THE BRITISH LIBRARY

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3 posts categorized "South East Asia"

18 September 2018

Recording of the week: Whistling to the bujɔk - Batek fishing techniques

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Coleridge Research Fellow Dr Alice Rudge writes:

The Batek are a hunting and gathering people who dwell in the lowland rainforests of Peninsular Malaysia. When visiting recently, I accompanied Batek friends on a fishing trip and was taught some new techniques.

We left early in the morning, as the river they wanted to get to was a long way from the camp, around three hours walking up and down very steep hills. As we set out, they noticed elephant tracks very close to where we were going, and when we got to the river confluence, ʔEyKtlət went ahead, and found the elephants bathing just upriver from where we had planned to go.  We changed our course and instead of following the main river, we followed one of its smaller tributaries.

DSCF5462Resting and preparing fishing rods after the long walk to the river

Batek people usually make fishing rods (bawɔl) en route to the river by scraping the leaves off palm fronds, leaving only the supple, strong stems. Fishing line and a hook is then attached to one end. For bait, people dig worms from the sides of the riverbank.

With the Batek, fishing trips usually consist of a lot of walking. Having reached the river through the forest, you then wind your way back to the camp via the water, either upstream or downstream, by wading and scrambling up and down the banks. As you walk, you fish in any suitable places that you spot.

DSCF5468Klis and NaʔBɛ̃p walking up a waterfall en route to a new fishing spot.

In one spot that we reached, NaʔSrimjam started whistling. I initially thought nothing of it. Then her sister, NaʔAliw, started whistling the exact same melody… I asked what they were whistling, and they said that they were calling the bĩl fish [unidentified] to them. We had been catching bĩl earlier, and so, knowing that they were biting that day, the sisters were whistling to attract more! They also told me there are other sounds you can do to attract certain fish to you. One of these is a kind of clicking sound made at the back of the throat, which can be used to attract bujɔk (Malay bujuk, of the family Channidae).

NaʔSrimjam evocatively described this process thus:

mɨm ʔajak bujɔk mɨʔ tɔt ʔoʔ haw prmcəm… cɨ̃t! taʔcawɔt kə=mɛt kayil, mɨʔ saŋkɛt

‘when you attract bujɔk you see it coming to get your bait, you see tiny bubbles rising to the surface of the water, then cɨ̃t [expressive of the sudden sound or feeling when a fish bites your bait]! The fish will accidentally hook itself onto your fishing hook, and you lift it out’.

I didn’t manage to record the sound while they were making it in the forest that day. I was busy fishing myself, and trying not to fall over on the slippery rocks or sink into the mud. So, the next day I went to NaʔSrimjam and asked if she would make the sounds again so I could record them.

DSCF5466Sitting down for a moment to fish

She agreed, but when she tried to whistle, the sound wouldn’t come out, and we both cracked up laughing in hysterics. She kept telling me to just do it because she was laughing too much to whistle, but I said no I wanted to record her, because she was the one who knew how to do it - I had no idea! Eventually she managed to get the sound out. I then asked her to do the clicking sound made in the back of the throat that is used to attract the bujɔk fish. After she made the sound, she then tried to teach me to do it. This meant it was my turn to make a fool of myself as I couldn’t make the sound at all. When I eventually got some sound out, we joked that it was so bad that the fish would just swim away. This whole exchange can be heard in the recording.

Sounds used to attract fish (AR_201808_STE-020)

The Alice Rudge Collection of Batek recordings is currently being deposited and catalogued, and will be held under the shelfmark C1773.

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13 September 2018

Listening to mammals with the Batek

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Coleridge Research Fellow Dr Alice Rudge writes:

The Batek are hunting and gathering people who dwell in the lowland rainforests of Peninsular Malaysia. During my fieldwork with them, I played  some recordings of mammal sounds which are held at the Library. Batek people have extremely detailed ecological knowledge of the rainforest, and this is reflected in their in-depth understanding of its soundscape. I therefore played them these recordings with the idea that hearing these sounds might inspire people to give additional vocabulary or information about these sounds, based on their extensive knowledge.

You can listen to the recordings below:

Siamang duet recorded on Sumatra by Ashley Banwell (BL ref 62323)

White-handed Gibbon calls recorded in Malaysia by Reg Kersley (BL ref 06512)

Clouded Leopard calls recorded in Thailand by John Moore (BL ref 128288)

Binturong calls recorded in Thailand by John Moore (BL ref 61103)

Not only were people aware of what the animals were doing in the recordings I played, but they also accompanied this with cultural information, as well as talking about the emotions that hearing the sounds evoked.

