Encountering Spirits: Trance and Spirit Possession in the Performing Arts of Contemporary Southeast Asia
Time & LocationSession 8
Thu 15:30–17:00 Room 1.204
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- “Cek Cek Gong, Cek Cek Gong.” Sounds for the Spirits, Sounds for the People: Musical Eclecticism and New Social Aspects of the Contemporary Horse Trance Dance in East Java Ilaria Meloni Sapienza University of Rome
In the contemporary Java, horse trance dances seem to have become one of the most popular entertainment and gathering occasions for local communities. Known under the name of kuda kepang (“bamboo horse”) or kuda lumping (“leather horse”), they appear in different forms throughout the Javanese island, from the ebèg in Banyumas to the jathilan in central Java, to the East Javanese jaranan. The different local forms share some features and, at the same time, distinguish from each other including several specific elements which enhance the local identity and the so called “regional style”, a concept inherited from the Orde Baru era.
The East Javanese form, known as jaranan, results to be one of the most scarcely investigated among the hobby-trance dances forms in Indonesia and Southeast Asia. Not much can be found about jaranan, excepts for the work of V. M. C. van Groenendael (2008) who has provided a wide investigation of the historical, performative, ritual and choreutic aspects. Though, what concerns the analysis of the musical repertoires still needs further attention, especially in its developments across the decades, parallel to important socio-political and economical changes.
In fact, amongst other relevant elements (language, costumes, performative context, dance genres) the music cover an important role, which have undergone dramatic transformation in the current days (jaman now), enhancing more and more the social function (especially as expression of a strong sense of community and pride for the magnificence of the local performing arts) and the importance of the entertainment, to the detriment of the more proper ritual aspect. While, in the past (jaman dulu), music was essentially instrumental – played by small itinerant ensembles – and mainly focused on the local repertoires, having the specific function to help the induction of the trance, the contemporary scenery looks rather heterogeneous and manifold. Beside the instrumental and traditional pieces, new popular and hybrid genres constitute now an essential part of the performance and the insertion of the female singers have determined a significant open to new musical possibilities and to the spectacularity.
Through several examples recorded in the area of Nganjuk (Kertosono district, East Java, 2017-2018), this paper investigates the current way in which music is conceived to be used in horse trance dance performances, serving both the ritual function – thence accomplishing “the spirits requests” – and the purpose of entertainment – fulfilling the contemporary audience demand. This way, music encounters both the tradition and the needs to the local administrations in promoting the local arts to create a strong sense of group cohesion of the community, demonstrating its importance as a mean of innovation and as a mirror of the changing society.
- Efficacy and Authenticity in Cambodian Spirit Possession Rituals Paul Christensen University of Göttingen
The practice of spirit mediumship in contemporary Cambodia is remarkably dynamic and heterogeneous. Over the last two decades the absence of societal critique, and the perceived appeal of the practice, have led to an increase in the popularity of spirit possession rituals. Many Cambodians find this ‘Brahmanist’ practice appealing because they feel their offerings produce more immediate benefits than in Buddhist merit-making. Nevertheless, Buddhism remains an important reference to compensate moral ambiguity of the Brahmanist rituals.
This paper focuses on the religious negotiations that spirit mediums engage in during their possession performances. Unlike similar ritual specialists elsewhere in Southeast Asia, Cambodian mediums expend hardly any effort in affirming the authenticity of the spirits that they channel. Rather, their ability to convincingly grant their clients access to spiritual forces depends on how successfully they present themselves as both Buddhist and Brahmanist. By presenting examples of how these negotiations play out during possession performances, I provide an account of the dynamic and heterogeneous character of ‘Brahmanist’ practice and the manner in which idioms of efficacy and authenticity are produced in Cambodian ritual contexts.
- Eling Eling Wong Eling Jokowi Maning: Rethinking Ebèg “Folk Drama” and its Current Musical and Socio-Political Implications in Banyumas, Central Java Daniele Zappatore La Sapienza University of Rome
In Banyumas district – a culturally hybrid area situated on the border between West and Central Java regions – the term ebèg designate a peculiar kind of ‘folk drama’, known elsewhere in Java as djarn kèpang, kuda lumping, jathilan or jaranan. While sharing several traits with other Javanese performing practices somehow linked to trance phenomena, the ebèg banyumasan has its own exclusive features, especially in: the musical accompaniment; the behavior of the possessed dancers and its social functions within diverse performative contexts.
Its specific attributes make the ebèg an interesting case study for a comparative and cross-disciplinary analysis, which could take into account anthropological, musicological and psychological approaches. Since the 1970s, a significant amount of studies has been devoted to investigate the interactions between music, context and individual consciousness. The wide scientific production provided authoritative reference points and formed strong theoretical background, enlightening the way for further research and analysis. Regarding, specifically, the Javanese area, a mention should be made of the outstanding work by M. Kartomi (1973) which offers a general overview of the èbeg hobby-horse trance dance, focusing on some musical, dramatic and symbolic features.
