parameswara in 1400 (by tradition). Who was he? Well, he was a King of Singapore for a time, although whether legitimately or by usurpation depends on who you ask. The local account of the Malacca Sultanate is written in the Sejarah Melayu, or "The Malay Annals." The kingdom lasted until 1511, when the Portuguese took the capital, and it was during that century that the Malaysian people began converting to Islam.

With the Indonesia blog, I didn't quite have space to get into a particularly terrible time for Southeast Asia's modern history: the Japanese occupation. For whatever reason, the Japanese during World War II exhibited appallingly brutal behavior pretty much wherever they went. As a person with relatively close Japanese ancestry (my maternal grand-mother), the Pacific Theater of World War II is a point of great ambivalence in my head-space. But we don't overcome history by ignoring it. The Japanese occupation of Malaysia affected everybody, especially Chinese, whose resistance efforts are largely forgotten in the popular understandings of local history. 

On to more pleasant topics: music in the country is so diverse it defies generalization, but like Indonesia, music and dance are intimately related. Instruments come from all manner of geographic locations, and although percussion ensembles form the backbone of much Malaysian music (including the two-headed gendang, a tambourine-like instrument called kompang, a variety gongs, xylophones...) other a huge variety of other instruments are prominent as well. These include instruments from Persia (the rebab), India (the serunai), Europe (the violin and accordion), and China (full Chinese orchestras are not uncommon). There are more genres than I can go over in this space, but many of them are still living traditions, ranging from the ghazal, an Arabic poetry of strict form, to dondang sayang, a song form with two singers alternating verses, and a whole litany of dance forms, like dikir barat, performed by seated dancers, or nobat, or mak yong, or... 

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My composer for today is Valerie Ross (b.1958). Biographical information is rather scarce. She was born in Kuala Lampur, and attended University of London for a Bachelor's Degree in Music, University of Australia for a Master's in Education and a Doctorate in Philosophy. Her music explores the varieties of cultural elements inherent to Malaysia and her global travels, and she has a particular interest in electronic music. Among her projects is MuSIT, short for "Music for Sensory Integration Therapy," in which she collaborated with occupational therapists. The music was written "to enhance neurological processing based on sensory integration, a theory of brain-behavior relationships developed by Jean Ayers." The composition linked below is her work "Sixty-Three Dimensions," premiered by the Frahm-Lewis Trio.