CultureNews

by Inez Hollander, Ph.D. – Academic Director of The Indo Project

Introduction

Lizzy van Leeuwen’s Volksvreemd vermaak: De Oost en de West op de Nederlandse podia voor en tijdens de Duitse bezetting (Amsterdam: Prometheus, 2023) 

This important book tells a history that, until now, has received little attention in the overall Dutch obsession with World War II. Maybe this neglect is intentional: after all, aside from the Dutch tendency to look away and/or hypercorrect the Dutch colonial record, some Dutch readers may be uncomfortable with this book that unveils a form of Dutch racism that outperformed the racist policies of the Nazis during their occupation of the Netherlands from 1940 to 1945.

Music and Dance Amidst War and Censorship

More to the point, it tells the story of how not only jazz (mostly through Surinamese musicians) was first received in the Netherlands, but also how music from the Dutch East Indies (gamelan, krontjong and Hawaiian music) and Javanese dance were introduced and evolved in the public perception before and during the war. That this formative stage of this imported music, orchestra and dance in the Netherlands coincided with the war, occupation and censorship makes this book all the more enticing and a must read for music historians and music lovers alike.

The Impact of Jazz

From an American point of view, jazz was an art form that, within the larger parameters of Modernism, broke with traditional music and formed an abrupt break from how America viewed itself and Europe. After all, America copied its culture and art from Europe, until the first jazz sounds from New Orleans showed that America, but black culture in particular, was perfectly capable of creating its own and innovative art forms. Notwithstanding initial racism and the hyping up of black stereotypes (a pattern that would repeat itself when jazz arrived in the Netherlands) jazz and jazz culture became such a viral force that it may be considered the first affirmative art moment in black American history: while whites owned most everything, through jazz, black musicians (and black poets of the Harlem Renaissance) realized they could at least own their own music and poetry.

Jazz’s entry into the Netherlands triggered access for black artists who were formerly shunned, but it also coincided with the rise of the NSB (the Dutch fascist party) that fulminated against such access.

Art Forms from the Dutch East Indies

Indonesian art forms had an easier time penetrating Dutch society. As long as the Indonesian anthem (Indonesia Raya) was not played (and forbidden anyway by the Dutch government), Indonesians, who studied in the Netherlands, focused on more traditional art forms such as gamelan but also Javanese martial arts and dance.

Krontjong, which in the Dutch East Indies had evolved from Portuguese fado, underwent its own transformation due to cultural connotations which bothered Indos: while originally and exclusively an Indo genre (and popularized in the Netherlands through radio and movies), krontjong was abandoned by most Indos themselves but adopted by both Indonesian and Dutch musicians, and so much so that it came to be seen as a purely Indonesian genre.

Added to that was Hawaiian music: “Between Hawaii and the Moluccas there was a straight line,” Van Leeuwen writes, “and from a musical point of view there was a kinship between the two archipelagos.”

Interestingly, and no doubt due to the once-decadent role of Weimar Berlin, Germans were very much interested in the exoticism of this kind of music, so Dutch ensembles who did krontjong, Hawaiian music and gamelan were also wildly popular in Germany. 

Challenges During German Occupation

But then the German occupation happened, and how could a country such as Nazi Germany allow for black jazz musicians and Indonesian singers and dancers in the Netherlands when it propagated that such art forms were “degenerate”, not native to the Aryan race and therefore had to be censored and forbidden? If anything, these performances were only becoming more popular. This was because they offered much-needed escapism for the citizens of an occupied country, but also, and more importantly, many Surinamese (who had come to the Netherlands for work) and Indonesians (students of the Indonesian elite and aristocratic families who had come to the Netherlands to study) had become stranded in the Netherlands and needed to make ends meet. 

Artistic Resistance and Survival

The answer to the question why these entertainers were able to continue to perform is nuanced, if not complicated, contradictory and controversial. The Germans saw the Dutch as a kindred people, and therefore they didn’t want to come down too hard on them initially. Secondly, German soldiers loved the entertainment that was offered in cities such as Amsterdam, Rotterdam and The Hague and didn’t seem bothered, or rather, seemed willing to ignore the racial politics in exchange for an evening of fun. Thirdly, the Nazis more or less outsourced the so-called “Kultuurkamer” (the censorship organization that all artists had to be a member of in order to work) to the earlier-mentioned NSB. These Dutch fascists didn’t share the cosmopolitan tastes of the German soldiers who listened to jazz or krontjong in the Netherlands, but started throwing up serious road blocks to the majority of these colonial performers.

The way in which these performers avoided these roadblocks and kept performing, but also, in some cases, kept resisting the Nazi regime, sometimes risking their lives, is nothing short of heroic. As such, these artists did more for the Netherlands and Dutch culture during the war years than most of the Dutch themselves.

Individual Artists

Van Leeuwen’s book is a compelling account of a number of these stage personalities and performers, and an invitation to any researcher who wants to do a monograph or biography on any of these remarkable artists (Max Woiski, Boy Edgar, Kid Dynamite, Soegeng Notohadinegero, Mike Hidalgo, The Ramblers, Albert Lafour, Jodjana, the Honolulu Queens, Assid van Hoek, Indra Kamadjojo, Singie Switie, Wout Steenhuis, and Tomjati are all covered). Most questionable and bizarre is the role played by Will Gilbert (real and less glamorous name: Willem van Steensel) who was a Dutch jazz critic before the war, but became a vocal member of the Kultuurkamer and raved and raged against jazz performances, in order to censor and ban it all.

Call for Translation and Continued Research

Due to the uncharted territory Van Leeuwen explores, this book deserves an English translation or edition, and possibly more follow-up research and publications. It shows how art and the fight to keep making art against the great odds of censorship are essential for our survival as a whole. In fact, this theme may be more topical than we think, as we live in a time where the notion of censorship (from the right and the left) is rearing its ugly head again.

The author and publisher disclaim any liability in connection with the use of the information and content of this article.

5 Comments

  1. Hello Marsha,
    You took the words right out of my mouth! Not only do I have my mother’s vinyls, but also some from a chosen uncle. I’m sure there are others in the same boat as us. Have you listened to any of them? I have one specific favorite album by Rudy van Dalm.

  2. Hi Marsha,
    Did you ever get a reply from anyone interested in the albums? When my mother passed away, she had several CDs of Indo music which unfortunately disappeared some time after her funeral and no one knows what became of them…

  3. What a coincidence that there should be an article in this month’s “The Indo Project” regarding “Krontjong.” My parents (both were born in Indonesia before immigrating first to The Netherlands and then to the United States) both passed away in 2008 and after cleaning out their home, I ended up with several record albums of Krontjong music. They have just sat in a closet, untouched, since then. I have been in the midst of cleaning and purging my home of unused items, and wondered what I could do with these albums. There are also several Hawiaan music albums. I didn’t want to just give them away to Goodwill but if anyone would be interested in them, I would happily pass them along. I would much rather someone enjoy them versus sitting in my closet!

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