Diving into the Ocean of Malay Folk Culture
Malay Cultural Heritage is not meant for preservation. No! it must evolve.
The Malays have inherited a rich heritage of folk songs which are beautiful and invaluable. These songs are soulful expressions of feelings, philosophy, sense of self, experiences and memories of the people as a race. Through its lyrics and music, these tunes have served as an artistic manifestation of tradition and the natural world in its primordial state. As much as they are entertaining, these songs also provide a connection to a collective sense of identity and camaraderie, and thus becoming a source of inspiration to all members of the community, including the children.
The amount of Malay folk songs and children’s tunes are a-plenty. But there has never been a concerted effort in recent times to document and preserve them, so much so that there are young people today who have grown up not knowing these songs. (In its vacancy, contemporary pop songs creep in). There are probably more songs now that are laid buried in history books and folk memories.
The effort to preserve the lyrics and music for children may never be enough. Every generation has the responsibility to keep these songs alive, even if it means to give new interpretations to these classic songs. Perhaps by doing so fulfil the needs and challenges of the times. Malay art and culture is not meant to be preserved in time. It is organic and must evolve for it to remain accessible and fresh to each new generation.There are many creative ways to interpret these songs. Perhaps to make new musical arrangements, or add in new lyrics or inserting traditional poems, proverbs or anecdotes. Or even adding new themes. It is through the creative and dynamic approach that we can raise Malay cultural heritage to a higher level and make it relevant.
This what Art Fazil is attempting to achieve in his album Syair Melayu. Art has bravely dived into the ocean of Malay musical tradition by recording 8 classic and popular Malay folk songs with fresh and even radical creative innovations. To add on to this collection, Art has added 2 new songs, Ikan Kekek and Syair Hang Nadim. In Ikan Kekek, Art has written new verses adding onto the traditional chorus using the theme of ocean pollution.
Long ago the sea was beautiful
Now it all seems abandoned
Art’s exploration and improvisation of the classic riff has enriched the original meaning of the song. He has also written a new song, swimming back into local history by singing about Hang Nadim, the legendary child genius that saved Singapore from marauding swordfish, and hence introducing Hang Nadim to a new generation of children.
Art’s creative endeavour in preserving these folk songs is poignant and has to be commended- Congratulations Art! May your efforts be rewarded and may it inspire more artists, writers and musicians to jump in and dive into the ocean of Malay folk culture that is hauntingly deep and vast.
Associate Prof Dr Hadijah Rahmat
Head of Malay Language Division
Assistant Head of the Asian Languages and Culture Academic Group
NIE, University Technology Nanyang, Singapore
2 May 2009
Press Release: Art Fazil’s Syair Melayu
Syair Melayu (sha:eer, meh:la:yoo) meaning Malay Poems. is a collection of classic Malay folk songs freshly recorded and rearranged. For the first time in over 30 years, a new fresh collection of these materials are now available, recorded and performed by the London-based Art Fazil.
For fans of World Music, this album will take you on a colourful musical landscape of the Malay Archpelago.
Probably the first one of his generation to work on such a sensitive endeavour, Art has collaborated with some of South East Asia’s finest musicians in the field of traditional Indo-Malay music, namely Zubir Abdullah and Qamar Baba.
The sound you will hear are the Indo-Malay percussions such as Gendang Sunda, Rebana, Jidor, Bedok, Gamelan, and with a slight African twist where Djembe is introduced in Ikan Kekek. As in the ever evolving Malay music, Art also incorporated the sound of the Harmonium, specially bought in India for the use in this album in the new track- Syair Hang Nadim (The Ballad of Hang Nadim).
These traditional instruments are played along togther with Art Fazil’s bluesy guitar performance. You can hear slide guitar twang, bluesy moody guitar lines, atmospheric sounscape and a blues harmonica.
For this album Art Fazil took out his armoury of Fender Stratocster, Gibson J-160, Ibanez, Falmenco Nylon strings guitar, Fender Jazz bass, a hand made mandolin bought from a street busker in Java, Indonesia (which still have the sweet smell of clove cigarettes)
The result is a delicious mix of spicy bluesy groovy music that hits the soul and takes the listener to another place and time. (Warning: The Balinese chants in the album is so infectious that it makes you feel its time for another holiday to the island.)
The adult listener is taken back into time where they will remember their days of fun and laughter. The child listener will learn something new. Songs that they may have heard but only by word of mouth.
This album sees Art Fazil’s tour de force, returning to form in many ways. Apart from working with stalwarts of traditional Malay music, this album also see Art returning to Asia’s utmost legendary Lion Studios, working with Englishman John Herbert to mix the album.
