Malay music: A culture
in a coma

Ade F. Paloh, Contributor/Jakarta

An old verse from a classic Malay song by the legendary Said Effendy goes Mengapa kau termenung/oh adik berhati bingung, which means ""why do you ponder, O my sister with puzzled heart"".

A great virtuoso of Malay music and literature, if he was alive today, Said might also ponder on the fate of Malay culture in this ""hyper-modern"" Indonesia.

The majority of Indonesians, who are also considered to be of Malay origin, come from low- and middle-income backgrounds and generally engage in hard labor. The only consolation they have in everyday life is to listen to a type of music with Malay influences called dangdut.

Dangdut, which derives its name from the sound of pounding percussion, is a music that originally hails from India, brought to Indonesia over the centuries by traders from that sub-continent.

Over the years, the original musical form blended with the indigenous folksongs at the root of Malay music. Today, this cross-culture blend is the backbone of the majority of Indonesian pop culture.

Ironically, Malay music, with its similar rhythm, is also mistakenly considered dangdut.

Malay music has its advantages and disadvantages for the Indonesian taste. It has wonderful lyrics written in poetic verse called pantun -- an ancient story-telling custom for folklore and sagas of the olden days -- and which is sung in a flowing, melodious rap-like manner.

Malay music is usually played with a five-piece set consisting of a guitar, a contra-bass, a violin, a conga drum and the instrument that sets this type of music apart from dangdut -- an accordion. Sometimes performers ritually dress in the traditional Malay costume, teluk belanga, a beautiful ensemble of silky tunics and pantaloons of various colors, fastened around the waist with an embroidered gold-lace fabric called songket.

An observer might stop and enjoy the mere sight of the performers, particularly the singer, swaying gently to the rhythm of the music, as if swaying in a gentle breeze.

Distinctively indigenous to the northern region of Sumatra, specifically the cultures of Riau, the Minang, the Bengkulu, the Melayu Deli of Medan, the Acehnese and some parts of Borneo, Malay music is embraced as a proud part of their national identity, and is held close to their hearts.

This is not the case in Java, the ""barometer"" of Indonesian culture.

The Javanese, with their own unique mystical culture, generally opt for more vivacious, sensual and arousing types of entertainment, in accordance to their own traditions of seductive dances, and so prefer the more mainstream dangdut.

The advent of music videos and numerous television shows, parading spandex-wearing dangdut ""divas"" wiggling their enormous backsides and thrusting their hips at the audience while they sing, has helped to cement this type of music as more entertaining -- if not arousing -- and is keeping up with modern culture more than its dying counterpart, with its more conventional ""Islamic connontations"" and traditional costume-wearing ""old-timers"".

It is no wonder, then, that the media might no longer be inclined to endorse a decrepit art form that no one watches, and would rather welcome and embrace, inevitably, a more self-indulging, contemporary art form in their programs. Subsequently, local TV stations in Sumatra -- which air Malay music programs twice a week -- have followed suit, injecting a high dose of eye-popping, mouth-dribbling musical extravagances in their shows.

Occasionally, singers the likes of Iyeth Bustami, a native of Medan, North Sumatra, and Siti Nurhaliza, a diva from the neighboring country of Malaysia, would come along and re-introduce popular Malay hit songs that resuscitate it back from obscurity to contemporary bosoms.

Hits like Laksmana Raja di Laot, sang by Iyeth, has for some time restored audiences to sing along in acquiescence without so much care for the appealing sensuality of the performer.

In Malaysia, the land of the legendary artist P. Ramlee and which is also known to be the only nation to uphold the sacred Malay culture, has also produced its own progeny in the shape of Too Phat, a hip-hop group. Too Phat, in 2002, came out with Anak Ayam, a traditional Malay folksong arranged digitally with a flute-like instrument in the chorus.

Anak Ayam was such a big hit, it prompted U.S. hip-hop artist Warren G to produce a song with the Malaysian group.

Unfortunately, in Indonesia, Malay hit songs tend not to hold reign at the top of the charts for too long for its lack of visual enticement, and singers like Iyeth and Siti thus tend to work with more mainstream materials in order to survive in the industry.

People still sing along with the tunes, but this has become a novelty -- and many make a joke of themselves as being a retro-geek.

In the golden days of the tranquility of the 1940s and 1950s, Malay music never had it so good.

With such extraordinary armies of talented virtuosos such as P. Ramlee, Said Effendy, Sam Saimun and Asnah Tahar, and with such unforgettable evergreen hits such as Fatwa Pujangga, Bunga Seroja and Diambang Sore, composed and produced in the style of big bands, Malay music became an export culture, placing Malay nations on the map of musical brilliance.

But over the years, it has lost its golden charm and appeal, because in the age of modernization, what you see is what you get -- not so much so in what you hear. The older generation still lingers in its glory, and nostalgia-retro geek members of the younger generation still search within the core of that culture for the tranquility it provides.

And sporadically, this culture would slip out of its coma once in a while and peek outside its window -- only to doze off again.

So it remains in its slumber, awaiting someone, somewhere, to revive and restore it.

The writer is a vocalist and guitarist of the acclaimed indie band Sore. Of Acehnese origin, Ade is a long-time lover of traditional Malay music.

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