Here’s an edited transcript of The Classical Gabfest Podcast (Episode 10) where I was interviewed about Slave Orchestras from November 2020. I’ve linked relevant content/sources within the text and the podcast link for the episode has other related links listed. The interview is the third segment and starts at about minute 00:34:12 and ends at about minute 00:5315.

The Classical Gabfest. A weekly discussion about the ever-changing world of classical music. Hosts: Tiffany Lu, Kensho Watanabe, and William White.


Tiffany Lu: We are onto our last segment. Will, what do you have for us?

William White: Jon Silpayamanant is a multi-instrumentalist, composer, and music educator born in thailand and raised in the United States. As an independent scholar and music historian he centers his experience as an intercultural musician to examine music and culture through a Postcolonial lens. 

This past July he posted an article on his blog titled “Classical Music and its Slave Orchestras” delving into the centuries-long practice of European Colonizers training enslaved people in the practice of Western classical music and forming orchestras of these musicians to serve as their entertainment. 

In the article and an accompanying twitter thread Silpayamanant chronicles slave orchestras in locales as diverse as Indonesia, Brazil, and South Africa and he cites examples of both indigenous and imported slave labor being subjugated for this purpose.

This history is fascinating, horrendous, and wildly under known in contemporary musical culture so we are extremely pleased to have Jon Silpayamanant with us today to unearth what he has discovered.

Jon, thanks so much for being with us today and welcome to the podcast.

Jon Silpayamanant: Thank you so much for having me, Will.

WW: Your story starts in Indonesia and I have to admit that as somebody who was born and raised in the United States obviously they’re a huge lacunae in my historical knowledge and one of those was about just the basic history that there was slavery going on in Indonesia by the colonizing Dutch people. Can you just give us a background, a little bit about that before we launch into the slave orchestra part of this yeah. 

JS: Sure, sure. We obviously are much more familiar here in the West with the Trans-Atlantic slave trade but there was a Trans-Pacific slave trade and an Indian Ocean slave trade as well that happened and took place amongst Southeast Asian countries, some mainland [East and South] Asian countries as well. 

So with the Dutch it’s estimated that between one or two million Indonesians were enslaved. Often just kept there in Indonesia but sometimes also shipped to other countries. Part of that trade included some of the Chinese migrants that had settled into Indonesia. Especially after the 1740 uprising, a lot of those Chinese Indonesians ended up becoming enslaved and were then shipped off to South Africa or other parts of that Indian Ocean area of slave trade. So yeah, it’s a part of the slave trade we’re not as familiar with here in the West and I think that also limits our understanding of how widespread and global the slave institution was.

WW: So tell us a little bit about slave orchestras in Indonesia. What time period are we talking about here?

JS: For Indonesia that would have been the mid 1600s until almost 1900, and in some cases  ensembles that were formed in the 1800s did continue into the 20th Century and were populated by former slave musicians. This actually happened a lot with the slave orchestras, especially in countries where slavery lasted until the early 20th century: there’s this tie over into the 20th century where a lot of the musicians stayed in those groups or joined other groups that formed afterwards. 

The earliest slave orchestras that we know about were in Manila mainly due to the Spanish Empire and some of those slave musicians, from what I understand, were shipped all the way from Mexico to Manila to perform in churches. Many of the early slave orchestras, ensembles, and choruses were church service musicians. 

Later ensembles became more of a status symbol.  High-ranking governors in different colonies would have an orchestra to say “I’m rich. I’m powerful. I have an orchestra.” 

WW: It’s almost like a European court orchestra.

JS: Yeah, very much. Often the orchestra is required to be able to play many different types of functions, not just the sacred and concert music performances but even weddings ceremonies, rituals: I even found one reference to an orchestra in Brazil that was required to also play opera.

TY: I’m curious about the terminology of slave orchestra. So are these people enslaved to play in orchestras or slaves who whose slavery preceded their orchestra role and who were discovered to have, you know, musical talents and thus kind of co-opted from their normal duties of working the fields or whatever it was?

JS: Right. Yeah. That’s a very, very interesting question. I’ve been looking for the centers of education for the slave orchestras. There are at least two “schools” I know of. Schools of music for slave musicians. One in Brazil, Santa Cruz, and then one apparently in Mexico City which is [from] where the Jesuits sent the musicians to [other] Spanish colonies. I imagine in those places they were probably recruited specifically because of their musical aptitude. It’s hard to know as I haven’t been able to find a whole lot of information in English about that. So I’ve been having to search in the languages of the colonized countries to find any reference to these things but in other cases, I think in most cases, it’s just the slave owners discovered they can play music, so let’s use them to play music.

