In 2015 a video of a child in an Internet café in the Philippines began to trend on social media sites. Titled, Kanta ng isang Anak para sa kanyang inang OFW “Blank Space“ (“Song of a child for her overseas foreign worker mother”), the video shows a girl singing via Skype to her mother who is working in an unnamed location, presumably outside of the Philippines. “Ma kakantahan ulit kita ha?” (I’ll sing for you again mom), she says, and starts singing Taylor Swift’s “Blank Space”. Her mother attentively watches and listens to her song, soon beginning to cry in longing for a daughter she has not seen in a long time. The girl’s attention is divided between the screen that shows the lyrics, the camera that films her singing, and her mother who quietly observes. This video has over 110,000 views and is one of many archived messages from a child singing or speaking to their mother who labours transnationally. Despite the videos’ jittery framing and low quality, the intended message of shared longing across cyber and transnational borders is clear.
The Spanish-American war (1899-1902) resulted in the relinquishment of the colony of the Philippines from Spain to the United States. This transfer of power instituted the imperial specter that continues to grip the archipelago. The many performances of American pop music on Youtube and on stages throughout the Philippines are what Christine Bacareza Balance calls the “musical aftermath of US imperial cultures” (2016). Having amassed over 97 million YouTube views in the Philippines, Taylor Swift’s overwhelming popularity is evidence of this continued imperial presence. In the video, the young Filipinx girl sings lyrics written by Swift: “I’m dying to see how this one ends. Grab your passport and my hand.” When sung by this child these lyrics take on different meaning than Swift likely intended. Perhaps she is anticipating an end to the necessity of separation between mother and daughter.
Using song, the video provides evidence of what Hannah Dyer calls the ‘asymmetries of childhood innocence’ (2019), reminding its audience of the ways transnational labour and global capital impact children’s experiences of kinship and development. Dyer suggests that some children are withheld the protective hold of childhood innocence. She writes:
“Childhood innocence is a seemingly natural condition but its rhetorical maneuvers are permeated by its elisions and attempted disavowals along the lines of race, class, gender and sexuality. That is, despite the familiar rhetorical insistence that children are the future, some children are withheld the benefits of being assumed inculpable (2)”
Ascriptions of childhood innocence thus require a child to replicate social norms including the production of the nuclear family. In the Philippines, where the liberalization of international trade and high levels of unemployment have disproportionately impacted the labour migration of women, structures of the nuclear family are being re-organized (Parreñas 2005; Tungohan 2013). Women who work outside of the Philippines and away from their families are paradoxically celebrated for their “sacrifice” while also subject to disapproval over their absence (Tungohan 2013). When mothers leave the Philippines, the care-arrangements for children are shifted. There is a growing recognition of the changing nature of motherhood within transnational contexts and the concomitant emotional consequences of negotiating “long distance intimacy” (Parreñas 2005). The demands for transnational labour reconfigure Filipinx family formations and necessitate fraught intimacies between parent and child across borders. Cyber technologies like cell phones and the Internet initiate creative opportunities for children to be “virtually present” in the lives of their mothers and vice versa.
Drawing from Dyer, we might think of children who live without the physical presence of their mothers as “queer” to normative theories of childhood development that affirm overwrought expectations of maternal presence. She suggests that discourses of childhood innocence intend to subjugate the queerness of childhood and that these elisions hold bio-political significance. Faced with social inequities, Dyer emphasizes the importance of a child’s symbolic expression. She argues that children express their psychic and social conflicts aesthetically. A child’s imagination elaborates resistances to the enclosure of childhood innocence as a barometer of value. In this way, this article suggests a child’s singing and dancing are aesthetic expressions that take notice of the entangled traces of colonialism and nation, while resisting hierarchal structures that deem some childhoods more valuable than others.
The child’s sonic performance in the YouTube video is a queer offering that creatively procures transnational connection. Her singing registers a queer frequency that destabilizes normative theories of child development that assume a mother’s physical presence as necessary to developmental success. The girl’s performance suggests that psychic and political reparations can occur in the sounds the child makes. The tactile, spatial and physical qualities of her voice forge a new relation to her mother. Her voice is affecting, seemingly moving her mother to tears and rousing the onlookers at the Internet café to reorganize their bodies and sing along. In this video, we are invited to witness a child whose world has been altered by globalization and the continued geo-political violence’s enacted by the American empire. Given these circumstances, her “creative re-interpretation[s] of kinship” serves as a reminder that the affective fortitude of her voice tests physical and emotional borders (Dyer 2019). The restraint of normative conceptions of family is ruptured when the child remakes her relation to her mother in ways that stir joy, collectivity, and pleasure.