For example, people said that the siamang and white-handed gibbon in the recordings are all running away from predators. In addition, they pointed out that in the siamang recording, the low sounds are the males, but the higher sounds are the females. 

In response to the siamang and white-handed gibbon in particular, people also exclaimed that they felt haʔip ­- an intense feeling of longing, yearning, love, or desire, which is often felt in response to things that are considered beautiful.

Photo credit: cuatrok77 on Visual hunt /  CC BY-SA
Siamang; Symphalangus syndactylus


The beauty of these mammal sounds is reflected in people’s musical instrument playing. The siamang is a favourite sound to recreate on the mouth harp, and the white-handed gibbon is a favourite sound to recreate on the flute. 

However, as well as feeling haʔip,  the white-handed gibbon recording also prompted people to tell the story of the gibbon, including the gruesome part at the end where evil cannibals cook and eat their mother-in-law, which resulted in everyone falling about laughing.

manfredrichter at Pixabay
White-handed gibbon; Hylobates lar

People recognised the sound of the clouded leopard as the yah bintaŋ - yah means ‘tiger’ in Batek, and bintaŋ (or bintang) is the Malay word for ‘stars’, referring to the pattern of its fur.

Photo credit: bobdole369 on Visualhunt /  CC BY-NC-SA
Clouded leopard; Neofelis nebulosa

In the binturong recording, they said that the female binturong is ‘trying to attract male binturongs to mate with’ (ʔoʔ ʔajak tmkal ʔom cycəy).

Photo credit: <a href="https://visualhunt.com/author/e39fc3">jinterwas</a> on <a href="https://visualhunt.com/re/f48d28">Visualhunt</a> / <a href="http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/"> CC BY</a>
Binturong; Arctictis binturong

As is also the case for recordings of birds, using wildlife recordings of mammals in the field can therefore be useful for anthropologists, ethnomusicologists, or others who may be interested to find out more about how these sounds are experienced!

The Alice Rudge Collection of Batek recordings is currently being deposited and catalogued, and will be held under the shelfmark C1773.

27 June 2018

Using wildlife sound recordings in the field

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Coleridge research fellow Dr Alice Rudge writes:

What are the uses of the recordings we make beyond preserving them? How might archiving wildlife recordings open up possibilities for interdisciplinary research, beyond the original purpose of the recording? During my anthropological PhD fieldwork with Batek people in Malaysia, which focused on their uses of music and sound, using wildlife sound recordings in the field created some interesting outcomes.

Batek people are indigenous hunter-gatherers of the lowland rainforests in peninsular Malaysia, numbering around 1,500 people. They speak Batek, an Austroasiatic language of the Northern Aslian family.

DSCF2768
Evening fishing and flower collecting

In a Batek camp, or when out in the forest, birds are a common topic of conversation, and under the dense canopy of the forest, birds are some of the most noticeable creatures, not because they are seen, but because they are heard (see also Lye 2005). All that might be seen is a flash of colour or a shaking leaf, but birds’ calls cut across the background hum of insects and chatter. Perhaps for this reason, birds are a major source of musical inspiration. Birds are cosmologically significant, too, and played an important role in creating the world as it is today, according to Batek origin stories (see also Endicott 1979). They are also used to make predictions - for example if you hear a certain bird you might know that certain fruits are ripe, that elephants are close, or that a friend will arrive home that day. Birds are often named onomatopoeically for their calls - for example the sŋseŋ bird has the call ‘seŋ-seŋ-seŋ-seŋ’.

This evident salience of bird sounds for Batek people meant that I was interested to document Batek names for various birds during my fieldwork - partly so that I could then ask further questions about them! However - when out in the forest, if we heard a bird and someone told me the name of it, it was difficult for me to then know the English name of it based on the sound alone. I therefore got hold of some of recordings of Malaysian birds, and, alongside showing them images from photographic field guides, played them to my Batek friends with the idea that they would be able to tell me the Batek names for the birds, which I could then compare to the English names noted by the original recordist. This proved a fascinating exercise - in particular as often there was not any one simple answer or direct correspondence between the English and Batek names for birds. For example, the aforementioned sŋseŋ was variously identified from the images as the Black-eared Shrike-babbler, Long-tailed Sibia, White-bellied Erponis, Oriental Reed-warbler, Arctic Warbler, Mountain Leaf-warbler, Chestnut-crowned Warbler, Blue-throated Flycatcher, Yellow-throated Flowerpecker, Crimson-breasted Flowerpecker, Orange-bellied Flowerpecker, and the Scarlet-backed Flowerpecker. However, from the recordings it was more definitively identified by different people as the Brown-throated Sunbird.

