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  • The Making of a Literary Festival

    The role of the current curatorial team is to make sure that GTLF remains relevant and speaks to the needs of our literary community. In late 2019, I received a text message from Pauline Fan, the director of the George Town Literary Festival (GTLF). She had just concluded the 9th edition of Malaysia’s largest literary festival held in Penang. Pauline and I have known each other for several years mainly through our essays and translations. Her earliest work of translation that I read was her Malay translation of the German philosopher Immanuel Kant’s classic text Was ist Aufklarung. She most recently published Luka Kenangan, translations of selected poems by a Romanian-born German-language poet, Paul Celan. In her message, Pauline asked me to help her to curate the festival, with a focus on expanding the Malay language programme. Previously, I had been involved in GTLF as a moderator, but I knew that curation was a different matter altogether. I was hesitant at first to take up her invitation, but after some persuasion, I accepted. For the next three years, from 2020-2022, I was part of the curatorial team for GTLF. I met Pauline again in KL recently and we had a discussion on this year’s curatorial direction for GTLF. Pauline is now busy curating the 13th edition of GTLF. This year, she is accompanied by festival curator, Adriana Nordin Manan, and two guest curators, M. Navin and Florence Kuek. The curatorial team is supported, as always, by the festival producers, PCEB. GTLF has been an important vessel for Pauline’s literary vision—connecting local and international writers, introducing new works, catalysing important conversations within the Malaysian literary scene, and on literature in translation. As I came in as a curator during the Covid-19 pandemic, many questions arose at the time about the relevance of literary festivals in the world. Now we sat down to reminisce about our three-year journey and experience of making GTLF both during the pandemic and post-pandemic. The pandemic years brought a sense of hopelessness—literary festivals seemed doomed as cross-border travel was restricted. Across the world, literary festivals were faced with an existential crisis, throwing into sharp relief questions of relevance, survival, and ways of adapting. However, some literary festivals decided to turn to digital platforms, opening possibilities of reaching new audiences. Some even drew higher numbers of literary enthusiasts online than they had in physical form. The Hay Festival—known as one of the “big three” literary festivals alongside Edinburgh and Cheltenham—doubled their number of visitors online compared to their pre-pandemic edition in 2019. Soon after the reopening, literary festivals re-emerged from the impact, and began rethinking what it means to be a literary festival, reconfiguring ways of making a comeback in society. Since Pauline became the director of the GTLF in 2019, she made a major change to the festival by initiating more conversations in the Malay language. It’s also a question that she’s been pondering for years: how to make GTLF more localised in terms of the languages and discourses. To her, the answer has always been language. She remarks: “Language serves not only as a medium for literature and ideas, it conveys the spirit and the conscience of individuals and society. Every language has its nuances and is shaped by experience and worldviews that cannot simply be mediated by English.” Hence, her task is to make GTLF more inclusive of local as well as indigenous languages, to allow Malaysian writers of all backgrounds to feel that GTLF belongs to them. Literary festivals need to be reflective of society’s concerns in order to remain relevant. Pauline and I agree that if there was a lesson we had learned from making a festival in the years of pandemic, it would be the importance of human connection. For three years, GTLF had been exploring deeper and deeper into the self, while looking outward at the thousands of creative and destructive possibilities of what human beings can be. Panel discussions for the three editions that I co-curated explored the questions of cosmopolitanism, the human crises of alienation, the longing for intimate conversation, and the sense of preserving connections. In “Terra Incognita”, this year’s festival theme, GTLF sets sail to uncharted territories, exploring the limitless expanse of human imagination. Owing to her full-time work as creative director of a cultural organisation, she often returns to mythology—the seen and the unseen world—for inspiration. “Mythology is one of oldest forms of literary imagination. It’s usually expressed in the form of oral literature. Before the existence of written text, we were telling ourselves stories about how we came into being, answering all those metaphysical questions, in our own language,” says Pauline. Indeed, the presence of mythological realms and creatures were felt in the last three festival themes: Through the Looking Glass; Mikro-Cosmos; and Taming the Wild. For Pauline, developing the festival’s theme is the first step in curating a literary festival. It helps to steer the direction of the festival, guides the selection of writers, and sets the tone of conversations. Coming up with a theme entails serious thinking, digging into literary topics, observing current social issues, having continuous conversations, and manifesting all those ideas into a consolidated theme. “When conceptualising a theme, I try to think of something universal because it has to be broad enough so that enough people will relate to it, but at the same time it has to be particular enough that it speaks to specific questions or current issues,” says Pauline. Organising a literary festival in a diverse literary landscape such as Malaysia is a complex task. When it was first held in 2011, GLTF was only a two-day literary festival with only five local writers, accommodating a very small crowd. In just a few years, GTLF established itself as an international literary festival to be reckoned with. However, one of the most daunting challenges has always been to maintain the literary quality of the festival while being flexible and accommodative to different mediums of critical creativity such as film, music, visual and performance art, as well as oral traditions and journalism. One way of addressing this is to be creative with the festival format. Pauline believes that a literary festival should be interactive and intimate, allowing a connection between the writers and “readers” or audience. This year, GTLF will feature less of the usual panel discussion format, which tend to be quite formal and cerebral, and introduce new formats such as “creative huddles”, sharing sessions, storytelling and literary walking tours. The festival is fortunate to be held in Penang, strategically located at the crossroads of Southeast Asia. Being a cosmopolitan city with vibrant communities, the ecosystem in Penang alone is perhaps enough to support an international literary festival. In fact, some international writers have made Penang a second home, and contribute to the local literary scene. In its early years, GTLF attracted mostly expatriates, retirees, and a small literary community. The guest writers were mostly Westerners at that time. However, literature doesn’t move as fast as the migration of the people in the region. As a result, regional literature tends to be somewhat left out in the ascendancy of linguistically insular English “global” literature. Acutely aware of the imbalances of global publishing, one of Pauline’s aims this year is to present more regional writers and literature, while striking a balance between popular appeal and emerging voices. “As a literary festival based in the cosmopolitan island of Penang, GTLF should be a natural gathering place for writers across the region. This year, we are curating more participation of regional writers and translators, particularly those who write in local languages, to celebrate the creative polyphony of Southeast Asia,” Pauline explains. As we emerge from recent years of isolation, now is the time to reconnect through the human need to explore, to wander, and to discover. I sat down at my table, pondering the largest literary festival in Malaysia. My three years with GTLF gave me insights into the complex work of putting together a literary festival. I came in as a curator after a decade of its establishment, and was part of the team that saw GTLF through a period of global crisis. The role of the current curatorial team is to make sure that GTLF remains relevant and speaks to the needs of our literary community. *This essay was first published in Penang Monthly, August 2023.

