Rough Guide to the Music of Malaysia

Not many countries around the world, can match Malaysia for a local music that mixes diverse styles and cultures into a pulsating roots sound. Since as early as the first century AD, the Straits of Malacca, along the Malay Peninsula’s west coast, has been one of the world’s major shipping lanes. The region linked the world’s earliest dominant markets of India and China. The Straits provided a calm refuge for ships for several months during the monsoon period, bringing the locals into intimate contact with the passing traders. In the 13th century, Arab traders arrived, bringing Islam which is today the prominent religion in Malaysia. The Portuguese conquered Malacca at the beginning of the 16th century, replaced 130 years later by the Dutch. Add influences from nearby Indonesia and Thailand, plus other western elements in more recent years, and you can begin to understand how such a unique set of circumstances has given rise to such a potent musical force.

Malaysia lies at the centre of Southeast Asia. West or Peninsula Malaysia is separated from East Malaysia or Sabah at the northern tip of Borneo by nearly 2,000 kilometres, yet are intrinsically linked ethnically and historically. Every Malaysian over 12 years old carries an identity card that indicates one of four racial categories. Today, approximately 65% of Malaysia’s 23 million people are officially categorized as ‘bumiputra’ literally ‘sons of the soil’ or Malay. Malays share a common culture and the official language, Bahasa Malaysia. The Chinese make up about 26% of the population, largely urban based, they run the majority of businesses and stores throughout the country. About 7% of the population derive from South Asia, mostly originally from India. The remaining 2% are categorized as ‘others’ and include among others Europeans, Thais, Indonesians and Americans. These figures however disguise cross racial marriage, as Malaysians can only belong to one category, and the categories imply a religious classification, the Malays being Islamic, and everyone else not.

Musically too, each racial group has retained their own musical styles in some classical and folk traditions, with little assimilation. However, when it comes to music that is played at social occasions for all kinds of celebrations, local Malay, Arabic, Indian, Chinese and Western music have all been mixed together into a living, evolving music. Furthermore, it is this music that has provided the backbone to much of Malaysia’s mainstream roots and pop, where almost uniquely in East Asia, some of the country’s biggest hits sung by the biggest stars have a decidedly local flavor. It’s these styles, both traditional and modern that make up the majority of tracks on this Rough Guide.

One such type of music is ghazal which is performed at weddings and other celebrations in several states, but particularly in Malaysia’s deep south, in the state of Johor. Ghazal is an Arabic word meaning ‘love poems’ and is believed to date back to the 8th century from ancient Persia and had become an established form of music in India by the 13th century. There are at least two theories as to its origin in Malaysia. The first is that ghazal was brought to Malaysia by Indian traders in the 19th century and was developed by the nobility. It became centered in Johor after a Malay ruler moved from Singapore to Johor.

The second theory is that ghazal developed with Wayang Parsi (Theatre) which arrived in Johor at the beginning of the 20th century. Military officers sang ghazal melodies to traditional pantun verses, Malay four line poems , and added additional instruments to the ensemble. One distinguishing feature of ghazal is the playing of tablas, as opposed to the gendang heard on other types of Malay music. The other instruments include the Indian harmonium, violin, guitar, tambourine and the Malaysian lute, the gambus, which derived from the Arabic oud, the violin and the gambus replacing the original Indian shringgi and sitar respectively. Ghazal combines Indian, Arabic, Malay and Western music and still today scores of ghazal groups are found in Johor playing all night at weddings. These days ghazal groups can play other styles of music too, such as Indonesian dangdut, but played with a distinctly ghazal flavour and have added accordion, and other instruments to the ensemble. Track 1 features the group Mari Menari playing ghazal mixed with masri a rhythm of Middle Eastern origin, sometimes compared to a belly dancing rhythm. Masri formed the basis of the rhythm for the Islamic nasyid groups such as Raihan, that emerged in the 1990s.

Masri is one of five types of rhythms and dance styles called Tarian Melayu, the others being asli, inang, joget and zapin. Zapin grew out of the Arab communities living in Johor around the 14th century. It was originally played by people of mixed Arab and Malay blood, but these days is performed throughout Malaysia. Zapin Melayu, the Malay dance form, originated from the zapin Arab style and is a gentler dance compared to the Arabic version. Musically, zapin has retained a strong Arabic flavour, mainly through the instrumentation. Aside to the gambus, the distinctive pear shaped lute Malay oud, are two percussive instruments. The marwas is a doubled headed, circular hand drum, with the skins tied tightly to the body by rope. The rhythmic patterns of the marwas are punctuated by the dok, a cone shaped single headed drum. Sometimes the frame drum, the rebana, is added together with a gong. Western violin, accordion and a flute to play the melody are also popular in contemporary zapin ensembles. Track 6, Burung Burung Ayam performed by Kumpulan Ahmad Yusoh and Rakan-Rakan is an excellent example of a contemporary zapin piece.