By observing and listening to the child’s song more closely, we can listen for its potential to re-sound and re-imagine the parent-child relationship across borders. The sounds of “OFW Blank Space” linger after the clip has ended. By listening for what is in excess of the video’s content, we can consider the affective registers that enunciate alternative understandings of migration, family and belonging. There is a humming that is ubiquitous in the video. Perhaps, it is the sound of the electric fans that run to combat the tropical heat of the Philippines. Maybe it is the collective buzzing from the computers that have been set up to provide the Internet to its cybercafé patrons. The acoustics of the space are at once mundane and haphazard, and at the same time, cogent indicators of the geopolitical truths echoing throughout the scene. With limited access to Internet in the home, the cybercafé has been a site that children frequent to communicate with family working in another country. The convergence of sound, technology and diasporic subjectivity becomes audible when the practice of listening is attuned to these methods of transnational connection.
While listening to the pedagogical potential of the cybercafé more broadly, a focus on the vocal performance of the child reveals my investment in what the sound of her voice tells us. The video starts with greetings spoken in Tagalog, the primary language of the Philippines. When the backing track begins, the child makes a seamless transition into singing in English. In her vocal performance of the lyrics, her Filipino accent is almost undetectable. She sings with a dulcet tone that is clear and appealing. Her voice sounds well-trained and confident. If not for the video, one might believe the child to be a professional American performer. In this scene, it is her voice that is marked and constituted by a narrative of American imperial conquest and Filipino assimilation. But in a creative adaptation of American cultural production, the child re-writes this racialized script and uses American pop songs as a mechanism of care for both herself and her mother.
The economic instability in the Philippines has created a state instituted transnational workforce. Women have been disproportionately affected by the demand for work in care industries such as nursing, childcare and care for the elderly (Francisco-Menchavez 2018). These gendered and racialized structures of employment privilege the presence of Filipinx women in families other than their own. The child is withheld a future that assures her the presence of her mother and their physical proximity is denied as a result of the demand for labour and capital exchange between nation-states. However, despite these circumstances, the child uses her voice to summon a beautiful intimacy, one that does not disavow the imperial history that marks its possibility, but instead uses loss as a resource to creatively mourn their separation. For the child, the act of singing is a replacement for her lost object, her mother. In the video we witness a child who is full of joy and whose strength of voice quells, if not, temporarily, whatever longing for her mother she might have. Relatedly, the child is also perceptive of her mother’s needs and uses music as a method of offering her care. Her performance creatively re-routes the presumed directionalities of care (from mother to child) which globalization has fundamentally altered.
Featured image: “Children” by Flickr user Clive Varley, CC-BY-2.0
Casey Mecija is an accomplished multi-disciplinary artist, primarily working in the fields of music and film. She played in Ohbijou, the Canadian orchestral pop band, and released her first solo album, entitled Psychic Materials, in 2016. Casey is also an award winning filmmaker whose work has screened internationally. She is completing a PhD at The University of Toronto, where she researches sound, performance studies and Filipinx Studies as they relate to queer diaspora.
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Entering from the front, Lokananta seems quiet. An art-deco façade gives way to a sleepy courtyard with a central fountain—the sound of splashing water mixes with stately gamelan music from a wall-mounted speaker—but there are signs of activity here in Indonesia’s oldest record company. Head right into the duplication room and you hear the hiss-snap of an old tape-splicing machine at work, plus occasional bursts of guitar as a worker in a blue collared shirt tests out punk cassettes. Across the low campus of pastel yellow buildings, an engineer in the company’s cavernous studio listens back to an upbeat shuffle from a recent session.
These sounds take on a special significance at Lokananta, because it is the nation’s state-owned record company—the “Sound of Indonesia”—which after a brush with bankruptcy in the early 2000s, is now making a tentative comeback driven largely by renewed interest in analog music technology. It makes for an interesting scene: tattooed indie rockers and young tape sellers partnering with a company that for decades was part of the authoritarian government’s Department of Information. Crisis and transition have a way of forging unusual partnerships, and Lokananta’s current business configuration is a product of economic crisis.
