Project outline


The project focuses on societal change through the prism of popular music, emphasizing the appeal of modernity rather than that of the nation-state. This study offers a new way of studying Southeast Asia that foregrounds the movement of people, music, ideas, and technologies among the region’s cosmopolitan centers like Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta and Manila. The focus on popular music offers new insights into the particular historical trajectories of modernity in specific urban settings. Music, by its nature, is suitable for expressing new styles while simultaneously connecting the familiar with the new, the foreign with the local.

The empirical focus is on pioneering creative artists who straddle conventional categories of ethnicity, religion, gender, generation and class, and their audiences. Mobilizing cultural resources and networks, and exploring technological and entrepreneurial possibilities, these artists are at the forefront of popular culture’s production and redefinition. By calling into question the conventional and articulating what is modern, they co-produce new audiences and contribute to new processes of social differentiation.

Joint project

This is a four-year joint project of the Institute of Cultural Anthropology and Development Sociology (Leiden University) in cooperation with the Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies (KITLV) and the Netherlands Institute for War Documentation (NIOD).

KITLV will act as hosting institute.

Project aims

The team members will investigate decisive historical junctures where technological innovation, human agency, the consumption of new musical styles and the rise of new audiences came together within particular Southeast Asian urban localities. The cultural transformations and contestations taking place in these localities are intertwined with expressions of modernity.

The project aims to capture these processes in several sub-projects: 

  1. The Jazz Age (1920-1950s),

  2. Jeans, Rumba and Electric Guitars (1950s-1960s),

  3. New Cassette Traditions (1970s-1980s), and

  4. Pop, Politics and Piety in the Digital Era (1990s-2000).

More information

The team members.