Ethnomusicology Lecture on Indonesian Sesame Street

On Oct. 28, ethnomusicologist and Assistant Professor of Music at Wake Forest University Elizabeth Clendinning hosted a lecture called “Elmo in Java: Performing Arts and Education Policy in Jalan Sesama.” The lecture discussed “Jalan Sesama,” the Indonesian version of “Sesame Street,” and its relationship to education on musical and cultural diversity.

Clendinning began with background on her interest in this topic. As a child, she was a “Sesame Street” fanatic, leading her to research adults’ perceptions of “Sesame Street” while earning her master’s. When she did doctoral research in East Java, meanwhile, she discovered “Jalan Sesama.” She said, “As I started watching ‘Jalan Sesama,’ I found it was quite different from its American counterpart. For one, they played Indonesian music rather than western pop music. But I was also interested in its portrayal of cultural diversity — in the beginning, one of “Sesame Street’s” goals was to address racial inequities through portrayals of diversity.”

After showing a clip of “Jalan” in which Elmo is introduced to traditional Wayang music, Clendinning stated her thesis. She said she wanted to gain insight into the challenges of constructing pluralistic education in Indonesia through an examination of “Jalan Sesama.” She would do this by considering the history of mass media and cultural representation in Indonesia, closely analyzing “Jalan” clips and discussing conflicts between teaching about cultural diversity and fostering a general appreciation for cultural diversity.

She first gave background on Indonesia. She emphasized the nation’s diversity and lack of cohesion — Indonesia contains 260 million people spread across over 1000 islands. Its main religion is Islam, but it has five other national religions. Appropriately, its national motto is “Bhinneka Tunggal Ika,” which translates to “Unity in Diversity.”

However, Indonesia has had trouble with maintaining this unity. Clendinning said, “It’s really important to unite this group of people. Otherwise, they won’t see themselves as a nation and won’t be governed as a nation.” In the 1960s, television became the nation’s most viable uniting force.

Clendinning then provided background for “Sesame Street.” The program was created in 1966 by the Carnegie and Ford Foundations as an after-school program for kids. At the time, its social focus was on combating racism. It was a massive success, and by 1996, 95 percent of American preschoolers had seen “Sesame Street.”

This led to 33 co-productions developed in different locations around the world, all with locally tailored social focuses. The “Sesame Street” derivative in South Africa, for instance, was meant to combat the country’s HIV/AIDS epidemic.

“Jalan Sesama,” meanwhile, was the most recent “Sesame Street” derivative, and the most short-lived. It began in 2008, having been funded by USAID and the Indonesian government, and ended in 2010. In its three years on the air, it managed to reach 7.5 million children, roughly two-thirds of its desired audience. “Jalan Sesama,” which translates to “a street for all,” aimed to create national unity by teaching the diversity of Indonesian culture. To do this, it captured pieces of culture from different parts of the nation. However, Clendinning pointed out, “These represented cultures were primarily west Java, Bali and central Java. ‘Jalan’ didn’t move very far from Indonesia’s center of governmental power to other provinces that are less often represented.”

Clendinning then expanded on “Jalan’s” portrayal of diversity. She explained that there were two types of segments that addressed diversity: the “street scene,” which presented a neutral street space where diversity could be examined, and ethnographic segments in which a child would travel to a part of Indonesia and experience a piece of culture, most often a performance of some sort.

She showed an example of a “street scene,” which started with a puppet named “Putri” that wanted to learn a new way to sing the alphabet. Magically, a band appeared that taught Putri how to sing the alphabet in the genre of “kroncong” — “kroncong” is a type of music considered relevant to ancient Indonesian heritage. Clendinning said of the clip, “It’s interesting that this band can magically appear on this street, but without context, right? They don’t tell you what it is, where it comes from, or why it’s here. But it’s an exposure to the sound.” Clendinning would continually return to this theme of “Jalan” presenting music, but not providing their viewers with any cultural context.

She then showed another “street scene,” in which Putri and a young girl met a player of the Balinese gamelan. The player taught the girl the basics of gamelan, and after she played a rudimentary melody, Putri started dancing. While an entertaining scene, Clendinning pointed out the inaccuracies with its portrayal of the gamelan. The instrument, for one, is meant to be played in an ensemble, and “Jalan” portrayed it as a singular instrument. As a result, she said, “There’s no sense of the structure of the music, the community of the music or the sense of cultural context, besides it being from Bali.”

Finally, Clendinning showed an ethnographic scene. It showed a boy attending a Wayang Golek performance, an Indonesian art form in which puppet shows are presented with backing gamelan music. This scene had similar problems to the two previous scenes. Most glaringly, Clendinning pointed out, the traditional gamelan music was absent from the performance video. Rather, a basic melody was overlaid over the diegetic sounds of the performance. Clendinning said this masked much of its original context.

She then shared the conclusions of her presentation. She started by discussing the issues with “Jalan” being a US import. Upon its inception, Islamic critics feared that “Jalan” would be a conduit for US propaganda because of its USAID funding. It turned out their fears had merit — there were plans to represent puppets in traditional hijabs, for instance, but these plans were scrapped. Clendinning said, “For a country where religious diversity and religious practice are so important, there’s no religious content presented in ‘Jalan’ at all. This is perhaps more of an American style of diversity than the pluralistic style of Indonesia.”

In addition to its Americanized approach, Clendinning said that “Jalan” speaks more generally to the difficulties with teaching cultural and musical diversity. She stressed that the artistic complexities of Asian and Indonesian music, for instance, cannot be expressed in the simplistic, context-free manner that they are in “Jalan Sesama.” She concluded that “‘Jalan Sesama’ provides a compelling but conflicting model of how traditional performing arts in mass media can be employed to imagine a trans-cultural pluralistic education.”

Following a short Q&A, the presentation ended. With her examination of “Jalan Sesama,” Clendinning was able to extract valuable insights from a truly unique source.