by Barbara Titus

Phon. K. 185, recorded by Jaap Kunst in August 1930
Place: Riangkroko, far western tip of the curling peninsula in north-east Flores
Singers: Merien, Raja
Song titles: Najat netung [nitun] – Be’odong – Barassi [berasi] hama

Phon. K. 185, recorded by Jaap Kunst in August 1930
Place: Riangkroko, far western tip of the curling peninsula in north-east Flores
Singers: Merien, Raja
Song titles: Najat netung [nitun] – Be’odong – Barassi [berasi] hama

The three songs on this wax cylinder (a sound carrier preceding the gramophone) have been recorded by ethnomusicologist Jaap Kunst (1891-1960) in Riangkroko, East Flores in August 1930. Kunst was a civil servant of the Dutch colonial government in the Dutch East Indies, now Indonesia. His work as a civil servant brought him to many parts of the archipelago, and in his spare time he recorded all the music he deemed worthy of keeping. He even served as the Netherlands’ first “Government Musicologist” (Gouvernementsmusicoloog) until this position had to be cut due to a lack of funding.

Kunst made it his mission to record music that he considered to be on the brink of extinction and that needed to be safeguarded for future generations. In the early twentieth century, recording equipment and sound carriers were heavy, expensive and precious, so he minutely prepared his recordings, making a careful selection of regions, genres and performers. In his many publications about the music he recorded, we, unfortunately, only encounter the results of his efforts while everything that Kunst deemed less important – such as the work process, the research methods or his changing insights – remains inaccessible because he chose not to incorporate those in his eventual recordings and publications.

Kunst is predominantly interested in describing the musical structure of a song or a genre, with particular emphasis on pitch, and the amount of variation in pitch. These have always been the features with which European(-derived) music (from Bach to Stockhausen, Coltrane and Michael Jackson) is valued, and why those “tunes” from a Eurocentric perspective have often been deemed superior to (or “more complex” than) other sonic forms of expression. Visualizations and notations of sound have hence always focused on these qualities: pitch (fixed at one frequency, being “in tune”) and variation of pitch (complexity of melodies and harmonies). Qualities such as timbre, overtones and voice inflections, that cannot be transcribed in fixed pitch positions, are disregarded by Kunst, and so are their complexities and intricacies. They do not count for him (and probably neither for most of his [European] audience in the mid-twentieth century). Not surprisingly, he transcribed the music he recorded in western staff notation – a mode of visualizing sound that developed over centuries to record and transmit European music.  Kunst’s description of these three songs in his Music in Flores (1942) is no exception (p. 9):

The cultural situation in which the music is sung is only addresses in passing in Kunst’s publications. His aim was to register, to capture, to record, to have “the thing” as reproduceable sound (for a European agent) either from sound recording (the wax cylinder) or from notation, and preferably in combination.

Later ethnomusicologists did engage themselves with the meaning of the sound in cultural and social respects. With regard to eastern Flores, we can draw on the work that our colleague Dana Rappoport carried out in the early 2000s. We cannot be sure that the meaning and practices of the sounds Rappoport recorded in the early 2000s are the same as, or even comparable to, what Kunst recorded in August 1930, but there will be overlaps. It is interesting to note that both scholars – 75 years apart – emphasize that the practice is getting extinct and needs to be captured before it has vanished.

Rappoport (in 2006) emphasizes the importance of the multipart walking songs in the Lamaholot culture in north-eastern Flores. She asserts:

“At Waiklibang [about 20 km from Riangkroko], great rituals (involving more than one clan) begin with road songs, sung literally on the road. On their way to the ritual, men sing two-by-two as they walk along the road towards the place of the ritual (whether to the ‘big house’ or to the ceremonial rice field). This song is a male vocal duet (a pair of singers), a tight and technically difficult counterpoint. […] The rhythm is unmeasured. The men’s high and sharp voices overlap at close intervals (smaller than a tempered major or minor second). The singers make their voices echo from the mountain. Why do they sing while walking? First, to notify those who have already arrived at the dance square. The host clan hears its guests from afar and prepares for their arrival. But this repertoire is not only an announcement, it is also, above all, a request for permission to pass in front of the dwelling places of nitun [or netung] the spirits who live in the tall trees and in certain features of the landscape. The song tells about the places passed by the singers. The words differ according to the calendar.” (Rappoport 2021, 164-165)

The two-part singing on Kunst’s recording, starting with the duet Najat netung [nitun in Rappoport’s account] are most likely a rendering of such a road song.

Rappoport continues by indicating the significance of road songs in Lamaholot culture. They are means of geographical, temporal and historical orientation and guidance:

“in [Lamaholot] society, as in many societies in eastern Insulindia, time is expressed by the recollection of the paths (in Lamaholot, ukut laran). The further away are these traces, the longer is the narrative. Only the storytellers know ‘the traces of the paths’, and this knowledge engages them vitally. For, to make a mistake in the enunciation of paths is to make a mistake about oneself and one’s group. In these societies, orality is the only history book. We know how much a mistake in a history book can cost its author in Western societies, but in eastern Indonesia a mistake in stating the itinerary can bring death and illness to the group in question. Because the performance of these stories engages the bodies of the humans who tell them, it can be understood why the knowledge of roads and the ability to sing them are, in Lamaholot society, so important for the consciousness of the group.” (Rappoport 2021, 190)

Having taken into account Rappoport’s findings about Lamaholot song, it becomes imperative to ask ourselves the question what the implications of Kunst’s actions were for the singers and the community where he recorded, not only in eastern Flores, but also in other parts of the archipelago. What was the interaction between the singers and Kunst, the recordist, who was known to be forceful about how, when, how often and in which order he wished to record, making selections and choices for repertoire that were based on his European ideas about an “exotic” music: music as an object that can be recorded, captured, multiplied and transported to other parts of the world?

Whereas little information about the recording process is available in Kunst’s publications, his correspondence with fellow musicologists, interlocutors, and local nobility that is available at the UvA’s Allard Pierson Museum might hold information about the ways in which these Lamaholot songs were recorded, and what Kunst’s ideas, decisions and doubts were during the recording process. What remains undisclosed, however, is the implications of his actions for the Lamaholot singers and community. It’s one of the many voids of the archive that we need to account for, and deal with.


Kunst, Jaap 1942. Music in Flores: A Study of the Vocal and Instrumental Music Among the Tribes Living in Flores, transl. Emil Van Loo. Leiden: E.J. Brill.

Rappoport, Dana 2021. “The Long Journey of the Rice Maiden from Li’o to Tanjung Bunga: A Lamaholot Sung Narrative (Flores, Eastern Indonesia)”, in Austronesian Paths and Journeys,  ed. James J. Fox. Canberra: ANU Press.

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