  • Dikir-Dangdut and the Defiant Spirit of Kelantanese Women

    Although the infectious rhythms of dikir-dangdut are no longer ubiquitous on the streets of Kelantan, they still resonate through the subterranean channels of the virtual realm. Rosalinda kept her head down and her eyes fixed on the floor as she walked out of the Gua Musang Lower Syariah Court in June 2014. Hot on her heels was a throng of journalists from local newspapers bombarding her with questions and cameramen jostling to get her close-up. Among them was a Sinar Harian photo-journalist who managed to capture a shot of her wearing a turquoise scarf, fumbling around in her handbag. The next day, the newspaper published her photo in a brief report with a headline that read “Penyanyi dikir barat didenda RM1,000” (Dikir barat singer fined RM1,000). A month earlier, in May, Rosalinda had been pulled off the stage by religious authorities at a small festival in Padang Perumahan Felda Aring Enam, Gua Musang, Kelantan. The 23 year-old Kelantanese singer was accused of dressing indecently while performing at the festival. She had shared the stage with Kajol, a transgender and a fellow singer known for her melodious high-pitched voice. She, too, was found guilty by the court for “dressing like a woman”: dyed-hair, wearing red lipstick, a bra, earrings, and carrying a handbag. Kajol served a six-week prison sentence and was fined RM1000. Rosalinda and Kajol are well-known singers of “dikir-dangdut”, a popular folk music genre in Kelantan. Whether blaring from speakers at the night market and food stalls or hummed on the lips of young lovers, dikir-dangdut spices up mundane everyday life in Kelantan. Also known as “dangdut Kelantan”, “dikir moden” or simply “dangdut”, the genre is a song-based music with raunchy lyrics, upbeat rhythms, mischievous attitudes, and suggestive dance gestures. Dikir-dangdut is dominated by Kelantanese female singers who project a flirtatious and seductive public image. The Emergence of Dikir-Dangdut Dikir-dangdut owes its origin to the dikir barat—the only singing musical form in Kelantan that bridges traditional and popular genres. In live performances, dikir-dangdut usually shares a stage with dikir barat (see Penang Monthly July 2022 issue), borrowing its instrumentation and musical patterns. In the 1940s and 1950s, the late Pak Leh Tapang brought dikir barat from Southern Thailand and improvised the art form in Kelantan. Since its early days, dikir barat has been largely male dominated with the Tok Jogho and Tukang Karut roles almost exclusively performed by men. However, over time, a space developed within that tradition to embrace female singers. These women referred to themselves as “penyanyi” (singer) rather than Tok Jogho, but were almost always accompanied by dikir barat ensembles. Dikir-dangdut thus emerged from the cradle of dikir barat, only to grow into a notorious subculture of its own. The dikir-dangdut female singers were mostly amateur crooners or family members of dikir barat performers. Some of them were seeking to launch their career as professional singers, while others ventured into dikir-dangdut as a hobby. The earlier or “traditional” dikir-dangdut singers mostly sang a repertoire of cover songs adapted to Kelantanese dialect, culled from hits on national radio airwaves—Bollywood ballads, Indonesian and Malaysian dangdut with roots reaching back to pop sounds of Orkes Melayu in the 1950s. Just as Johor-born Malaysian “dangdut queen” Zaleha Hamid became a legend with hits like “Penasaran”, some dikir-dangdut cover songs have attained iconic status, such as “To Shayar Hai”, Kajol’s rendition of Alka Yagnik’s hit song. Among the popular dikir-dangdut songstresses of the earlier generation were Norma Dahlia, Ani Cantik Molek, Zaleha Tahi Lalat, Che Esah Sayonara, Faridah Kampung Pisang, and Sakinah Dangdut Reggae. This generation of performers enjoyed relative freedom, travelling from funfair to funfair to perform around Peninsular Malaysia, especially the East Coast. The life-blood of dikir-dangdut also flowed freely across Sungai Golok, between Kelantan and Southern Thailand. Performances at local venues in Patani, friendly competitions, guest singers from Patani invited to Kelantan and vice-versa, Kelantanese singers recording music videos in Yala—all this attests to the fluidity and vibrancy of dikir-dangdut subculture in its heyday. This free flow of popular culture was disrupted when Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS) regulated entertainment in Kelantan in the early 1990s. Despite state-imposed restrictions on culture, a new generation of dikir-dangdut singers emerged. Brandishing overtly sexy personas with risque outfits, and accompanied by the synthetic tones of electronic music, these singers stormed the spotlight with wild and rebellious spirit. Some of these dikir-dangdut entertainers became household names such as Adik Wani, Rosalinda, Munirah, Ayu Baby, Kajol, and male singers such as Zaidi Buluh Perindu and Man Khan. Expressing the Self through Sexuality Dikir-dangdut became one of the few available spaces for Kelantanese women to lepas angin—release their ‘inner winds’ through an expression of temperament and desire (see essay by Pauline Fan in Axon, 2013). Dikir-dangdut women performers actively create their space for self-expression and social commentary, exploring themes of love, longing, separation, jealousy, frustration, betrayal, revenge, independence, empowerment, social ills, and sexuality. These songstresses give voice to their personal desires, disappointments, and fantasies as agents, not objects, of desire. In rare public expressions of sexuality in Kelantan, especially in the face of growing conservatism, dikir-dangdut singers define their own public image. Their racy fashion statements, naughty lyrics, and seductive dance moves challenge moralising paternalistic views of how women should dress, speak, think, and behave. In one of Adik Wani’s most popular hits, Tubik Masuk—a Kelantanese rendition of “Keluar Masuk” (In and Out) by Zaleha Hamid—she ostensibly addresses the social problem of smoking, with lyrics saturated with sexual innuendos. Suk suk suk tubik masuk, Tubik masuk ah ah tubik lagi, Dap dap dap meme sedap, Lamo lamo ah ah koho sedap. Adik Wani also stirred up a sensation alongside Ain, Elyana, and Erma in the music video “Serabut Weh”, their Kelantanese rendition of the dangdut hit “Bete” by Indonesian girl group Manis Manja. Dressed in black corset tops, hot pants, and boots in the back of a pickup truck, gyrating their hips and shaking their bosoms, the Kelantanese girls make their Indonesian counterparts seem somewhat tame. In Kelantan’s music recording industry, talent was not a paramount consideration. They celebrated any woman who wanted to perform, giving them opportunities to record music videos and albums. The dikir barat stage and local recording labels thus nurtured women performers who dared to stand out, express themselves, and leave their mark on the local popular music scene. Dikir-dangdut is a somewhat age-less musical genre: