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  • Izzuddin Ramli

Kompang Jidor: Rhythm of Nusantara

It tells of the cultural richness of the Javanese-Malay community in the country, marks one of the ways in which Islam took root in Nusantara, and reflects the celebratory nature of Malaysian society.

Courtesy of PUSAKA, photo by Cheryl Hoffmann

Almost every week, in Kampung Parit Madirono, Pontian, Johor, a group of twelve men congregate in a balai raya or a surau. Donning baju Melayu and samping cloth, they sit in a circle with each of them holding a kompang, a single-headed frame drum. At the centre of the circle, a man sits with a jidur, a large double headed cylindrical drum, ready with a mallet hammer stick in his hand. Two to three copies of Arabic scripted kitab (book) are laid open on wooden rehals (book stands) in front of them. Soon, they begin singing selawat in chorus, followed by the interlocking beats of the kompang.

This group calls themselves Persatuan Kompang Kampung Parit Madirono, led by Mahni Jais, a forty-eight-year-old man, who traces his lineage from Java like many others in the village. As a young man, Mahni began learning the art of kompang from the master Misron Sadiman, whose late father founded the group before Independence.

Occasionally, the group carries their percussion around the state, performing in social festivities such as maulidul rasul (the birth of Prophet Muhammad), berkhatan (circumcision), childbirth, and weddings. They also regularly train the younger generation of performers in their community and hold workshops for kompang groups from other parts of Johor. In such events, the performance could go up to three hours. But at times, the cadenced crescendo of kompang rhythms reverberates from dusk to midnight.

For the public unfamiliar with the kompang tradition, this group is just another kompang group playing frame drums to enliven social events. But for kompang practitioners, this group are the custodians of a particular style of kompang known as Kompang Jidor, one of the older kompang traditions practised only in Johor.

From the Middle East to Nusantara

The introduction of kompang into the Malay musical repertoire possibly began as early as the 9th century, concurrent to the introduction of Islam in Nusantara. Muslim traders from the Arab world sailed to the Malay Archipelago to sell their goods. To attract customers, these Muslim traders played dufuf, a single-headed frame drum with a variety of percussive additions such as bells, rings, cymbals, and metal discs, believed to be one of world’s oldest musical instruments. It is said that when the Prophet Muhammad completed his Hegira and arrived in Medina in 622 AD, girls of the tribe of Najjar greeted him by singing and playing dufuf. Arabian women also played the instrument in the Battle of Uhud in 625 AD to strengthen the spirit of the warriors.

The Islamisation of the Majapahit Empire in the 13th century further spread the kompang tradition. Music, particularly kompang, became a medium to spread the new religion. The main strain of Islam introduced at that time was Sufism, which appreciates the values of music as a route to experiencing the divine. The Javanese incorporated kompang into their own musical ensemble called gamelan, a bronze percussive musical ensemble played in many traditional ceremonies and rearranged their music to keep with the Sufi teachings.

With a special government office in charge of supervising the performing arts, the Majapahit continued to develop gamelan that now included kompang and spread through various regions such as Bali, Sunda, and Lombok. In Java, kompang metamorphosed into various types and was known with different names such as bibid, babonan, terbang, kempling, kumpang, and rebana.

The transformation of Malacca as a small fishing village into a glorious trading port in the 14th century, and the conversion of Malacca Sultanate to Islam in the 15th, also played a big role in expanding local music. As a vibrant port city, Malacca became a new settlement for Arab and Indian Muslims apart from other regions in the West coast of the Peninsula. Coming from rich musical cultures, they formed communities and practised their own traditions while maintaining their relationships with locals.

The ongoing cultural interaction resulted in some of their musical instruments being adapted into local traditions. Other than gambus (plucked lute), frame drums remained the principal instrument linked to the Islamic sound used in many ensembles. Throughout the Malay Peninsula, kompang is used in many traditions and is known by different names such as hadrah, rodat, and rebana. In Perak and Perlis, the frame drum is called rebana and used as the main instrument in Sufi tradition of Hadrah.

While Kompang remains a vibrant tradition in the country, performed traditionally by communities in the kampung, Kompang is also being taught to the youth in local schools. However, there is a price to pay. The authenticity of its form has waned through the years, as the younger generation prefers innovative beats incorporating contemporary popular musical influences. This is especially apparent in the 1990’s when modern Malay music began adopting Nusantara elements into their predominantly Western-influenced music. The mixing of kompang with western instruments made the sound of kompang more pleasing to the ear attuned to modern modes of music.

