Song Maps

“Temiar rain forest dwellers of peninsular Malaysia sing their maps: theoretically, in their epistemology of song composition and performance; melodically, in contours of pitch and phrasing; textually in place-names weighted with memory. They inscribe crucial forms of knowledge in song: medical, personal, social, historical, geographic.”

Marina Roseman, ‘Singers of the landscape, p. 106 (1).

Songs can be maps. In a fascinating article, Marina Roseman describes the many ways Temiar songs of the 1920s and 1930s expressed an acute understanding of the historical geography of their situation. In poetic, and thus heightened, language they gave an account of the reduction of their magical kingdom to a British colonial possession open for mining and plunder. They dramatized losing control over their lives in songs that enacted a sort of cultural death both in the strangled delivery and in the description of their homeland as no longer a shelter but now a prison or coffin. But in lamenting the loss of their ancestry in songs that rehearsed again local place names and their significance, the songs walked the listeners through a landscape saturated with the kind of historical significance out which claims to nationhood are frequently crafted. Yet because their lives were folded intimately into the landscape through gardening, hunting and gathering, rather than by extensive forest clearance, it was all too easy for the British colonial rulers and later the government of independent Malaysia to treat them as not having properly broken the land into the units of absolute property rights.

Yet the inert fields of a property map are utterly inadequate in the face of the multiple ways Temiar people weave their lives through the human and non-human, the animal and plant, the mundane and the spirit worlds: “[t]he forest becomes a social space when networks of association are established between humans and spirits, who then become parents with children, students with teachers, mediums with spirit guides” (Roseman, p. 111). For example, the Temiar understand sickness as a sort of dissolution with the soul (head) leaving the body (trunk) to dwell elsewhere in the forest. Singing someone back to health involves performing the path that, guided by a spirit, can lead above the forest canopy to the part of the forest when the absent soul now awaits the seductive call of the singer and chorus which might yet bring it back to the body that so desperately needs it. But the forest as the dwelling-place of the spirits of the elders whose bodies now rest in graves is also, then, a cultural patrimony and by singing of the many ways the forest and specifically named places within the forest have cooperated in sustaining the life of the community with plants, fish, and animals, the Temiar perform their right to the continued use of the forest within the significant territorial range of the village group and because the song of the landscape is a collective or communal effort so too the assertion of usufruct rights is likewise a communal and not an individual matter. In the organic promiscuity of the rainforest, the vanity of human artefacts are all too evident, or rather inevident. Not churches, or monuments but, rather, fruit trees are the most lasting of the traces of the human transformation of first into second nature. Villages name the individual fruit trees and it is these tree-names that are the place names collated and hymned in Temiar song, alongside the even more permanent and independent rivers and mountains. The songs to the fruits are thus an assertion of communal or village rights to use the second nature crafted through planting and caring.

The Temiar people are now refugees beyond the frontier of earlier colonial and now independent-state invasion by capitalist resource extraction. They are a people who have tried what James Scott in a brilliant book has called The art of not being governed (2). In happier times they lived alongside the settled peoples of the lowlands but palm oil and rubber have produced a fury on the part of invaders, a fury to integrate the Temiar people into states, to privatize their communal lands into resources that can be sold to logging companies, and to re-cast the Temiar people as tax-paying proletarians forced to tap rubber to satisfy a predatory state and their own subsistence needs. Yet the conquest is incompleted and elements of their former ‘relatively nonviolent, exquisitely poetic, yet utterly practical relationship with one another, their environment, and their cosmos’ still survive (Roseman, p.117). Their song maps are no mere nostalgia and for yet a while might be heard as an articulate claim for respect, for some protection from the commodification of everything, for continued use rights over parts of the forest so that they can make their own ‘deliberate and informed choices about their future’ (Roseman, p. 118).

Gerry Kearns

(1)  Marina Roseman, ‘Singers of the landscape: Song, history, and property rights in the Malaysia rainforest,’ American Anthropologist 100 (1998) 106-121.

(2)  James C. Scott, The art of not being governed: An anarchist history of Upland Southeast Asia (New Haven CT: Yale University Press, 2009).

One comment

  1. Thank you for your insightful and empathetic reading of this article. Temiars are currently demonstrating (at long last) and blockading logging roads in protest of logging, land loss, disenfranchisement and in support of their powerfully moving historical connection with their lands. Saturday 30 Jan 2012 Kelantan police arrested 13 Temiar and burned down the blockade and supporting structures. Temiars responded with even more populous and forceful arrests. I was there on the blockade, have film footage, interviews, photos. Just back from Malaysia to Queen’s University Belfast, where I am now faculty in Anthropology and Ethnomusicology. The story goes on. Days spent (wo)manning the blockades were followed by intensive nights of trance-dancing and singing. By the blockade gate (they actually built a structure with the guard rail that raises and falls, and stopped the the logging trucks and oli palm plantation work and mining) they had a table with leaves and plants — ceremonial leaves, traditional medicines, house-building materials — to demonstrate exactly what they were losing as they lose their forest lands. Specimens were labeled with tags and names in Malay and Temiar. All burned by the police. The map goes on.
    Marina Roseman, Belfast, 31 January 2012 and


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