The album was digitally recorded on Pro-Tools at Hazelbayu Studios but was mixed onto Analog 24 channel mixer(name of board) before being digitally mastered.
This explains the album’s organic world music sound.
All in all Syair Melayu is a poetic offering that takes the listener into a journey of the past through this collection of timeless classic Malay folk songs. This is indeed a treasure.
Part 3 : Syair Melayu - Track by Track
Track 1 - Kampung Pasir Berdengung- The title is cheekily borrowed from a fictional place in the black and white P.Ramlee movie, Pendekar Bujang Lapok. The harmonium plays a Malay Asli musical scale. As the river flows quietly, in the distant a cock crows. A man and a woman is overheard wishing one another Salam whilst a group of women recites the Berendoi. Amidst the chattering voices, a joyous laughter of children burst into the foreground. If you walk down a Malay village, these are probably the sound-colours you would experience. Art: “The sound are all real. It was mainly recorded when I went to Langkawi Island, West Malaysia at the end of 2007. The Berendoi recital by 4 women was actually recorded in Mahsuri’s original house. (Mahsuri is the legendary woman who lived on the island in the 1800’s who was excuted after she was falsely accused of adultery. She was executed on 1819, although there was no poignant connection whatsoever, it is interesting to note that she was excuted the day Stamford Raffles landed on Singapore.)
Track 2 - Bangau O Bangau (The Egret) – The Music: A bluesy 60’s folk rocker with slide guitars, twangy spacey Stratocaster guitar and a rock bass line served on an ethnic palette groove laden with Malay percussion and ringing gamelan bells. ‘The Egret’ is a story of the food chain. The crane is thin because it couldn’t eat the fish that was not swimming in shallow waters, because the grass was tall, because the caribou didn’t eat the grass, because his belly was aching, because it had eaten uncooked rice, because the rain fell on the firewood, because the frog called the rain, because the snake wanted to eat the frog. And because the frog is the snake’s meal.
Track 3 – Air Pasang Pagi (The Morning Tide) The Music: A folky 2 guitars (an acoustic and an electric) inter-play with djembes, bongos and darabuka. ‘The Morning Tide’ is sung while the children play a hand clapping game. This rhyme was most probably written in Malacca. The term Baba-Nyonya (also known as Straits Chinese) are terms used for the descendants of late 18th Century Chinese immigrants to the Nusantara (Malay Archipelago) region during the Colonial era, especially the Straits Settlements of Malaya and the Dutch-controlled island Java and other locations, who have adopted partially or in fullMalay customs.
Track 4 - Ikan Kekek (The Snicker Fish) The Music: This one goes on an African detour, kind of a hat tipping musical gesture to the Malay brethrens in Cape Town, South Africa. Qamar Baba plays the Djembe effortlessly as the choral backing in the chorus floats sweetly over the pulsating reggae-ish rhythm. Watch out for the minor key twist in the guitar riff after the first chorus. Ikan Kekek is commonly known in English as Ponyfish or Slipmouths, a type of bony fish found in tropical waters. The song takes us into the underwater world of whales, turtles, crabs, squids, mermaids and a shark whose shark-friends have lost their fins due to human greed for food. Each sea creature is asking the other what is happening to the ocean.
Track 5 - Lagu Tiga Kupang (3 Shillings Song) The Music: The Indian Tabla acts as the heartbeat of the song with a gritty blues blues harmonica played by Art, this song is Blues in its truest sense with its slight guitars, dirty blues electric and hand claps. ‘Three Penny Song’ is almost a literal translation of the English nursery rhyme ‘Sing A Song of Six Pence’. Perhaps learnt during British colonial days, its probably the latest addition to the collection of Malay folk songs.
Track 6- Syair Hang Nadim (The Ballad of Hang Nadim) The Music: Malay music never shied away from borrowing from other availble elements. Art incorporated the sound of the harmonium on Syair Hang Nadim. The recording studio, Hazelbayu Productions Studio specially bought it in India for the use in this album in the new track. Another interesting feature is the mandolin used in Syair Hang Nadim, courtesy of Art’s brother who bought the handmade mandolin from a street busker in Java, Indonesia. It still retains its sweet smell of clove cigarettes called ‘rokok kretek’. This is the Ballad of Hang Nadim, the boy genius described in the Malay Annals (Sejarah Melayu). When the beach was swamped by marauding shoals of swordfish, Hang Nadim suggested railing a wall of banana stems along the shores where Tanjong Pagar (Cape of Fences) port is today. The ploy worked. The swordfishes' snouts were trapped by the barricade of banana stems and were thus killed by the villagers. But unfortunately, a few envious ministers instigated the Maharaja to kill the boy before he usurps the throne. Hang Nadim was bounded in chains attached to a boulder and was thrown into the sea. It is said that till today, ships passing these waters would sound their horn as a mark of respect to the spirit of the boy genius, Hang Nadim.
