Authoring Noise, Noising Authority: Loudness and Oratory in an East Javanese Family Gathering

Heikki Wilenius

1.   Introduction: Genealogies and a Sound System


In this article, I describe and analyze sounds from a large outdoor family meeting in Malang, East Java, Indonesia, that I attended in 2013. The event had a huge sound system that my consumer-grade equipment was not able to capture properly. At the time, I believed that I would not revisit the recording due to its technical inadequacies, rendering it a “failure.” However, in the context of this special issue, I have undertaken a renewed analysis of the recording, leading me to posit that it possesses distinctive properties that make it interesting and even useful for understanding the ethnographic setting. I shall commence by providing a concise depiction of this setting.


It was an early Sunday morning in September 2013, and I had just jumped off a minivan coming from the city of Malang and arriving in front of the mosque of a small town in the southern part of the regency (kabupaten) of Malang. My friend and research participant, Ahmad,[1] was waiting there. We walked together – it was not yet that hot – to the nearby party venue, in front of his house. Ahmad had asked me to join an annual gathering of his Madurese family.[2]


One of the first things I noticed on the courtyard were the huge speakers. In Java, even in events where music is not the main focus, one needs to have loud sound reproduction with substantial speakers. There were two sizeable stacks of them in the smallish courtyard, effectively creating an enclosed space for the gathering. A small stage had been constructed for the occasion, crammed between the house, the courtyard, and the speaker stacks. The courtyard was bisected by a cord and several sheets, effectively segregating the space into distinct areas for women and men. When sitting on the ground, the sheets blocked the view to the other side. On the men’s side of the courtyard, next to the stage, was a small concrete veranda attached to the house, raised slightly above the ground. This was for the guests of honor, I realized, as my friend led me there. Some mats and snacks were laid out on this veranda. I sat cross-legged among the other men already there. After introducing me, Ahmad walked away to continue with the party preparations.


Some Arabic instrumental music was gently playing from the loudspeakers – the family gathering was yet to start. The other guests started peppering me with questions, and I reciprocated, soon learning that most of the other guests sitting on the veranda were kiai, that is, Islamic authorities (see Turmudi 2006; Wilenius 2020). The oldest of the kiai was holding a couple of notebooks and showed me a document with a genealogy written partly in Dutch, starting from Abraham, reaching up to one of the wali – an Islamic saint – who brought Islam to Java. Next, he exhibited two notebooks, written in Arabic, which contained his family tree from the wali up to himself. Then he proceeded to recite, from memory, the whole genealogy.


I was not carrying my usual recording equipment, but suddenly thought about the connections between the genealogies narrated and my then-ongoing research on authorizations, so I decided to use my smartphone to record the conversation we had. However, the sound of the speakers was soon so deafening that the discussion became difficult. I decided to continue recording anyway, thinking that perhaps the smartphone microphone would pick up the conversations near me instead of the formal oratories spoken through a microphone and projected through the speaker system. Later, on the same day, when I played back the recording at my lodgings, I decided that the recording was useless. The sound pressure at the event was simply too much for this meager recording equipment: the result was full of noise, including the sound of harsh digital clipping. I had merely managed to author some digital noise on a memory card.


I made brief field notes of the day but thought it unlikely that I would return to this material, until the year 2020, when I began my discussions with Jonathan Larcher on ethnographic recordings considered “rubbish” or “useless.” In this article, I will briefly describe the ethnographic context, followed by my attempt to reengage with the recording that I had deemed a failure back in 2013. I will wrap up the article by discussing some novel approaches to listening to ethnographic field recordings.

The women's side of the courtyard