some songstresses began singing in public as teenagers, like Adik Wani, Rosalinda, and Zaleha Adik Manja, while others kept performing into their mature years. PAS’ crackdown on culture in Kelantan has severely reduced public space for women performers, from traditional Mak Yong to modern dikir-dangdut. According to Sakinah Dangdut Reggae, an older generation dikir-dangdut singer now affectionately known as Moksu Nah: “The authorities don’t allow women to perform on stage. If we cannot perform, we cannot express ourselves, our ‘inner winds’ (angin) won’t flow freely.” Adapting to the times The dikir-dangdut scene developed in the late 1980s and early 1990s with the Kelantanese record labels such as Sincere, located on Jalan Sultanah Zainab in Kota Bharu. Sincere also produced and released albums of Kelantanese rock bands such as Desire and Kapilla. To be considered a professional dikir-dangdut singer at that time, artistes were expected to record albums. There was a low-budget, makeshift feel to these local Kelantanese music productions—due to the high cost of renting a studio, they tried to complete everything in one take. Unsurprisingly, quality was at times compromised. Record labels also produced their own music videos. Dikir-dangdut music videos were often recorded in a private hall decorated to resemble a night club, filmed from a single-frame angle of the singer for the entire duration of the song. The early 1990s coincided with PAS’ takeover of the state government of Kelantan, heralding a period of cultural purification. Cultural traditions such as wayang kulit and mak yong were deemed unIslamic and banned outright, while dikir barat—and subsequently dikir-dangdut—came under pressure and scrutiny from religious authorities. Even though there is no specific directive by the state government, dikir-dangdut performances are denied permits to perform (see article by Julia Mayer, Policy Forum, 2017). The reasons authorities disapproved of dikir barat and dikir-dangdut, is because they involved men and women mingling on the same stage, its lyrics that veered towards eroticism, and the ‘indecent’ dressing and dance moves. The pressure from religious authorities led to some dikir-dangdut singers eventually ended their careers, while others continued to perform in private albeit cautiously. After a long hiatus, a group of dikir barat and dikir-dangdut practitioners led by the lyricist Sufian Hanuman Ikan consulted state government officials to negotiate conditions to resume performances. Sufian presented a sample dikir barat performance to the state government, with an all-male ensemble. In return, the then Kelantan Menteri Besar, Nik Abdul Aziz introduced a set of guidelines—performances must end before 12am, songs must be moralistic and educational, and women were now prohibited to perform. Sufian agreed with the regulations, supporting state-sanctioned “pemurnian” (purification). Dikir-dangdut was completely left out of these negotiations. As a result, dikir-dangdut that had once served as a creative space for women, was relegated to existential limbo: not officially banned yet not allowed to exist. Nevertheless, dikir-dangdut songstresses refuse to give in easily; they still defy authorities and find ways to perform. No longer allowed to perform at community events such as funfairs, dikir-dangdut performers moved their scene online, garnering new audiences on Tik Tok, YouTube, and other social media platforms. They use their entrepreneurial skills to secure sponsorship for their art—endorsing cosmetic brands or herbal products that enhance sexual prowess. Although the infectious rhythms of dikir-dangdut are no longer ubiquitous on the streets of Kelantan, they still resonate through the subterranean channels of the virtual realm. *This essay was first published in Penang Monthly, April 2023.

  • Gedebe: Becoming a Man in Kelantan

    It is not a remnant of feudalism or a mark of fatalism, but an expression of a community deeply rooted in its sensibility and culture. In the 60’s and 70’s, almost everyone in the small town of Kota Bharu knew who Mat Zin Korea was. He was born and spent most of his childhood in Kampung Padang Bemban, a small farming village 12 kilometres to the east of Kota Bharu. At the age of fourteen, unable to stand the routine and strict discipline at school, he dropped out of Maktab Sultan Ismail and found himself falling deep into the notorious Kelantan underworld. Mat Zin was a famous gang leader, his reputation spread through the peninsula, across the straits to Singapore, and over the border to Thailand. He reigned over Wakaf Che Yeh, collecting protection money from petty traders at the night market. According to the locals, he wouldn’t step out of his house without a golok (machete) or kapak kecil (small axe) or a pistol tucked under his shirt. For many, Mat Zin Korea was a sort of gedebe—a tough, brutish, and fiery Kelantanese man valued and loved by the community despite his impulsive temperament. He often became ensnared in gang fights, but was always ready to protect the poor and vulnerable. In 1972, Mat Zin suddenly disappeared. The speculation was that the infamous gang leader was murdered by his rival and his remains were nowhere to be found. But it turned out that he went to live in seclusion to study religion, and eventually built his own religious school. Surrounded by his family, students, and followers, he died in 2018 at the age of 73. Other than local and international celebrities, it was local gedebes like Mat Zin Korea whom young boys like me in 90’s Kelantan aspired to be. There was a sense of primordial respect, prestige, and heroism brimming within the boys growing up to become men in a wild and harsh environment like Kelantan. In the coastal areas, young men spent most of their days catching fish, while towards the greener inland areas, farming was the main source of livelihood. Towns like Kota Bharu offered an escape from the mundane life of the kampung, opportunities to get involved in trade, and earn an honest living. School was the only hope for those who dreamt about moving out of the cocoon and climbing up the social ladder. It was a place where one could work towards changing their destiny and aspired to be future corporate leaders and government officers. Yet, despite the bright future that school had to offer, it was also a place where kids organised, braced themselves for the viciousness of adulthood, and primed themselves to become a gedebe—an informal leader and protector of the community. One way to do so was by becoming a gang member and starting regular fights with each other, eventually gaining greater influence and followings. Understanding Gedebe The concept of gedebe is unique to Kelantan and the Patani region in Thailand. It is a term of respect given to someone—mainly Kelantanese men—who is fearless, rugged, and fierce. The Malay word samseng or thug doesn’t quite capture the meaning of gedebe. While samseng usually carries a negative connotation, gedebe is more ambiguous, encompassing both negative and positive traits. A gedebe has