I learned of Lokananta’s winding path to recovery while doing ethnographic fieldwork in May 2015, when I visited the company, interviewed many of its employees, and met with some of the young musicians and entrepreneurs that are helping to keep it afloat. They helped me piece together this story of Lokananta’s long history and uncertain future, a story that reflects many of the larger social changes unfolding across Indonesia during the company’s sixty years of operation. From the ‘golden years’ to the ‘vacuum,’ crisis to recovery, I found that Lokananta continues to fulfill its mission of disseminating the sounds of the nation, but those sounds are different than before. More specifically, I argue that the fiscal crisis forced Lokananta to open itself to the new sounds and scenes that have emerged in contemporary Indonesia.
An Instrument that Plays Itself
Lokananta takes its name from a mythical gamelan ensemble that according to legend sounded without being struck (perhaps an echo of the long-running association between recorded sound and the supernatural?). When established in the city of Surakarta in 1956, Lokananta’s mandate from the Sukarno government was to establish a national culture through sound, and at the same time mitigate the influence of the international music then dominating the airwaves. In Lokananta’s early years, this meant manufacturing vinyl discs of recordings made throughout the archipelago, and then distributing those records back to the country’s radio stations for broadcasting. Soon enough listeners began asking to buy records themselves, and in 1959 the state-owned company began selling to the general public. Besides recordings of regional songs, or lagu daerah, much of the music bearing Lokananta’s seal was in the classical gamelan tradition of central Java and a style of sentimental song known as kroncong.
The company’s output during those golden years—basically the 60s-80s—is well documented in a discography compiled by ethnomusicologist Philip Yampolsky; I’m more interested in what has happened since then. By the 1990s, recorded music was neither mysterious nor scarce. Anyone with a tape deck could copy a cassette and pirated music was ubiquitous. Studios were downsizing and going digital, and Lokananta, with its large facility and staff, was struggling to remain viable even with government support. Then came the Asian Financial Crisis and the fall of the ‘New Order’ regime in 1998.
The Department of Information was liquidated during the political transition, meaning Lokananta lost all government funding. Most of the technical staff were shifted to the national radio broadcaster, RRI, while Lokananta shrank to a skeleton crew and for several years stopped almost all production. Employees who were there refer to this time as the “vacuum.” The piano was sold, microphones disappeared, and for a time the record storage shed was rented out for indoor soccer. Lokananta went silent.
With the loss of public support and the traditional music market in decline, Indonesia’s oldest record company needed new sources of revenue. Increasingly, that revenue has come from recording and duplicating albums by indie and underground artists, scenes that have actually blossomed in the aftermath of the repressive New Order regime.
Just days before I arrived at Lokananta, a Balinese Rockabilly band called The Hydrant wrapped up a session there for their new album. The band’s very presence at the studio says a lot about Lokananta’s changing image in the Indonesian music world. When I later met with Adi, The Hydrant’s bass player, he told me that until this year he’d never heard of Lokananta. Even as a lover of vintage recordings, he had no idea that his country boasted an old wood-paneled studio that is reportedly modeled on the famous Abbey Road in London. When he heard about that room from a friend in Jogjakarta, Adi and his band realized it was the perfect place to record an album ‘live in the studio’ just like their idols from the 50s and 60s (some of those idols were even released on the Lokananta label). According to Adi, the studio manager at Lokananta told him that The Hydrant was the first “riot and roll band” to record there, so the album became “Lokananta Riot.”
This trend of young bands recording live at Lokananta got its start in 2012, when Indonesian R&B singer Glenn Fredly and the indie pop group White Shoes and the Couples Company both completed projects there. For these artists, recording in the company’s vintage studio served to emphasize their connection with Indonesia’s national music history, and also to draw attention to Lokananta’s important role in that history. In fact, the album that White Shoes recorded, Menyanyikan Lagu2 Daerah, was entirely based on the style of regional folk songs (lagu daerah) that Lokananta distributed in its early years.
But the big name acts that are drawn to Lokananta’s studio don’t necessarily manufacture their albums there, even though Lokananta was originally and primarily a record factory, not a studio. The 7” vinyl records of Menyanyikan Lagu2 Daerah, for example, had to be pressed overseas because Lokananta’s record fabricating machines—the country’s first—were sold for scrap metal in the 1980s. Cassette production, however, has not stopped, even if it is down from the days when the company could pump out tens of thousands of tapes a month. In those days, neighborhood kids would fly kites with the discarded magnetic tape. And like the recording end of business, Lokananta’s duplication services are now reaching a whole new clientele.