Kensho Watanabe: I was really struck by the featured image on top of your article that you wrote which is a Japanese silk scroll from the late, I think, 18th century that depicts Dutch traders entertaining their Japanese guests in the Dutch trading compound with musician slaves in the background. This kind of depiction in art is something that I had not come across before so one of my questions is do you know of any other works of art or primary sources that do talk about this or in a different way and perhaps this is the first kind of touring orchestra that we know of, whether it was voluntary or not, that this is also that kind of status symbol that these traders were bringing along with them just to show that they were well off?

Ambionese musician slaves in Dutch trading compound of Dejima in Nagasaki. Japanese silk scroll from late 18th century (depicts earlier Edo period). The slaves are from Ambon, Malaku (Indonesia). An estimated million or more Indonesians and other Southeast Asians were sold and traded by the Dutch. Original at The British Museum:

JS: I actually recently posted another [Twitter] thread about slave bands in Brazil and I actually came across some photographs. Because slavery in Brazil lasted until 1888 that’s well into the era of photography, early photography. There are actually a couple of photos that I posted in that thread of slave bands. So yes, that’s one of the things I want to find is more imagery because if this is so widespread, there surely must be more imagery out there.

WW: Do we know of any composers who came out of these slave orchestras either in, say, Manila or Indonesia or Japan or Brazil? Are there any names that we should know as creative artists or is that just lost to history? 

JS: That is the other thing I am really hoping to find. There is apparently a manuscript from 1783 or [17]90 called the Libro Sesto (which is “sixth book”) and it apparently was copied by a slave musician, a woman named María Antonia, and she was, from what I understand, the “house entertainer” and so she would basically play these tunes on whatever keyboard instrument was in the household. The thing is this was a copy of a publication from Spain so an actual book that was published in Spain that had been circulating that we no longer have any extant copies of. 

This is the only copy, which was a handwritten manuscript by a slave, and the thing is there are some compositions by Spanish musicians that we didn’t even know were Spanish composers for one. Two, there are some compositions by [Ignace Joseph] Pleyel that we didn’t know existed because they’re not listed in other catalogs of his works. There are some compositions of [Franz Joseph] Haydn. These would have been contemporary pieces, a lot of these works. Then there are, I think 72, anonymous compositions as well.

WW: There’s a tantalizing possibility that some of those anonymous compositions could have been by perhaps this woman who was the copyist or by some of her colleagues.

TY: Well, I guess what I was wondering is a little bit connected to, so we’re talking about composers, but like did they have Improvisation or any of these sorts of more fluid methods of performing embedded into their traditions. Were there any seepage of local or from the slaves’ cultural backgrounds, into the music they were playing? That’s what I’m really curious about.

JS: When talking about the music the description is they’re playing European music. Which doesn’t help a lot, but there is talk about the the style and the the way the musicians changed it or adapted it because sometimes they would use indigenous instruments in these ensembles. 

I learned about this phenomenon through the Indonesian slave orchestras and through Frankie Raden who had written his master’s thesis and included a lot of this information but he’s also written a number of pieces as well and did this really, really fascinating collaboration, which there are no recordings of online unfortunately, with the [la] Baroque Nomad group where they tried to recreate some of these types of performances with native Indonesian musicians and baroque musicians. And that was some of the descriptions you find of the early Indonesian [slave] orchestras in that they would sometimes play their Gamelan with the baroque instruments. So they would incorporate some of that style, stylistic things, and structures. 

And then if we look at the Caribbean: I’ve read about some of the slave musicians from Haiti, especially after the revolution, and then their migration to New Orleans and Southern US and how the styles that they played classical music in incorporated a lot of Afro-Cuban or Afro-Caribbean rhythms. So yeah, I think there’s a lot of interesting things to be discovered as far as the performance practice itself and how it’s changed in these different countries and colonies.

WW: And what about here in the US? Do we have any examples of slave orchestras in our own history?

JS: I unfortunately found very little about slave orchestras, per se, in the US, but I know that I’ve read accounts of dance music musicians playing for dances and ballroom functions and things like that. So they certainly existed though I think also because of the early US choral emphasis, that probably shaped the evolution of how classical music developed in this country. 