usually possesses an air of authority, an extensive network of ‘connections’, and oozes charisma that opens up unofficial channels of getting official things done. The word gedebe is probably rooted in tok nebeng, a term which originated from Patani, Thailand and was introduced in Kelantan in the 1860s. It refers to a leadership role that is equivalent to today’s penghulu or village leader. A tok nebeng was appointed by the sultan to serve as intermediary between the sultan and the subjects. In the past, the tok nebeng or penghulu was a respected and well-loved figure among villagers due to his ambiguous authority. He resolved conflicts, meddled in household issues, and assured the security and wellbeing of his village. In Patani, tok nebeng or gedebe refers to someone who is hardworking and respected. It was the dominant, strong, and reliable traits of tok nebeng that became a reference and was admired by some if not all Kelantanese men. Many grew up to be a gedebe, developing their own characters, mastering their craft of controlling their temperament, and redefining what it means to be a gedebe. Growing up in this social milieu, I observed many kinds of gedebes in my hometown, and came to understand that learning to be a gedebe is learning how to be a man. I particularly admired Nawi and Baharuddin, among the prominent figures in my kampung. No one would dare to have eye contact longer than 5 seconds with Nawi. He was what Kelantanese would call bekeng (hot-headed). At a glimpse, he looked like a typical old Kelantanese farmer, with a small build for a guy, always dressed in sarong, and spent most of his day farming and doing odd jobs. But fighting was his main forte, even the penghulu didn’t want to take the risk to get close to him. Baharuddin, whose main turf was the small town of Pulai Chondong, was the total opposite of Nawi. He was a cool guy with a large build, suave, flashy, and rich. He was the only man in the district who owned a horse stable and drove a left-hand drive Mercedes. At times, his name and reputation as a gedebe allowed him to get away with breaking the law. He spiced up mundane kampung life with exciting and unexpected episodes. No one but Baharuddin would think of organising a four-wheel drive tournament in the middle of a paddy field. One can observe the gedebe traits of Nawi and Baharuddin in Pok Ya Cong Codei, the main character of the tele-movie Pok Ya Cong Codei, played by the Kelantanese-born Malaysian actor, Sabri Yunus. The movie tells the story of Pok Ya Cong Codei, a kampung man, on his mission to relocate Aina, the daughter of his good friend, who was kidnapped in Kuala Lumpur. Unfamiliar to the big city, Pok Ya calls and organises his anak buah (acolytes) in Kuala Lumpur to assist him in finding Aina. The movie depicts Pok Ya Cong Codei, socially awkward outside his own kampung, yet a veritable ‘godfather’ in his circle of acolytes. While he lords over his young followers, he also nurtures them with kindness and generosity. Politics and Irrationality I spent 3 years in Kelantan as a master’s student, understanding the influence of local knowledge in the modern governance in Kelantan. I travelled to different kampungs and districts, meeting local penghulu, penggawa, and politicians, as well as common folk. In the course of my research, I discovered that traditionality and the legal-rational bureaucracy, and the rational and the irrational ways of conducting politics are inextricably intertwined. Even though penghulu or penggawa are now incorporated into the modern, rational, and bureaucratic state administration, traditional and informal elements are still palpably present in their politics and administration. After the incorporation of penghulu and penggawa institutions in the state bureaucracy in the 19th century, the power to appoint penghulu and penggawa fell into the hands of the state government. Equipped with modern qualifications such as good results in SPM and speaking the national language, anyone is eligible to become a penghulu or penggawa. However, the modern rational bureaucracy does not always work in the rural setting. There are unwritten qualities that a penghulu or any local leader need to possess: being ostensibly religious or being gedebe. People tend to go to local gedebes or imams to seek help, instead of bringing the matters to the attention of state-appointed village leaders. Gedebe is a quintessential feature of Kelantanese politics. One may witness the high drama of gedebe played out in the arena of politics—at times in the form of audacious posturing, other times taking a deadly turn. In 1967, the former Member of Parliament for Pasir Mas Hulu, Abdul Samad Gul, was assassinated by a mysterious assailant using the sinister kapak kecil (small flying axe) in what was probably a politically-motivated attack. This incident repeated itself in 2019, when the then Vice Chairman of Kelantan UMNO, Datuk Kamaruddin Abdullah, was slashed in a parang attack. In a verbal crossfire between two prominent Malaysian politicians, the Kelantanese maverick parliamentarian, Ibrahim Ali turned the table when the then UMNO Youth chief, Khairy Jamaluddin hurled what he thought was an insult at him—“gedebe politik”. Ibrahim Ali retorted by saying that he was proud to be a gedebe, because in the Kelantanese understanding, gedebe refers to a brave and fearless character. The Redefinition of Gedebe The concept of gedebe is fluid and applicable in many contexts. Kelantanese give the title to different kinds of figures who they see as leaders or heroes, such as school teachers, medical workers, and cultural practitioners. Such figures usually exude a natural authority and earn the respect of their community organically, rather than through official positions of power. In Kelantanese traditional performing arts communities, gedebe is often embodied by the masters who possess distinguished qualities, having deep knowledge of their craft, and a magnetism that inspires the respect and loyalty of apprentices and the larger community. Coming back to Kelantan as a writer and researcher on culture, I perceived this manifestation of gedebe in two masters—the legendary musician Pok Su Agel and Wayang Kulit puppeteer Tok Dalang Pok Wi. Speaking to these masters, I sensed their impregnable aura of charisma, mastery, and masculinity. They may not be typical gedebes, but the qualities of gedebe are internalised and expressed through their powerful command of their craft. Besides earning the informal title of Raja Gendang Kelantan (Kelantan’s Gendang King), Pok Su Agel also distinguishes himself as a formidable leader and teacher, who inspires respect and recognition in everyone he encounters. Although a man of few words, Tok Dalang Pok Wi possesses extraordinary skill in language. As a custodian of the oral tradition, his language has been deeply crafted in the world of Wayang. To me, gedebe is not a remnant of feudalism or a mark of fatalism, but an expression of a community deeply rooted in its sensibility and culture. *This essay was first published in Penang Monthly, February 2023.