The mixture of various forms of music in Malaysia accelerated after the Portuguese occupation in the 16th century. The Portuguese had brought the violin, accordion and the rebana frame drum to Malaysia, which were soon incorporated into the local music. Following British colonization, from the end of the 19th century, this mixing developed even more rapidly as the local populace saw for the first time European and American movies, parsi theatre from Bombay and even Chinese opera. One form of music to appear at this time was bangsawan or Malay opera. In the 1920s, bangsawan musicians had begun to update the traditional dance styles of asli, inang, joget, zapin and masri into modern styles. By the 1930s bangsawan had gone on to influence a type of music called ronggeng. Ronggeng is a social dance whereby pantun (traditional 4-line poems) are sung to the accompaniment of accordion, violin, gong and rebana. Ronggeng groups were the main form of entertainment at weddings and other occasions throughout the country and are believed to date back to the 18th century. Ronggen groups became best known for performing the dance and rhythm called joget, to the extent that the two words became interchangeable.

Joget is a fast dance played in a four beat pattern and is probably still today the most popular traditional dance music in Malaysia danced by couples. From the 1930s, ronggen groups performed at entertainment parks in Malaysia and Singapore a type of music that became known as joget stage. Through the influence of bangsawan, ronggeng too incorporated many western elements, both in the way of singing and in the instrumentation that now included guitar, bass, piano, flute, trumpet and trombone. The music however maintained its Malay character mainly through the rhythmic dance patterns. Track 13 Johore Sports Club is a traditional style joget dance while the following Pantun Berjoget by Yusni Hamid and R. Ismail is a modern version.

Following the Japanese occupation of Malaysia in 1942, when record companies ceased releasing records, the music scene developed alongside the film industry. The Malay film industry reached its heyday during the 1950s. Bangsawan (Malay opera) choreographers found themselves in demand, the stories often being based on bangsawan tales. A number of singers emerged, the most famous of all P.Ramlee (1929-1973) who until today is a cultural icon in Malaysia and Singapore. He appeared in some 63 films as an actor and contributed some 250 songs to those films. P.Ramlee started to compose music from the age of 17, his idea being to create a new Malay music that combined Malay folk music with some lesser known local styles and other elements. Asli, inang, masri, joget and zapin rhythms were played alongside rhythms from around the world from the rumba, mambo and cha cha cha to the waltz and the twist, fused with Arabic and Indian melodies. P. Ramlee’s films depicted the lives of ordinary Malays, and appealed to all ages regardless of social class or race.

Track 10, Berkorban Apa Saja is one of P.Ramlee’s most famous tunes, performed here by the accordion player, composer and producer S.Atan. Born in Singapore, S.Atan has worked with many of Malaysia’s leading musicians. The only singer to rival P.Ramlee in the popularity stakes was his wife, Saloma. Together they dominated the Malay popular music scene throughout the 1950s. Saloma has subsequently been an influence on many female singers in Malaysia and even outside. Japanese singer Sandii cites Saloma as her main inspiration on her album of Melayu classics ‘Airmata’. Track 3 Cinta Hampa is a famous Malay song from the 1950s that was sung by Saloma and others. Also featured on this version is accordionist S.Atan and on keyboards Mac Chew who together with Jenny Chin have been responsible for producing some of Malaysia’s most creative music of the last decade and form half of the successful Blue Asia project in Japan.

In the 1960s, under the influence of primarily the Beatles and other 60s British pop groups, a new music emerged in Malaysia dubbed pop yeh-yeh- the term derived from the Beatles lyric, ‘She Loves You, yeah, yeah, yeah’. The bands, were called kumpulan gitar rancak (rhythmic guitar bands) or by the shortened term kugiran, and usually consisted of four members playing two electric guitars, bass and drums. Fredo (Track 15) grew up listening to P.Ramlee and Saloma, but came under the spell of pop yeh-yeh, and joined a succession of groups the Tombs, the Trackers, the Jets and the Asians. The Asians renamed themselves the Flybaits and became one of the most popular groups in the 1970s. After the Flybaits disbanded in 1984 Fredo formed a new group, the Flintstones. Nasib Si Gadis is a song he recorded with the Flybaits that mixes Malay elements with rock ‘n’ roll.

M. Shariff (1951-1999) who joins Zaleha Hamid on Track 5, Setia Menuggu was dubbed ‘Mr Pop Yeh-Yeh’, but also sang lagu Melayu asli or original Malay songs and other Malay folk styles. Born Shariff Awang, he added the letter M in the 60s, when it was the trend to have an initial before your name. Malaysian music lost much of its local flavour during the 1970s and early 80s. Malay artists seemed to mimic their Western counterparts whose music had become widely available, as disco beats replaced joget. One artist who helped to revitalize Malaysian roots and take it in new directions during the 1980s was Zaleha Hamid.