Rather than churn out playful kroncong tapes, today Lokananta acts as more of a boutique producer, specializing in small runs of indie releases by bands with names like Deluded, Homicide, and Working Class Symphony. These bands are not drawn to Lokananta so much by its history and legacy, but for very practical reasons that again can be traced back to the company’s near collapse in the early 2000s.
Many of the new cassettes produced at Lokananta pass through the hands of two local entrepreneurs: Rochmad Indrianto and Tamtomo Widhiandono. Indtrianto, who goes by Anto, is only 25. Over the whir of tape duplicators, he explained to me that unless you want them copied one by one on a home tape deck, Lokanata is the only place to do a short run of cassettes—as few as 20-50 copies. The quality is good, and because Lokananta is right there in Surakarta, the turnaround is fast and the prices low. When Anto and Tamtomo started working with Lokananta in 2014, the company’s only output was re-releases of old recordings. The two young entrepreneurs, and the cassette revival they were part of, could not have come at a better time. That year they placed several duplication orders for their label and online store Alpha Omega Merchandise, and also helped to organize a Record Store Day event at Lokananta with vendors, speakers, and live performances in the studio:
Once word got around the local scene, more tape orders started coming in. Lokananta was not easy to work with directly—it had no online order form or Instagram account—so Anto and Tamtomo became the middlemen. They told me that this year they are handling at least eight to ten orders a month. Thanks to that business, for the first time ever Lokananta now generates more than half of its revenue from tape duplication services. This turn of events feels appropriate in a way: the very independent music scene that both contributed to and benefited from the end of the New Order regime is now helping to prop up an institution left stranded by that government’s collapse.
The Sound of Indonesia
Many people and projects have claimed to capture the sound of a nation. No doubt Lokananta comes up as short as the rest. Yet, I’m struck by the way this one state-owned recording company and its meandering story do reflect so much of the tumult of Indonesia’s last sixty years. Lokananta has always been what the moment called for: a pressing plant for regional folk records, a studio for mass-produced gamelan recordings, an archive, and an indie cassette workshop. In each adaptation you can hear the political, cultural, and technological changes at work. You can sense the shifts in government censorship, which limited the import and reproduction of foreign sounds, and the sounds of critique and dissent that followed. You can see the shift from vinyl—which most Indonesians could only access via radio broadcasts—to the cassette, the medium that finally made recorded music readily available to the general public. And since Lokananta’s crisis at the turn of the millennium, you can hear the sounds of an industry in transition: a growing and uncensored independent music scene, and a renewed search for a national identity in the sounds and technologies of the past.
The ‘Sound of Indonesia’ that Lokananta offers in its current output must be understood as part of the institution’s response to crisis—brought on by both a changing music market and the sudden loss of government support. In this state, Lokananta’s sound cannot be curated by producers or culture ministers; it is dictated by necessity, and in that struggle to survive the company has had to open itself up in new ways. Looking through old photos in Lokananta’s archive, I saw a lot of official state pageantry and choreographed presentations—administrators in suits and workers with ID badges. Right now, however, Lokananta is a place where someone can walk in off the street with a home-recorded cassette and get it duplicated, where an up-and-coming band can book a recording session, where an avant-garde composer can put on a noise concert, or where a few motivated entrepreneurs can find a willing partner. It is a place of nostalgia but also experimentation and DIY networking—all of which are now publicly visible on the company’s facebook page.
Lokananta’s new director has plans to convert the main building into a museum and is already applying for national cultural heritage status. There is also talk of restoring and updating the studio equipment—no word on any new vinyl pressing machines. But whatever it becomes in the future, the present is clearly a special moment in Lokananta’s history. And while many of the company’s employees may consider this to be a rough patch in that history, when I see the words “The Sound of Indonesia” emblazoned on their uniforms, I can’t help but think that they are living up to that motto in ways that their predecessors in the New Order period would have never imagined. They are producing records and finding community partners that previously might have never made it through the company’s pastel-yellow entryway. The political transition, fiscal crisis, and recovery forced that change, and luckily for Lokananta, Indonesia’s burgeoning independent music scene has embraced it.
Ian Coss is a graduate student in Ethnomusicology at Boston University, where his work is focused on the uses of radio and recording technologies. Ian has released several albums of original music that draw on everything from gamelan to dub, and continues to perform around New England. He has also worked as a freelance radio producer for Afropop Worldwide and The World. Follow all his projects at iancoss.com.
All images are used with permission by the author.
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