  • Kenduri: Feasting, Ceremony, Commemoration

    Kenduri is a feast of ceremony and commemoration for the inner life of the individual and the community. Since time immemorial, human beings have given precedence to the commemoration of special occasions—be it as individuals or communities. We commemorate and celebrate the universal human experiences of love, joy, success, sacrifice, as well as mark occasions of pain, sadness, and sorrow. It is one of the many ways we instil meaning to our lives and preserve our personal and collective memories. In Kelantanese Malay society, coming-of-age celebrations such as birthdays, the coronation of the Sultan, berkhatan (circumcision), or commemorating a guru in menamat (recitation of the Holy Qur’an from the beginning to the end) is often done with a kenduri, a feasting ceremony. In Kelantan, the term kenduri is used interchangeably with bekwoh, a Kelantanese way of pronouncing the English term “big work.” By whatever name we call it, the process of preparing food for kenduri or bekwoh requires gotong-royong or collective work. In the kampung, to participate in a kenduri entails responsibility, perceived both as adat (tradition) and adab (manners), and failing to accept an invitation to a kenduri may cause terasa hati (offence). However, for ceremonies, one is not supposed to serve everyday food such as ikan masin, ikan singgang, or budu. Back in the day, villagers would cross the Kelantan-Thai border or make their way to the jungle to gather special cooking ingredients. Even now, the price of beras pulut (glutinous rice) in the Patani district is much cheaper than the wet markets of Kota Bharu. Villagers would also borrow special cooking utensils such as kuali, periuk, pinggan, mangkuk and dulang from wealthier relatives or neighbours. Legend has it that Puteri Sa’adong, a queen of Kelantan who resided in Kampung Bukit Marak, grew upset and vanished to Gunung Reng because villagers borrowed her cooking utensils but never returned them. For Kelantanese, kenduri refers to both the gotong-royong and the dishes or offerings served in the dulang (dowry tray). Kenduri is a way to commemorate the living and the dead, as well as ritual offering to cure illnesses related to body and soul—the seen and the unseen. It is sometimes held to menghalalkan ilmu (to bless the transmission of knowledge) from teachers and elders to students. Kenduri is also done to mengikat perjanjian (make a pact) with the penunggu (spirit guardian) before starting an initiative, for example opening a piece of land or building a new house. For some, kenduri is a way to remember one’s lineage. The Inner Winds and Spirit Kelantanese have maintained their strong relationship with nature and their ancestors since before the arrival of Islam. In a traditional Kelantanese village, almost every aspect of life begins and ends with ceremonies. Many of these ceremonies are intertwined with the traditional performing arts. Examples of traditional Kelantanese arts and rituals that are still present to this day are main puteri, mak yong, manora, sembah guru, semah angin, puja pantai, perlimau, as well as menamat. Enveloping these rituals are the concepts angin and semangat deeply rooted in the Kelantanese worldview. Carol Laderman, an American anthropologist who studied Malay shamanistic performance in the 1980s, referred to angin as ‘inner wind’, which is related in some ways to the Western concept of temperament. Angin plays an important role in Kelantanese society. Kelantanese use terms such as naik (rising) angin, tohor (shallow) angin, berlaga (synchronised) angin, tersekat (trapped) angin, and perlepas (setting free) angin in their everyday conversations. They believe that the imbalance of angin in the body is the root of illness. If they are able to express their angin, they can lead untroubled and productive lives and will usually be respected for their strong, gifted characters (Laderman, 1991). If someone wants to express the trapped angin, he or she may be encouraged to take part in a semah angin. This requires elaborate performing arts and rituals that involve elements of oral tradition, mantras, music, dance, drama, costumes, as well as offerings. Some ceremonies take days to complete. As for semangat, everything has its own semangat—the essence and the soul that breathes life into the body. Semangat needs to be respected and summoned. Apart from music, drama, and dances, a kenduri serves as an element to play with angin and semangat. In this context, a kenduri refers to a feast of offerings such as pulut semangat, semangat sireh, and semangat buah. Ideally, seven types of offerings are prepared for a ritual kenduri. The number seven holds deep symbolic meaning in Malay society—seven represents the human body: the seven orifices of the human head; as well as the ‘seven bones’ of a Muslim prostrating in prayer: two feet, two knees, two hands, and one head. Islamic cosmology also speaks of tujuh petala langit (the seven heavens) and tujuh petala bumi (the seven layers of earth). Pulut Semangat, Semangat Sireh, Semangat Buah Among the many kenduri offerings present in Kelantanese traditional coming-of-age rituals, pulut semangat is the most important. Pulut semangat is made from glutinous rice and turmeric. Rice is a staple food and deemed sacred in Malay society. In the words of Pak Mat Jedok, a prominent Kelantanese tok puteri (Malay shaman), “jadilah beras, jadilah kita” (as rice is made, so are we). He believes that rice is a living thing, composed of zahir (form) and zat (essence). Semangat is made up of a combination of elements such as rice, chicken eggs, coconut, lime, roast chicken, and Malay kuih. A pulut semangat is usually shaped like a mountain and decorated with a chicken egg at the top and Malay kuih to form three or seven levels that represent status and hierarchy in Kelantanese society (seven for larger occasions such as celebrating the birthday of the Sultan or three for the common people). The turmeric-stained yellow glutinous rice in pulut semangat symbolises unity under the umbrella of Malay Kerajaan. The white egg at the pinnacle represents sacredness. Putu is one of the Kelantanese Malay kuih used in pulut semangat. Malays practice the pecah beras tradition for special occasions to make varieties of kuih such as onde-onde, lompat tikam, tepung apam, puteri mandi, dodol, bederam, bahulu and many more. The process includes grinding the beras to make rice flour, adding some sugar, and shaping it using sarang putu, a wooden mould. Sireh (betel quid) is also an essential element of kenduri offerings. Semangat Sireh, served on a tepak (brass betel vessel) with kapur (chalk powder), pinang (areca nut), and gambir to welcome guests with a gesture of peace. Sireh junjung is served in merisik, a friendly visit to the family of a potential bride to declare intention of courtship, and meminang, a formal visit to propose marriage. Sireh binds the relationships between friends and families through a demonstration of good will and pure intention. In marriage, sireh also represents the ideal relationship for a married couple—sireh is interdependent on other plants, but is non-parasitic in nature. Semangat buah are offerings of fruit, usually consisting of local fruits such as banana, mango, and lime. The art of making semangat buah is almost forgotten. In the past, semangat buah was elaborately decorated and crafted; nowadays it is simply arranged neatly in a tray. While semangat buah traditionally used local fruits, their seasonal nature at times meant that there was a lack of fruit harvests. Shamans like Din Puteri