Music and Dance
An Exotic Ensemble of Enchanting Experiences
Malaysia's multi-cultural and multi-racial heritage is most prominently exhibited in its diverse music and dance forms. The dances of the indigenous Malay, Orang Asli and different ethnic peoples of Sabah and Sarawak are truly exotic and enchanting. As the Chinese, Indians and Portuguese settled in Malaysia, the traditional dances of their homelands became a part of Malaysia's culture and heritage.
Malaysia has two traditional orchestras: the gamelan and the nobat. Originally from Indonesia, the gamelan is a traditional orchestra that plays ethereal lilting melodies using an ensemble of gongpercussion and stringed instruments. The nobat is a royal orchestra that plays more solemn music for the courts using serunai and nafiriwind instruments.
In the days of the ancient Malay kingdoms, the resounding rhythmic beats of the giant rebana ubi drums conveyed various messages from warnings of danger to wedding announcements. Later, they were used as musical instruments in an assortment of social performances.
Arguably the most popular Malay traditional instrument, the kompangis widely used in a variety of social occasions such as the National Day parades, official functions and weddings. Similar to the tambourine but without the jingling metal discs, this hand drum is most commonly played in large ensembles, where various rhythmic composite patterns are produced by overlapping multiple layers of different rhythms.
Brought to Malaysia by Persian and Middle Eastern traders, thegambus or Arabian oud is played in a variety of styles in Malay folk music, primarily as the lead instrument in Ghazal music. Carefully crafted with combinations of different woods, this instrument produces a gentle tone that is similar to that of the harpsichord.
The sape is the traditional flute of the Orang Ulu community or upriver people of Sarawak. A woodcarving masterpiece with colourful motifs, the sape is made by hollowing a length of wood. Once played solely during healing ceremonies within longhouses, it gradually became a social instrument of entertainment. Typically, its thematic music is used to accompany dances such as the Ngajat and Datun Julud.
Malay Mak Yong
Originating from Patani in Southern Thailand, Mak Yong was conceived to entertain female royalty, queens and princesses, when their men were away at war. Combining romantic drama, dance and operatic singing, tales of the golden age of the Malay kingdoms are dramatised in enchanting performances.
Kuda Kepang is a traditional dance brought to the state of Johor by Javanese immigrants. Dramatising the tales of victorious Islamic holy wars, dancers sit astride mock horses moving to the hypnotic beats of a percussion ensemble usually consisting of drums, gongs and angklungs.
Islamic influence on Malaysian traditional dance is perhaps most evident in Zapin, a popular dance in the state of Johor. Introduced by Muslim missionaries from the Middle East, the original dance was performed to Islamic devotional chanting to spread knowledge about the history of the Islamic civilisation.
Malaysia's most popular traditional dance, is a lively dance with an upbeat tempo. Performed by couples who combine fast, graceful movements with playful humour, the Joget has its origins in Portuguese folk dance, which was introduced to Melaka during the era of the spice trade.
Also known as Candle Dance, it is performed by women who do a delicate dance while balancing candles in small dishes.
One of the oldest Malay traditions and a deadly martial art, Silat is also a danceable art form. With its flowery body movements, a Silat performance is spellbinding and intriguing.
Chinese Lion Dance
Usually performed during the Chinese New Year festival, Lion Dance is energetic and entertaining. According to the legend, in ancient times, the lion was the only animal that could ward off a mythological creature known as Nian that terrorised China and devoured people on the eve of the New Year. Usually requiring perfect co-ordination, elegance and nerves of steel, the dance is almost always performed to the beat of the tagu, the Chinese drum, and the clanging of cymbals.
The dragon is a mythical creature that represents supernatural power, goodness, fertility, vigilance and dignity in Chinese culture. Typically performed to usher in the Chinese New Year, the Dragon Dance is said to bring good luck and prosperity for the year to come. Usually requiring a team of over 60 people, this fantastic performance is a dazzling display of perfect co-ordination, skill and grace.
Indian Bharata Natyam
This classical Indian dance is poetry in motion. Based on ancient Indian epics, this highly intense and dramatic dance form uses over 100 dance steps and gestures. As mastery requires many years of practice, some children begin learning the dance form at the age of five.
Bhangra is a lively folk music and dance form of the Sikh community. Originally a harvest dance, it is now part of many social celebrations such as weddings and New Year festivities. Typically centred around romantic themes with singing and dancing driven by heavy beats of the dhol, a double-barreled drum, the bhangra is engagingly entertaining.
Sabah & Sarawak Ngajat
The Warrior Dance is a traditional dance of Sarawak's Iban people. This dance is usually performed during Gawai Kenyalang or 'Hornbill Festival'. Reputedly the most fearsome of Sarawak's headhunters, the tribe's victorious warriors were traditionally celebrated in this elaborate festival. Wearing an elaborate headdress and holding an ornate long shield, the male warrior dancer performs dramatic jumps throughout this spellbinding dance.
The Hornbill Dance is a traditional dance of Sarawak's Kenyah women. Created by a Kenyah prince called Nyik Selong to symbolise happiness and gratitude, it was once performed during communal celebrations that greeted warriors returning from headhunting raids or during the annual celebrations that marked the end of each rice harvest season. Performed by a solo woman dancer to the sounds of the sape, beautiful fans made out of hornbill feathers are used to represent the wings of the sacred bird.
Sumazau is a traditional dance of Sabah's Kadazan people. Usually performed at religious ceremonies and social events, it is traditionally used to honour spirits for bountiful paddy harvests, ward off evil spirits and cure illnesses. Male and female dancers perform this steady hypnotic dance with soft and slow movements imitating birds in flight.
Another highly popular and entertaining traditional dance is Bamboo Dance. Two long bamboo poles are held horizontally above the ground at ankle-height. They are clapped together to a high-tempo drumbeat. Requiring great agility, dancers are required to jump over or between the poles without getting their feet caught.
The traditional dances of the Peninsular Malaysia's Orang Asli are strongly rooted in their spiritual beliefs. Dances are commonly used by witch-doctors as rituals to communicate with the spirit world. Such dances include Genggulang of the Mahmeri tribe, Berjerom of the Jah-Hut tribe and the Sewang of the Semai and Temiar tribes.
The Portuguese of Melaka Farapeira
The Farapeira is a fast, cheerful dance usually accompanied by guitars and tambourines, performed by couples dressed in traditional Portuguese costumes.
Favoured mainly by the older Portuguese generation, compared to the Farapeira the Branyo is a more staid dance. Male dancers dressed in cowboy-like costumes and female dancers dressed in traditional baju kebayas with batik sarongs sway to the steady rhythm of drums and violins.