Twelve Interlocking Beats

Kompang repertoire is unique to each community depending on their lineage and origins. The migration of Javanese Muslims to Johor in the 19th century brought along deep-seated cultural traditions including Kompang Jidor. By the 1940s, many kompang troupes had been established by Javanese migrants and local Malays.

As in many other kompang traditions, Kompang Jidor is performed with legs crossed when sitting, standing, and walking. However, unlike the Kompang Melayu tradition that only has four beats, the Kompang Jidor tradition encompasses twelve kompang and jidor beats. These twelve beats are known by their Javanese names — Jidor, Babon, Banggen, Nelon, Ngelimo, Ngorapati, Anak Babon, Paron, Ngapati, Ngentong, Nyalahi, Nyelangi.

Kompang Jidor is commonly played with selawat based on the Kitab Barzanji, a book of praises to Prophet Muhammad written by a Medina poet, Ja’afar b. Hasan b. Abdul Karim al-Barzanji in the 18th century. The praises in the Kitab Barzanji are arranged as rawi (call) and jawapan (answer); these praises are mainly sung in the Arabic language.

Persatuan Kompang Kg. Parit Madirono traditionally sings only one selawat in the Malay language, the way they were taught by their predecessors. The lines of ‘Ibnu Adam’ poetically remember their origins as people of the Abrahamic faith:

Anak Adam Siti Hawa datuk nenek si moyang kita

Sudah wafat di dalam dunia

Di kubur di luar kota

Tuhan memberkati ketenangan

(Children of Adam and Eve, our paternal and maternal ancestors;

They left the world within this world,

Their graves lie beyond the city walls,

God grants them blessings of peace.*)

Persatuan Kompang Kg. Parit Madirono is the last remaining kompang group in Johor still active in keeping the Kompang Jidor tradition alive. Their community-based and inter-generational interaction distinguishes them from other kompang groups in Malaysia. Since the group’s founding in the pre-Independence era, the lineage of Kompang Jidor practitioners in this community has been flowing like a perennial river. Kompang Jidor master Misron Sadiman, the son of the original founder, and current group leader Mahni Jais, work tirelessly to pass down their knowledge to the next generation.

The transmission of this cultural tradition to younger performers, however, is one of the main challenges faced by kompang groups in Johor, particularly those who play an older style of kompang including the twelve-beat Kompang Jidor. According to research done by PUSAKA, a Kuala Lumpur-based cultural organisation that has been working closely with Persatuan Kompang Jidor Kg. Parit Madirono over the past few years, many traditional, community-based groups have disbanded and stopped performing altogether. Old age or the passing away of elder masters in the community, lack of interest by the local community, and migration of the younger generation out of their kampung are among the main reasons for the declining number of Kompang Jidor groups in Johor.

The making of musical instruments—kompang and jidor —is another challenge that the group has faced. In the past, they used to make their own instruments, but production of kompang and jidor has not been consistent since they depend on weather to dry the goat hide used for the kompang skin. For the past decade, Persatuan Kompang Kg. Parit Madirono relies on Mokhtar bin Hamid, a kompang maker from Perusahaan Kompang dan Jidor Parit Sumarto in Parit Raja, Batu Pahat, Johor.

Since 2017, the efforts of the Kompang Jidor masters of Parit Madirono have been reinforced and revitalised through a research and documentation project with PUSAKA, Enhancing the Sustainability of the Kompang Johor Tradition, supported by the Iskandar Regional Development Authority (IRDA). This project encompassed regular workshops for local youth and exposure to a wider audience. Previously renowned in Johor but unknown to the rest of the Malaysian public, Persatuan Kompang Kg. Parit Madirono has now performed outside Johor — at esteemed venues and festivals in Kuala Lumpur and Singapore — showcasing and teaching their unique kompang style to urban audiences.

Although Kompang Jidor is uniquely from Johor, it is one of Malaysia’s many forms of intangible cultural heritage that deserves recognition and support not only from the government, but also the public. It tells of the cultural richness of Javanese-Malay community in the country, marks one of the ways in which Islam took root in Nusantara, and reflects the celebratory nature of Malaysian society. For Kompang Jidor masters Misron Sadiman and Mahni Jais, their aspirations are simple but profound — that the Kompang Jidor tradition will continue to resonate for generations to come.

*Excerpt of ‘Ibnu Adam’ selawat translated by Pauline Fan

*This essay was first published in Penang Monthly, November 2022.


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