Track 7 - Nenek Si Bongkok Tiga (Hunchback Granny) The Music: The song starts with a folky guitar before it is joined by layers of echoes of the electric guitar, pulsated by the gendang sunda and tabla with dhikir barat choral singing. A child sings an ode to his grandmother. He thanks her for her love and for raising him well. He brings with him some gifts for her in gratitude. But the song has an inner meaning. It is about the passing down of the ancestal guardian spirits known as ‘Saka’ to the next generation. This normally occurs in the family of traditional healers. The child touched by the healer inherits the mystical arts of healing.
Track 8 – Geylang Si Paku Geylang The Music: A lively Joget rhythm sung with a a big backing vocal chorus. The guitar glides over the pulsating Malay rhythm occassionally punctuating with a modest guitar riff. There is a place in Singapore called Geylang Serai. But there is little evidence that this song is referring to it. The song is a folk tune about homecoming. The Malays were never known to have gone far outside Nusantara. The migration was limited to local villages and neighbouring islands. This folk song is claimed by Indonesians, Malaysians and Singaporeans alike. Where it originated from, no one really knows for sure.
Track 9 - Lompat Si Katak Lompat- The Music: An experiment of marrying Malay rhythms, gamelan bells and flamenco guitar An interesting mix of gendang Sunda, gamelan bells and flamenco guitar. Jumping Frogs-The song uses the analogy of jumping frogs to convey the message of seeking a betterment of oneself, encouraging the children to seek knowledge and strive for success.
Track 10 -Injit Injit Semut (When the Ants Bite) The Music: The fast uptempo led by Qamar Baba's Rebana and Djembe groove provide a nice platform for Art's guitar works to glide and soar. The music is layered with an intricate interplay of acoustic and electric guitars weaving in and out of each other. When The Ants Bite : A traditional childhood game where one holds on to the hand beneath it with a gentle pinch, like an ant bite. At the end of the rhyme the one at the bottom most goes up to the top pile. The lyrics is a cluster of classic Malay pantuns advising on the ways of living a noble life. Its also an allegory that one must stand up against oppression.
Track 11- Rasa Sayang (That Loving Feeling) The Music: This track features Art’s delicate playing of the acoustic guitar. The electric guitar renders a soft floating spacey atmosphere. The words are sung in hush tones. Carrying off from the previous track. The playing here is more forlorn as the ending of the song suggests a moaning of the lost of a distant memory. The lyrics are a collection of popular pantun revolving around the theme of the importance of spiritual knowledge, humility and good deeds in one’s earthly sojourn.
Creative Work Credits:
Art Fazil: Vocals, Acoustic guitars Gibson J160 and Ibanez, Fender Startocaster, Fender Jazz Bass, Mandolin, Harmonica, Gamelan Loops,
Qamar Baba: Bedok, Gendang Sunda, Djembe, Rebana, Kompang, Darabuka, Tabla, Maracas, Tambourine
Dinodi : Backing vocals
Hand Claps: The Ahli Pekik- Yusri Ibrahim, Apit, Walid, Din, Herman, Qamar Baba.
Special guest appearance by Zubir Abdullah on Harmonium in Syair Hang Nadim courtesy of Zubir Productions
Qamar Baba appears courtesy of Gendrum Productions
Mandolin courtesy of Farid Sultan
Producer: Art Fazil for Nusantara World Music
Assistant Producer: T:zi
Music Arrangements: Art Fazil
Additional percussion arrangements: Qamar Baba
Studio: Hazelbayu Production, Singapore
Pre-production: Mystic’s Den, London
Recording Engineer : T:zi
Mixing and Mastering: John Herbert at Lion Studio, Singapore
This album was recorded on Pro-Tools Digi 003, mixed on custom built analogue 24 channel onto 2 inch tape at Lion Studio Singapore
Artwork design: Zemang
Jawi calligraphy typesetting: Din Hazelbayu dan Ana Hazelbayu
Cover photgraph: Asfagraphy
Traditional Clothes: Sri Warisan
Styling & Make up: Shazi Sultan
This album was inspired by my childhood memories- thank you to my grandmother Nyai Salmah who sang us these songs while we sleep, and my Abah and Mak for teaching me how to speak (and speak up!)
This album is dedicated to all children- young and old.
In memory of Loloq , Lyricist, Poet, Genius, Friend – 1950- February 2008