KW: What I find fascinating is that there’s still so much to discover and read about all of this but the other side of it that you have written extensively about is the use of classical music as part of this kind of forced assimilation strategy and I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about the work that you’ve done there and also how I think it’s also important for organizations that do perform classical music to start having a conversation and to start actually revealing some of these facts and have an honest dialogue about it. So how would you suggest for that to start?

JS: Well, let me go back and just describe the whole idea of forced assimilation. I’ve known about Indian Boarding Schools for some time, mainly through a lot of my Native American or Indian friends. They were called Indian Boarding Schools, at least in the US, and basically that period – especially from the late 1900s to the early 20th Century Native American and Indigenous children were taken from their tribes, whether coerced or actually forcibly taken, and brought to the schools and then basically forced to become “Good Americans.” So the purpose was to create subjects that had this Western/American education. In many cases that included learning classical music: learning how to play the instruments; learning how to sing in choirs, play in orchestras, play in band; and the Carlisle Indian Boarding School was one of the earliest in the US. 

There are actually some photos of the Indian children post performance. There was a production of The Captain of Plymouth and the children were forced to perform both the early Pilgrims as well as Indians. And it’s just grotesque seeing the photos because you know they’re not only performing the racist caricature stereotypes of themselves but that it was that a part of their training was to learn how to do all these Western artforms. And the thing is that ties in so very closely with the early rise of US education and how that was shaped because it was another period of a lot of immigration (that was called the Third Wave of immigration). I think we don’t understand how much of that early music education (and just education in general) history is tied to those forms of assimilative practices. 

TY: Now knowing what we know about this, which we admit is very little, if we zoom out a little bit at the end of your article you ask “what if we started teaching the history of classical music that hasn’t whitewashed out slavery and colonialism?” so I want to dig into that a little bit. What if we started doing that? What do we do now? As a person who teaches a 101 music history course what is the direction we ought to be going in now to incorporate this knowledge, or this gap in our knowledge more accurately?

JS: Well, in a way since everyone’s all about diversifying the curriculum, how do we do that? Because we have a very multicultural society, especially in the US, and so many different types of cultures, ethnicities, religious backgrounds, and now gender and sexual – well I mean not that this is something new as they’ve always existed but it’s been coming to the fore: All of these different ways of having culture which also have their own ways of approaching music, how do we create a diverse environment for them and what does that even mean now?

So what one of the projects I’ve been working on on top of the assimilation issue is looking at different types of music education programs throughout the US that do not focus on the Western music education like in the Bay Area of San Francisco/Oakland. There’s a huge Chinese American population there; also there’s also a huge number of Chinese [Traditional] orchestras and ensembles that perform; there’s a education system that allows you to learn Chinese music through the school system up to the college level. In the Dearborn/Detroit area, there’s a huge Arab American population: the National Arab Orchestra is the big orchestra there and some of the elementary schools have Arabic music programs.

WW: As a way of wrapping up here I wanted to go back to the beginning of this article where you make reference to Handel having invested some of his money in slave companies and the fact that Leopold Mozart’s patrons might have been also involved economically in the slave trade and so I guess my question for you is does knowing that ruin the music for you? Does it affect how you perceive, say, the music of Handel or Mozart or anything like that?

JS: I’ve long had this, I don’t want to say a chip on my shoulder, but let me give you a little bit of background. When I finished my music degree in cello performance, right after graduating I quit playing the cello. I was just done with classical music: done with the whole idea of having a very, very narrow and strict [musical] canon. So it’s this bone I have to pick which always existed but growing up a biracial Thai American the music I listened to in the household was Thai – Thai popular music or Thai folk music. So I’ve always had this sense that there was something more to be had out there.

So learning that Handel and Mozart and probably a lot of the early European composers probably going up until the end of the 19th century had patrons that may have had some investments – and certainly the wealth built by Europe in general was built on the back of these colonies and on the backs of slaves all around the world and the theft of resources so – that now becomes a background for when I’m listening to, or even thinking about classical music. 

Would this even exist if the wealth hadn’t been stolen through imperial means; if that didn’t happen would we even have the resources to be able to build large scale orchestras, large scale  operas/ballets? How would those things have evolved absent all those resources? These are the questions that are now constantly in the back of my mind especially after reading and learning more about slave orchestras and colonization and all how all that ties into Western culture and the enrichment of Western culture

I don’t know if that’s the answer for everyone else. Obviously we’re going to have to approach it on our own terms and decide how much we want to invest in changing what we’re doing: our activities, our musicking activities, our teaching of music activities, and things like that but for me I’ve also spent a lot of the past 15 to 20 years performing a lot of music from outside of the West anyway so it’s not that big of a stretch for me. 

