As the Sundanese have come to lean on increasingly outward expressions of their Islamic faith – through the use of the Islamic headscarf and other fashion choices, as well as through musical means – it has been the women who have consistently provided the most obvious, outward expressions of West Java’s increasingly public Islamic cultural practices. The aristocratic sung poetry of tembang Sunda has its roots in the imagery and grandeur of the 14th-century Sundanese Hindu kingdom, Pajajaran. Songs that celebrate Pajajaran – the Golden Age of local culture – feature characters not only from the Ramayana, but also from Sundanese Hindu mythology. Sung by 21st-century Muslims, these songs form the core genre of elite identity as (primarily) women performers and audience members represent it. In a Muslim climate that nonetheless celebrates the Hindu past, a new song with distinctly Islamic elements has entered into tembang Sunda performance practice. The song, “Hamdan,” includes lyrics in Arabic and Sundanese (as opposed to Sanskrit and Sundanese), direct references to group prayer, a melody closer to Islamic popular song than to traditional tembang, and other cultural markers that identify the performance as a Muslim one within a Hindu-based genre, which occurs within a Muslim performance context. Performing the song “Hamdan” has become a means by which middle-class Sundanese women may enter the rarified air of the musical elite, simultaneously asserting a stronger Muslim identity in the midst of a Hindu-based genre.

Author Biography

Sean Williams teaches ethnomusicology, Asian Studies, and Irish Studies at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. She received the Ph.D. in ethnomusicology from the University of Washington (1990), with an emphasis in the musics of Indonesia and Ireland. Her books include The Sound of the Ancestral Ship: Highland Music of West Java (Oxford, 2001), The Ethnomusicologists’ Cookbook I & II (Routledge, 2006 and 2015). Irish Traditional Music (Routledge, 2010), and Bright Star of the West: Joe Heaney, Irish Song-Man (Oxford, 2011). She has had articles published in The New Hibernia Review, Béaloideas, Asian Music, The Companion to Irish Traditional Music, Current Musicology, The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music, Yearbook for Traditional Music, The Encyclopaedia of Music in Ireland, and several edited volumes.

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