are open to replacing local fruits with imported fruits such as grapes, though many shamans prefer to retain traditional offerings. Occasionally, prawn and squid are presented among the ritual offerings, ensuring that elements of land and sea are present. According to Pok Jue, a senior tok puteri from Jelawat, the sea is symbolically related to illnesses in the stomach. Another metaphorical manifestation of land and sea as the two realms of human life is the concept of asam dan garam (the sour and the salty). This is a particularly important symbol for the passing down of knowledge between master and student—during sembah guru and perlimau ceremonies, the master feeds the student a pinch of salt and asam keping. During this ritual, the student asks for blessings from the master and the master symbolically ‘salts the student’s mouth’, to instil the subliminal virtues of mulut masin, a Malay idiom that describes a person whose words become reality. In a semah angin healing ritual, offerings of palm sugar, coconut, bertih (parched rice), water scented with kaffir lime, and roast spring chicken spiced with turmeric, are presented to cajole, and play with the inner winds. In the old days, free-range chicken was cheap, and villagers could not afford beef. The yellow turmeric on the roast chicken offering represents roh (the spirit). According to Din Puteri, a young tok puteri, kenduri offerings traditionally need to be prepared in the panggung, especially in a sembah guru ritual. This is to reinforce the gotong-royong spirit and connect the circle of community. The lavish feast of kenduri offerings are not to be devoured whole by the community. During a kenduri ceremony, the tok puteri or master invites patient or student to “mengecapkan rasa, menghidukan bau” (to taste in tiny morsels and to smell the essence). A Repository of Living Rituals Although certain offerings are not a compulsory part of ritual ceremonies, Kelantanese believe that it is more beradab (appropriate) to serve them. Some kenduri offerings are not popular anymore as people are more accustomed Western food such as cakes for birthday celebrations. The sweet and colourful putu, representing happiness and cheerfulness, is not so common today in kenduri. While putu is still easily available, the type of putu for sembah guru offerings—moulded with Malay Hindu-Buddhist kingdom of Langkasuka motifs—is rare nowadays. In an effort to keep old traditions alive, the young shaman Din Puteri is trying to revive this type of offering, with the help of cultural expert Saman Dosormi from Patani, Thailand. The traditional performing arts of Kelantan are a repository of the long history and significance of kenduri offerings. These living rituals encompass the philosophy, worldview, and spirit of the Kelantanese. For Din Puteri, the kenduri symbolises Kelantanese identity itself, and is not restricted to the realm of Kelantanese traditional arts. Kenduri is a feast of ceremony and commemoration for the inner life of the individual and the community. Further reading: Laderman, C. (1991). Taming the Wind of Desire: Psychology, Medicine and Aesthetics in Malay Shamanistic Performance. University of California Press. *This essay was first published in Penang Monthly, December 2022.

  • 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. 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.

  • Bangsawan: A Cosmopolitan Theatre

    Bangsawan reflected the fluidity of Malayan identities. It went beyond today’s fixed ethnic-based affiliation and challenged the notion of insular, rigid, and ethnically homogenous identity. The arrival of the British to Southeast Asia in the 19th and early 20th centuries had brought a significant change to the political, economic, and cultural contours in Malaya. The Straits settlements of Singapore, Malacca, and Penang were developed as harbours for import and export of products, particularly spices, and established as administrative as well as judicial capitals for the British. The establishment of Penang as a free port in 1786 had increased the number of incoming vessels from 85 to 3569 by 1802, and the population in the capital city George Town had also risen to 10,000 by 1792 (Nordin, 2007). Immigrants came from all corners of the world — there were Chinese, Europeans, Arabs, Indian, and the Malays from surrounding islands such as Sumatra, Riau, Borneo, the Southern Philippines, and Southern Thailand. While most worked in the nutmeg and clove plantations and trading forest products such as rattan, aromatic wood, rice, poultry, gold dust, tin, and salt, others made their living as stage entertainers. Travelling from Europe, India, and China to perform music and theatre in the cities around the world, such performers were well celebrated by culturally and linguistically diverse populations of George Town. The port city had become an arena for cultural contestations, negotiations, and adaptation among the communities, as well as against the colonial construct of Malayan identities. For the locals, the arrival of cultural elements from overseas in the form of music and performing arts had enriched their culture and given them more choices of entertainment. While the traditional performing arts and rituals such as Mek Mulung, Menora, and Wayang Kulit remained the leading form of entertainment for the rural Malay population in mainland Kedah, the Malays of Penang Island celebrated a more modern form of entertainment. Among the many itinerant music and theatre groups that shaped the course of Malaya’s modern music and theatre industry were the Victorian Theatrical Company and the Elphinstone Company from Gujerat, India. Highly influenced by the western tradition of stage performance, this Parsi theatre troupe staged Indianized versions of Shakespeare’s plays and the Arabian Nights for local communities. It was soon adapted and appropriated particularly by the Jawi Peranakan and the Malays as part of their performing art repertoire. The localised version of Parsi theatre was known as Wayang Parsi Tiruan, Komedi Melayu, and Bangsawan. The last of these terms remains in use until today. The term Bangsawan is derived from the Malay term for “nobility” which refers to the lead character in Bangsawan. A theatrical performance that encompasses music, dance, and drama, Bangsawan marked the transition from traditional Malay theatre to modern Malay theatre. Unlike many Malay traditional performing arts, the musical instruments in Bangsawan are mostly western. Its music, dance, costumes, and props vary depending on the stories being staged. Many scholars note that Bangsawan featured both traditional and modern elements. For example, the ritualistic “buka panggung” ceremony, essential in many Malay traditional arts was also practiced in Bangsawan but was later dropped from the performance (Samsuddin, 2007). The Birth of Bangsawan in Penang Although the Bangsawan theatre had become a regional phenomenon by 1900s, with every state in Malaya having its own Bangsawan stage, it was Penang that served as the birthplace of the Bangsawan theatre. According to Tan Sooi Beng, one of the leading authorities on the performing arts in Southeast Asia, the earliest Bangsawan troupe was the Pushi Indera Bangsawan or The Royal Malay Opera, formed by a Jawi Peranakan named Mamat Pushi in Penang in 1885 (Tan, 2022). They were also known as The Impress Victoria Jawi Peranakan Theatrical Company. Indeed, the Parsi theatre troupes owed their success to the Jawi Peranakan who formed the most dominant community on the island until the 1850s. Like the Parsis in Gujerat, they were also active