Furthermore, not only did people help me to document a lot of bird names, but they were also keen to recount stories and other information about the birds. For example, on listening to the Crested Jay, ʔEyJayat identified that it was a lhlah in Batek, but also recounted a funny story about coming across a tourist in the forest: the tourist was reaching up, trying to record the lhlah bird with their microphone - but this took ʔEyJayat, who was walking in the forest, by surprise as he thought the tourist was a ghost. ʔEyKtlət also remembered that the lhlah was the bird we had heard in the forest that morning when we had been fishing. He, his wife, and his son talked about how the lhlah has two sounds - syãl and llɛk. If you hear these sounds it means you won’t find food in the forest that day. If you are tired, and have no food, or only a tiny bit of food - you will hear it. If you get back home and your lean-to is damp - you will hear it. People therefore feel angry when they hear this bird! Through this exercise, Batek friends also taught me that the baləŋ bird indicates that elephants are close, as it makes the sound tuləŋ that imitates the sound of an elephant trumpeting, and that the maliʔ bird calls rain to come (ʔoʔ ʔajak ʔujan). The ləʔ talok bird (a type of Scimitar Babbler) - whose name literally translates as ‘indicates the Dusky Langur’ indicates that Dusky Langur are close!

The recording that people found the most hilarious was of the trut kit, or ‘fart’ bird - whose call sounds a lot like somebody breaking wind. Not only did I learn this funny name for the Mountain Imperial Pigeon - but also everyone fell about laughing about the bird, saying yɛʔ malɛs nir klɨŋ - ‘I really don’t like the sound’, imitating the sound, and then laughing again. In the Batek’s forest, however, laughter can be taboo (lawac), and risks causing a storm - and in the recordings people can be heard warning each other - ‘watch out or we will be lawac from laughing so much’. As well as giving information about birds, the new recordings of people listening to these recordings therefore also document something about Batek humour and taboos more broadly.

The jayit srwal bawac bird - which in English is the Chestnut-capped Laughingthrush - has a name which translates as ‘sewing the trousers of the macaque’. This bird also has other messages - as it is also heard as saying cok buŋah kwaʔ and jŋʔɨl tlok kawah - telling the listener to prepare the kwaʔ flower to be worn in the hair and to jump into the water at kawah - a part of the nearby river. These messages are ‘phonological iconisms’ of the birds call. In other words, the words sound like the sound of the bird. This bird is therefore particularly inspiring to and well loved by the Batek, it is strongly associated with a particular place and with flowers that the Batek love, and its call often therefore prompts exclamations of feelings of longing and nostalgia, which the Batek call haɁip. You can listen to the sound of the bird, followed by ʔEyKtlət repeating its name, in the audio excerpt below:

Jayit srwal bawac

Through recording Batek people listening to the recordings, therefore it has been possible to preserve some of this complex and in-depth knowledge and love of birds that Batek people have, knowledge which is deeply connected to their forest home, and their daily experiences of the birds. The exercise has showed that wildlife recordings can have great use beyond documentation - in this case by providing a resource for eliciting, sharing, and in turn preserving, further unique knowledge, and providing a window onto important ways of thinking about the environment that challenge dominant discourses, and show the ways that human and avian lives can intertwine.

The Alice Rudge Collection is currently being deposited and catalogued with the World and Traditional Music collection as part of Alice's ongoing research with the Batek.

For more information on Batek people, see the following:

Endicott, K.M., 1979. Batek Negrito Religion: The Worldview and Rituals of a Hunting and Gathering People of Peninsular Malaysia, Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Lye, T.P., 2005 [2004]. Changing Pathways: Forest Degradation and the Batek of Pahang, Malaysia, Petaling Jaya, Malaysia: Strategic Information Research Development.

Rudge, A., forthcoming 2018. The sounds of people and birds: music, memory, and longing among the Batek. Hunter Gatherer Research.