Born in 1954, Hamid was the lead singer in a ghazal group in Johor, (her father was a leading ghazal singer) before turning her attention to singing other Malay traditional styles and dangdut, the Indian and Arabic street music that emerged in Indonesia in the late 1960s. She spent her early career in Singapore before moving back to Malaysia in 1987. Zaleha Hamid combined Malay roots music with dangdut, the styles of two of her favourite singers, Malaysian legend Saloma, and Indonesian dangdut queen, Elvy Sukaesih. Seti Menuggu has a gentle dangdut lilt compared to the harder Indonesian style of Jakarta. Malek Ridzuan (Track 7) also sang asli in the 1980s, including the hit song Adainya Kau Sudi. Two other veterans of asli and other traditional Malay styles are female singer Rosiah Chik and M. Salim (Track 12). Shortly after being rewarded with a lifetime achievement award by the Malaysian Music industry Rosiah Chik passed away in 2006. Berdendang Sayang is a well known traditional song.

Salih Yaacob (Track 11) has probably done more than any other musician to popularize and develop dangdut in Malaysia. Originally a comedian he rose to fame in 1992 with an album that mixed dangdut with elements of bhangra. He has gone on to create various new Malaysian dangdut dance styles combined with large doses of comedy. Azizah is an Indonesian style dangdut song.

These musicians helped to pave the way for the Malaysian roots music explosion that took place from the mid 1990s, with the music called Irama Malaysia (Malaysia Beat) or sometimes dubbed ‘Pop Tradisional’. The music drew heavily from a mixture of traditional percussion instruments from throughout Malaysia, such as the kompang rebana, marwas, gendang and tabla to which gambus and accordion were often added and the lyrics sung in the traditional pantun form.

S.Atan, and another composer, producer and accordion player Pak Ngah (Track 4) wrote many Irama Malaysia songs and produced most of the leading singers. Born Suhaimi Mohammed Zain in Kuala Lumpur in 1958, Pak Ngah learnt his trade with the Malay orchestra, National Culture Complex. Hati Kama features his trademark sound and production, an instrumental version of a song originally on the album Seri Belas, featuring two of the greatest stars of modern Malaysian roots music, Siti Nurhaliza and Noraniza Idris. Track 2, Yo Allah Saidi by Noraniza Idris, is taken from that same album, Seri Belas. Noraniza Idris was born in 1968 and made her first record in the early 1990s. Like many Malaysian singers, she started off by singing the 1950s film songs of P.Ramlee and Saloma. Her big breakthrough came by working with S.Atan and Pak Ngah on the album Ala Dondang in 1997. They composed songs specifically for her, added their production techniques and this album sold about 100,000 copies. Noraniza Idris continues to sing Malay pop traditional songs, blending styles and rhythms from throughout Malaysia.

The success of a Malay traditional album by Noraniza Idris acted as a catalyst for probably Malaysia’s current leading female singer in any genre, Siti Nurhaliza. Siti was born in 1979 in Pahang, Her family performed at local weddings and she learnt traditional songs from her mother. She was spotted by a local composer Adnan Abu Hassan, who produced her first two albums. It was her third album Cindai, and especially the title track (Track 8) that brought her into the mainstream, becoming a runaway success. Cindai was written and produced by Pak Ngah with seven of the remaining nine tracks produced by S.Atan. Cindai skillfully blended Malay and Arabic music marking the highpoint of the Irama Malaysia genre. Siti Nurhaliza has gone on to divide her recorded output between Malaysian roots and pop / r&b and is today an icon for Malaysians both at home and abroad. In April 2005 she performed at London’s Royal Albert Hall to an audience of mainly Malaysians living in the UK.

Another bright young star of the current Malaysian music scene is Liza Hanim. Born Haliza Hanim Abdul Halim in 1979, she first gained fame as a finalist of TV2’s Golden Teen Search. For her second album in 1998 Liza worked with Adban Abu Hassan credited with discovering Siti Nurhaliza, on an album of covers of P.Ramlee and Saloma. Track 9, Rindu Ha Tihu Terika is one such classic revitalized for a young audience.

Malaysia has experienced some of Southeast Asia’s most rapid economic growth in the last two decades. These days Kuala Lumpur is as a symbol of this new wealth and confidence, with some striking new architecture. Petronas Towers was once the world’s tallest building, with Islamic themes, such as the twin towers resembling minarets, combined with an interior of numerous squares and circles depicting peace and harmony. Petronas Towers stands as an expression of Malaysia’s intention to be at the forefront of modern Southeast Asia while maintaining a strong cultural identity and tradition. This attitude is mirrored by many of the country’s musicians on this CD; a harmonious mixture of cultures and styles from Asia and beyond, a blend of old and new, east and west. It’s an attitude that looks set to continue as radical changes in modern music take place within the context of a proud tradition.

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