in trade, while those who fostered a good relationship with the British worked in the administration. Being a multilingual community that owned relatively big capital, they became the primary aficionados of Parsi theatre, alongside other communities including Chinese, Indian, Thai, Burmese, and the Malays. However, the earliest Parsi theatre troupe in Penang — the Victorian Theatrical Company — only managed to survive for a short period of time due to the financial difficulty. It was Mamat Pushi with his son-in-law Bai Kassim who came to rescue the group. He bought the props, costumes, musical instruments from the Wayang Parsi troupe and established his own theatre troupe to perform in the Malay language. Mamat Pushi is said to have first named the Wayang Parsi Tiruan as Bangsawan, a label given to him by Tunku Kudin, the prince of the Kedah sultanate. The term Bangsawan may also refer to the stories from a literary tradition that was accessible to the noble class. Among popular Bangsawan stories are Aladin dan Lampu Ajaib, Ali Baba dan 40 Orang Pencuri, and the Desert Thief of Baghdad. There were also Islamic and Hindustani-influenced stories such as Laila Majnun, Gul Bakawali, and Anarkali. Troupes with Anglo inclinations would perform adaptations of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Merchant in Venice, Hamlet, Othello, Julius Caesar, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Samsuddin, 2007). According to Ghulam-Sarwar Yousof, an expert in traditional Malay and Southeast Asian theatre, classic Malay stories such as Laksamana Bentan, Laksamana Mati Dibunuh, Laksamana Hang Tuah, Puteri Gunung Ledang, and Sultan Mahmud Mangkat Dijulang, started to be performed in the 1920s and 1930s (Yousof, 2005). Bangsawan troupes sprouted in the city setting and were sustained partly by the existence of the middle class who possessed extensive networks and capital such as the Jawi Peranakan community. Their soaring popularity carried them on tours to Singapore, West Sumatra, Batavia, Borneo and as far as Japan in the 1930s (Bujang, 1975). The thriving printing industry, particularly the Jawi Peranakan and Skola Melayu newspapers, offered a platform for publicity that enabled the Bangsawan to become a highly commercialised performing art in port cities. Bangsawan theatre troupes later sprouted in almost every state in Malaya. Among them were Nahar Bangsawan, Malayan Opera, Kinta Opera, City Opera, Peninsular Opera, Indera Permata of Parit Buntar, Alfred Theatrical Company of Selangor (Bujang, 1989). In Penang, amusement parks such as the Wembley and New World Park built in the 1930s became the main platforms for Bangsawan (Augustin & Lochhead, 2015). This was where many performers climbed the ladder to become stars, built their reputation, and vied for the attention of gramophone companies. The possibility to become famous and get rich through performing in the Bangsawan theatre enticed many Bangsawan performers to take up the art as a full-time profession. The lure of the limelight also attracted villagers especially women, many of whom came from poor families, to migrate to Penang and act in Bangsawan in the hope of becoming stars (Tan, 1995). One of the prominent women Bangsawan performers was Minah Alias or Miss Minah from Kampung Makam, Penang. According to Omara Hashim, a prominent Boria performer in Penang, Minah Alias was the singer of the first Malay Raya song. Coming from a family of performers (her father and grandfather were tok dalang of Javanese shadow puppetry), Bangsawan became an avenue for her self-expression. Miss Minah and her husband Alias, also a Bangsawan performer, helped facilitate the Bangsawan Sri USM, a Bangsawan troupe established in the 1980s by Universiti Sains Malaysia staff. Bangsawan set the stage for the new music recording industry that would play a huge role later in popularising music in Malaya. P. Ramlee’s iconic musical style developed from Bangsawan-styled music and acting (Uhde, 2015). In the ‘40s and ’50s, famous singers such as Saloma, Normadiah, Nona Asiah, Kassim Masdor, and Aziz Jaafar adopted Bangsawan-styled music (Lockard, 1991). Cosmopolitan Identity of the Malay World Bangsawan reflected the cosmopolitan nature of port city dwellers. It was also a space for communities to experiment and project their cosmopolitan identity, distinct from the colonial narrative (Tan, 2022). They borrowed European musical style and blended it with that of the Malays and other ethnic groups. Adaptation and improvisation were essential elements to appeal to diverse ethnic groups. The result was a common identity based on the appreciation of cultural differences and belief in individualism. Although Bangsawan theatre is rooted in Malay culture, communities of various cultural backgrounds contributed significantly to its production and support. It was common to see Bangsawan troupes managed by Chinese staging Arabic-based stories such as Siti Zubedia. In 1929, the Penang Nyonya Bangsawan performed Jula-Juli Bintang Tiga, Nyai Dasima, and A Merchant of Baghdad in Drury Lane Theatre, Penang. The Malay language used in Bangsawan reflected the lingua franca used in everyday life; it was not ethnically based. The earlier Bangsawan theatre was performed not only by Jawi Peranakan, but also by the Malays, Chinese, and Indians. For example, Wayang Yap Chow Tong or the Indra Permata Theatrical Co. of Selangor owned by a Chinese proprietor Yap Chow Tong, and Moonlight Opera Co. of Penang with its famous singer, Tan Tjeng Bok (Tan, 1997). The Bangsawan performers travelled around the archipelago, married into diverse communities, spoke in a variety of languages and dialects, and exchanged knowledge with one another (Tan, 2022). Hence, Bangsawan reflected the fluidity of Malayan identities. It went beyond today’s fixed ethnic-based affiliation and challenged the notion of insular, rigid, and ethnically homogenous identity. Further readings: Augustin, P., & Lochhead, J. (Eds.). (2015). Just for the Love of It: Popular Music in Penang,1930s–1960s. SIRD. Bujang, R. (1975). Sejarah Perkembangan Drama Bangsawan di Tanah Melayu dan Singapura. Dewan Bahasa & Pustaka. Bujang, R. (1989). Seni Persembahan Bangsawan. Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka. Lockard, C. A. (1991). Reflections of Change: Sociopolitical Commentary and Criticism in Malaysian Popular Music Since 1950. Crossroads: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, 6(1), 1-111. Nordin, H. (2007). Charting the Early History of Penang Trading Networks and Its Connections with the New ASEAN Growth Triangle (Malaysia-Indonesia-Thailand). Malaysian Journal of Society and Space(3), 75-83. Samsuddin, M. E. (2007). Perubahan Corak Kerja Kreatif Bangsawan: Satu Kesinambungan Identiti. Jurnal Pengajian Melayu, 18. Tan, S. B. (1995). Breaking tradition; Women stars of Bangsawan theatre. Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde, Performing Arts in Southeast Asia 151(4), 602-616. Tan, S. B. (1997). Bangsawan: A Social and Stylistic History of Popular Malay Opera. The Asian Centre. Tan, S. B. (2022). Soundscapes of diversity in the port cities of British Malaya : Cultural convergences and contestations in the early twentieth century. In R. P. Skelchy & J. E. Taylor (Eds.), Sonic Histories of Occupation : Experiencing Sound and Empire in a Global Context (1 ed., pp. 219-238). Bloomsbury Academic. Uhde, J. (2015). P. Ramlee and Neorealism. Kinema: A Journal for Film and Audiovisual Media. Yousof, G.-S. (2005). Bangsawan Belum Pupus. Dewan Budaya, 10-13. *This essay was first published in Penang Monthly, October 2022.