However, there are still many aspects that need a further investigation, especially for what concerns the processes of transformation undergone by this practice in the last decades, involving its economical and socio-cultural implications. In order to deepen these issues, in this paper I focus on a gigantic ebèg – involving almost 200 dancers – that took place at GOR Satria Purwokerto (the major stadium of Banyumas, located in the capital city of the regency) on the 13th of April 2018, few days before Indonesian presidential elections. The event, that I had the chance to attend, was sponsored by a local businessman aimed to support the political campaign for the president Joko Widodo. I have documented the preparation, the musical and choreutic development and a significant number of trance phenomena among the dancers and the audience. Despite this colossal ebèg represents a one-off event, it undoubtedly constitutes a remarkable case-study to discuss the role of the music (and, more generally, of the performing arts) in conveying socio-political instances and to reconsider the multi-faceted nature of practices that, while preserving their ritual foundations, are becoming, nowadays, increasingly blurred and more and more linked to a function of mere entertainment.
- Jathilan Dance in Comparative Perspective: Javanese Trance Performance, Spirit Possession Theories and Other Local Possession Beliefs and Practices Eva Rapoport École Pratique des Hautes Études
Jathilan is one of the names for traditional Javanese trance performance combining dance, music and altered states of consciousness. It is commonly described as a ‘horse dance’ for the horse effigies made of woven bamboo are the hallmark props used by the performers. Trance constitutes the main attraction of the show, though through the lens of local beliefs it is interpreted in terms of spirit possession: it is assumed that spirits enter the dancers’ bodies and make them capable of demonstrating various feats based on invulnerability to physical harm and pain. Such performances are extremely popular amongst the villagers and lower-income urbanites, and serve as an essential part of many traditional communal celebrations (such as marriages, circumcisions, village purification ceremonies). Horse dances are widespread all over the island of Java (jathilan is precisely the name used in the Special Region of Yogyakarta and some of the neighboring regencies, in other areas it can be called kuda kepang, kuda lumping, jaranan, jaran kepang, ebeg, etc.), but as well can be found almost in any area where Javanese immigrants are present—on other Indonesian islands, in neighboring Singapore and Malaysia, even in South American Suriname. Jathilan is a part of pre-Islamic Javanese culture, while spirit possession is in obvious contradiction with orthodox forms of Islam. The exact origins of the horse dances remain quite unclear (the first mentions of the dance in written sources date back to 19th century and numerous accounts from early 20th century describe the performances not too different from the ones that can be observed nowadays), but what makes them exactly remarkable is the persistence of the practice despite all the possible challenges and ideological contradictions.
Besides numerous publications providing descriptions of the dance and its mentions in many more general accounts on Javanese culture (Geertz, Koentjaraningrat, Pigeaud, etc.), horse trance dances are rarely put in a broader context of Javanese spirit and spirit possession beliefs and practices and seem to have never been analyzed in a comparative perspective of spirit possession theories based on the accounts of its occurrence the world over. The purpose of this presentation is to attempt to fill this gap and consider Javanese trance in the framework of now-classical theories to approach trance and spirit possession (such as those proposed by Erika Bourguignon, Gilbert Rouget, I.M.Lewis, etc.) as well as some from more contemporary authors, and also to discuss a wider variety of possession and trance that are not uncommon for Javanese performing arts, rituals and magic practices.
Said approach is hoped to allow for the deeper understanding of particular practice in question, provide some catalogue of possession and trance occurrences in the culture it is a part of, and even offer a version of a general framework for approaching phenomena of spirit possession in any other cultural milieu.
Spirit encounters constitute an essential part of many performing arts throughout Southeast Asia. Various forms of trance, shamanism, spirit possession, mediumship, altered states of consciousness, ecstatic and transcendent states are deeply intertwined with local cultures and everyday life of local communities: while some of these forms are still embedded in traditional, religious and ritual milieu, other appear to belong to a more globalized context and to be closely connected to the political, economic and social trends of the current century. In fact, practices of spirit encounters, despite their archaic roots, do not remain frozen in time but adapt to the changes in action in their diverse environments. The ongoing scholarly interest in this field produced important contributions; however, the amount of studies emerged in recent years is still incomparable to the wide variety of phenomena to be found in the region.
This panel intends to discuss new challenges and responses and to explore different practices through inter- and multidisciplinary approaches (including, but not limited to, performing arts studies, ethnomusicology and ethnocoreology, religious studies, cultural anthropology and cultural studies) in a geographical comparative perspective, investigating diverse aspects of the phenomena throughout Mainland and Insular Southeast Asia. More specifically: Indonesia, Cambodia and Myanmar.
We are proposing new insights and innovative multiple approaches discussed by scholars from different countries – including Italy, United Kingdom, Russia and Germany, in order to encourage the interdisciplinary and intercultural exchange.