Traditional Malay Music

Traditional Malay Music

(Guest Post by Mariam Jamilah)

Traditional Malay music is an important art form in Malay culture. It can be found in different arts genres like wayang golek, wayang kulit, dance and films. Despite that, it is no longer as popular among the younger generation. This could be due to many factors, some of which include the melody, rhythm, lyrics, or the lack of awareness of the existence of traditional Malay music, or what it represents.

Traditional Malay music generally has a gentle melody–imagine a breeze in midday. Unfortunately such gentle melodies are not favoured by most youth as they find it boring. Modern lifestyles are fast-paced, and the accompanying music seems to also have faster tempos. Many youngsters who enjoy partying are less drawn to the somewhat melancholic tunes of traditional Malay music.

The older generation seems better able to appreciate the slow beats and loud volume of traditional Malay music. You may have seen them dancing enthusiastically at gatherings or celebrations. One specific example that comes to my mind is the Pesta Raya festival at the Esplanade in Singapore. A group of musicians performed a song in the genre known as Inang. An elderly lady was seen moving gracefully to the beat of the song. To uninformed ears, the music perhaps sounded more like a form of meditation or a self-soothing lullaby.

This lack of appreciation of traditional Malay music extends to not understanding song lyrics. Traditionally, the lyrics are chockful of advice and wisdom. They might also be poems or Malay folktales. An example of this would be the song “Pantun Budi”, translated as “Poems on Mannerism”. These song lyrics advise the Malay community to be part of a well-mannered and cultured society. This differs from modern pop music, which might contain lyrics which perhaps address topics that are somewhat trivial or superficial. A certain grasp and flair of the Malay language is also required, in order to fully appreciate the idea that Malay music is in fact rich in history, language and culture. Perhaps in our pursuit of efficiency while trying to cope with stress, we have less time and patience to truly listen to and delve deep into the hidden meaning and beauty found in traditional Malay music.

So, is traditional Malay music in fact uncool or regressive? I would argue that the lack of interest is due more to lack of exposure or awareness. As the Malay saying goes, “ sekiranya tidak kenal, sukar untuk jatuh cinta!”- “if one does not know, it is hard to fall in love!”. I am also aware that there are those who remain intrigued by traditional Malay music. In fact, the internet and social media easily connect us to examples of this art form. Type in some keywords and ta-dah, a long list of articles and videos beckon! There are also some who are so taken with traditional Malay music that they voluntarily join interest groups or the music industry to pursue their passion or to deepen their research.

On a brighter note, there are also youths who combine or sample traditional Malay music with pop or rock music. This can help lesser known tunes reach a wider market and perhaps gain a new following. It is my wish that traditional Malay music continues to get remixed with new music, or be used in performances, videos and educational materials. This gradual exposure to traditional Malay music would help generate interest and contribute to the preservation of the art form. This topic is something dear to me and my culture, and with luck, I can continue adding to my personal understanding and appreciation of traditional Malay music whether at school from teachers, or in my leisure time from friends, family or seniors.

I’d love to hear from fans of traditional Malay music out there. Which aspect of the music captivates you?

Listen to contemporary Gamelan music

Listen to Zapin Ghalit, a traditional Malay song