WW: This is as I said at the beginning it’s both fascinating and horrendous but mainly it’s totally under known and under reported and so I really do want to thank you for bringing this to light, for coming on the program today and for making our listeners aware of this history. Before we let you go would you be willing to stick around and recommend something for our classical mixtape segment.

JS: Oh yes. Definitely. First I want to thank all three of you for having me and giving me this opportunity to, I guess, talk-vent about the classical music world and how much we don’t know about it.

TY: That’s all we do on this podcast anyway.

JS: Okay, well I fit in just fine!



KW: In our classical mixtape segment we each recommend some music that’s caught our ear this week to share with our listeners. So Jon, what do you have for us this week?

JS: I mentioned Frankie Raden, who was the  ethnomusicologist who described the Indonesian slave orchestras but he’s also a composer and also formed the National Indonesian Orchestra which is basically an orchestra formed of native Indonesian instruments. He composed this piece called the “Concerto for Indonesian National Orchestra and that’s what I would like to recommend.

Premiere performance of ‘Concerto for Indonesian National Orchestra’ by Franki Raden. Performance by INO at Balairung Sapta Pesona, Jakarta.

WW: Like Tiffany was commenting, when that section starts you’ve got those little cymbals and she was like “you know, this sounds like Peking Opera!” It seems to have this very international blend to it.

JS: One of the governors of Indonesia actually owned four orchestras: one of which was a Gamelan orchestra; one of which was the Western orchestra; one of which was basically a band, a concert band or marching band; and the last of which was a Chinese traditional orchestra. 

WW: So in this piece he [Frankie Raden] kind of combines a lot of those threads into one thing.

JS: Yeah, so these these [Chinese] musicians have been in Indonesia for a couple centuries or more and they’re ethnically Chinese and play their own music and so he’s incorporated all of these different strands into the Indonesian National Orchestra!

KW: Well, Jon that’s absolutely fascinating. Thank you for sharing that with us.

2 thoughts on “Slave Orchestras: Classical Gabfest Interview Transcript

  1. Hi, Mae, I’ve been reading the transcript because I am looking for iconography of slave orchestras in Haiti (then Saint Domingue) in the 18th century. I write about Cuban music history, and certain aspects of that have their origins in music from Haiti at the time of the Haitian revolution. Anyway, I thought I could shed some light on some areas where you are still searching for answers. French and Spanish patrician colonists both believed that providing entertainment for others was beneath them, so they didn’t. In the early days of slavery in the Caribbean colonies, they taught the African people they had enslaved to play European instruments, read music, etc, so they could force them to entertain them. Going forward, enslaved parents taught their children music (it was less dangerous work than field work, although there’s no evidence that musicians were not forced to work in the field when their musical services were not needed). This is one reason why you’re not finding evidence of schools. This practice of musical families educating generation after generation continues well beyond the end of slavery, well into the 20th century. Iconography of orchestras — especially dance ensembles — in the Spanish and French Caribbean will nearly always depict black performers. You’re finding less evidence of this for the US because racism played out differently here. While there is plenty of iconography showing small ensembles of black performers (mostly fiddle and banjo) performing for white dancers, especially in rustic settings, professional classical musicians were perceived as elite and distinguished, so while young white musicians aspired to enter conservatory and be employed by a symphony orchestra, enslaved and later free African Americans were denied access to instruments, schools, etc, just as they were denied access to other forms of education.

    Also, I know it sounds like a tremendous burden, but it’s very difficult to progress in research if you can’t read the language that most of the evidence is written in. I hate to say it, but I think you should grin and bear it and learn both Indonesian AND Dutch. You don’t have to speak it, just read it. Your work will go more smoothly.

    Your work is very interesting. Keep it up!


    1. Hi, Jessica!

      Thanks for your comments, and just to clarify, my blog’s name is “Mae Mai” and I’m the author of the posts. I probably should make that more clear in the blog title space.

      But yes–so many of those things I’m coming to realize all the things you say here and getting a sense for different periods of “development” for slave musicians. Obviously there are so many differences between how colonized regions treated their slaves and how that bears out in those local histories. I’ve also long accepted that I’ll have to be able to be at least somewhat competent, if not fluent, in reading in reading many of these colonial regions’ languages.

      Thanks so much for your comments and especially your dissertation about Cuban Charaga and the flute and your discussion about some of the slave history background of that!!

      Jon Silpayamanant


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