Taking notes


For almost 40 years Professor Margaret Kartomi has travelled through Indonesia capturing music and culture on audio tapes. And she shows no signs of stopping.

Margaret Kartomi

Must lug heavy recording equipment deep into the Indonesian jungle and make ceremonial offerings to the gods of Lake Toba to safely cross. This definitely wasn't on the official job description, but Professor Margaret Kartomi has never complained.

Her love affair with Southeast Asia began when she was a child. Born to parents with a deep appreciation of the region's culture, it became ingrained in her psyche. She studied Indonesian music at university, made her first trip to the region aged 19 and married her Indonesian husband a year later.

That was 38 years ago, and since then the respected ethnomusicologist has travelled to the archipelago annually and recorded almost 2000 hours of traditional music, theatre and ceremonies. In some areas she is the first to record traditions that are centuries old.

About 200 digital audio files, along with photographs and documentation, are publicly available through Monash University's Australian Research Repository Online to the World (ARROW), with more available in the Monash music archive.

"Music is crucial. There is no culture in the world that doesn't have language and music," she says. "It is an essential means of expression, for people's self-esteem and self-identity, and an important way of educating children."

Professor Kartomi works with Indonesian authorities to find the best villages to visit, but says often it's the weddings or ceremonies found by chance that make the best recordings.

She has regularly travelled to the Aceh region where decades of civil armed conflict meant the restriction of regular artistic and ceremonial activity. The area was further devastated by the 2004 tsunami, where thousands - including many musicians and dancers - lost their lives, rehearsal spaces and instruments.

One positive postscript to the natural disaster was the unity it delivered: alongside the death - both sides of the civil war were shocked into negotiating a peace accord, bringing the lengthy war to an end.

Professor Kartomi was lu cky enough to be there to record the spontaneous musical celebrations. "The recordings I made in 2006 and 2007 capture the outbursts of joy and happiness and music-making among the people - it was wonderful to be able to share in the moment," she recalls.

With much of the traditional musical culture disappearing due to modernisation, environmental destruction and inadequate archival methods, Professor Kartomi's dedication will ensure some of the beauty of Indonesian culture is preserved for generations to come.

"Through my field work I have preserved evidence of traditional performances that are performed differently today or have been lost altogether," she says.

"As you work through the process you realise there is still so much you need to record and write up; that's why it's important to keep going. There's a lot to do before I die."