Trans-Cultural Commodities: The Sama-Bajau Music Industries and Identities of Maritime Southeast Asia

Ellorin, Bernard
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[Honolulu] : [University of Hawaii at Manoa], [December 2015]
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Trans-cultural Commodities is a comparative study on the modern musics of the Sama-Bajau, a sea-faring ethnic minority, found in Eastern Sabah, Malaysia and the southern Philippines. Interviews and fieldwork observations of in situ performances in the kampung of Semporna District Sabah, Malaysia and the barangay of Luzon, Philippines reveal similar and distinct musical trajectories revolving around the ubiquitous performance of the sangbai — an improvisatory dance vocal music genre — practiced by communities receiving governmental and non-governmental sponsorship. Overall, this study interrogates their musical interaction with two hegemonic majorities: 1) bumi-putera Malay and 2) lowland Christian Filipinos. In Malaysia, the Sama-Bajau are an exotic tourist attraction as “sea gypsies” transmigrating throughout the Sulu and Celebes Sea; in recent years, however, the central government labels them as illegal immigrants and “intruders” into Eastern Sabah. On Luzon Island, Philippines, the Sama-Bajau are a marginalized ethno-linguistic group forced to live in metropolitan cities as refugee communities. As a result, strict mendicancy laws are enforced in metropolitan areas throughout the lowland Philippines regulating their land-based lifestyle as beggars. Traditional and contemporary music found in contrasting living conditions prove that although a community shifts their identity in two nation states, the Sama-Bajau musical identity is evident in their musical forms and choice of simulating their musical heritage through multiple sound producing musical instruments. For this dissertation, I problematize both Malaysia-based and Philippine-based Sama-Bajau musical developments valorizing their cultural identity through the establishment of grassroots and commercial music industries; the former provides musical entertainment exclusively for the purposes of maintaining communitas away from the hegemony; the latter encourages assimilation into mainstream land-based culture. Using Artur Simon’s concept of musical syncretism for Southeast Asian musics, John Connell and Christopher Gibson’s transnational soundscapes, and Bruno Nettl’s “tune family” concept indicates how the fluidity of sangbai performed in varied contexts contributes to the study of the trans-cultural flows of music used to assert an ethnic identity in the diaspora. Trans-cultural Commodities is part of a larger movement in ethnomusicology to conduct ethnographic research on ethnic minorities living in multiple spaces. Studies on transmigrant and displaced ethnic minorities, such as the Sama-Bajau, problematizes the inclusion of an historically nomadic ethnic minority into the postcolonial framework of maritime Southeast Asia — a region known for porous nation-state borders. The circulation of the sangbai - as a musical commodity — is the recent barter trade practiced alongside the traditional trading of sea products. Diverse performances of the sangbai as cultural capital will inform readers on the treatment of the Sama-Bajau by their host cultures.
Ph.D. University of Hawaii at Manoa 2015.
Includes bibliographical references.
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Theses for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy (University of Hawaii at Manoa). Music
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