  • Seni Reog: An Epic Battle and a Cultural Dispute

    Traditions such as Reog embody the fluidity of culture that moved freely across the Nusantara archipelago long before the advent of the modern nation state. In Indonesia’s kabupaten (regency) of Ponorogo, people tell the story of the mythical battle between their king, Kelono Sewandono and the magical lion-like creature called Singa Barong. King Kelono reigned the Bantarangin, a kingdom believed to be part of the ancient Ponorogo.In the vast repertory of Javanese epic dance masks, the king is depicted as red-skinned with prominent eyes, wearing a gold-coloured crown and carrying pecut samandiman, a decorated whip in his hand. King Kelono set out on a journey to the kingdom of Kediri, reigned over by a beautiful princess named Puteri Songgo Langit, admired by Javanese kings and nobles throughout the land. On his journey to seek the hand of the princess, he was attacked by Singa Barong, a guardian of the forest that surrounds the Kediri kingdom. An arduous battle ensues between the black-clad warok warriors of King Kelono and the lion and peacock army of Singa Barong. King Kelono’s troops eventually tame the Singa Barong, and he finally encounters Puteri Songgo Langit. Puteri Songgo Langit agrees to marry him but on one condition: he must present her with a new dance performance that has never been showcased to the public before. King Kelono impressed the princess with the Reog dance, which enacts the battle and his journey to reach her. Many versions of the origins of the Reog dance exist. Different Reog groups and masters have their own interpretation of the story, contextualised and appropriated according to their sensibility and social climate. Today, the dance continues to be performed on festive days, for weddings and coming of age ceremonies. Driving into the kabupaten, one is greeted by the statues of the virile warok and his alluring boy-lover gemblak, two characters prominent in the Reog dance. Reog has become an iconic cultural identity of the people of Ponorogo, and registered as one of Indonesia’s intangible cultural heritage traditions. In January 2022, Indonesia’s Coordinating Minister for Human Development and Culture, Muhadjir Effendy, supported the proposal for the art to be recognised by UNESCO as a Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. But this episode sparked another cultural dispute between Indonesia and Malaysia, the home of many Javanese migrants and several Reog groups. A Majestic Dance King Kelono Sewandono created the Reog dance based on his journey to Kediri. In another version of the story, Reog became a central element in the struggle of Ki Ageng Kutu, a servant who fought against the ruler of the kingdom of Kertabhumi in the 15th century. Living in exile, Ki Ageng, used the Reog dance as the medium to spread his political message against the corrupt king. The centerpiece of the Reog dance is the majestic Singa Barong mask, which depicts a lion’s head elaborately decked with peacock feathers. In the Ki Ageng version, the Singa Barong symbolises the kingdom of Kertabhumi. Other prominent figures in Reog Ponorogo performances are the valiant Bujang Ganong masked dancers, who represent cleverness, agility and loyalty, and the graceful jathilan dancers on woven horses, who embody beauty, youth and bravery. The Reog dance is accompanied by an ensemble of percussion instruments such as gong, kenong, gendang, tipong, angklung, and a reed instrument called slompret. The piercing cry of the slompret casts a hypnotic spell over the dancers and audience, enveloping them in the distinctive sound of Ponorogo. A full Reog performance unfolds within an hour, but is usually shortened or lengthened to suit the occasion. The performers traditionally begin with a sajen ritual (feasting) to protect audiences, with offerings of banana, coconut, rice, roasted chicken, kemenyan, perfume, cigarettes, and lighters, to respect the village’s penunggu (local spirit guardians). Originating in Ponorogo, the Reog has now also taken root in communities of Javanese descent in Peninsular Malaysia, particularly in Batu Pahat, Johor. The Migration of Javanese The early 19th century into the 20th century saw waves of migration of Javanese to the Malay Peninsula, particularly to Johor, together with other ethnic groups from Indonesian Archipelago such Bugis, Boyan, Rawa, Mandailing, and Acehnese. The Javanese opened up new lands, where they cultivated gambier, coconut and areca palm. The plantations were demarcated by irrigation channels (parit); the new kampungs that sprouted were identified by ‘parit’ and named after the founders. In 1894, the number of Javanese migrants in Johor had reached approximately 25,000, spurred by the burgeoning agricultural development under Sultan Abu Bakar. Among the Javanese migrants who arrived in Johor, many were from Ponorogo and settled in areas such as Kampung Parit Warijo, Parit Bingan, and Parit Nipah Barat in the area of Batu Pahat. Some of them brought along their customs and traditions such as Reog, and maintained strong ties with their relatives in Ponorogo. It was in 1900 that Reog was first introduced in Johor by Saikon Kertos who lived in Kampung Perpat. In an effort to strengthen Javanese identity and culture in Johor, some communities formed Reog groups. In 1935, Bingan Abu Kahar, the founder of Parit Bingan, established a Reog group by the name of Setia Budi. In 1970 Mohamad Haji Marji from Parit Bingan founded Sri Wahyuni, one of the most renowned Reog groups in Malaysia. Among other Reog groups that are active today are Reog Bestari Tunas Warisan, Reog Seri Warisan Parit Raja, Reog Setia Budi Parit Nipah, and Reog Gemala Sari Parit Baru Sri Medan, now steered by the second and third generation of the earliest migrants. For the late Mohamad Haji Marji, affectionately known as Wak Mad, the purpose of establishing Sri Wahyuni was to forge a bond between the Javanese descendants with the local Malays. Wak Mad had a vision of elevating Reog to an art form recognised and celebrated by all. The members of Sri Wahyuni not only perform Reog, but also other traditional performances, such as Kuda Kepang and Silat. A young generation of Indonesian foreign workers have become core members of Sri Wahyuni and contribute to the flourishing of the group. Back home in Ponorogo, some of these new migrants had their own Reog groups. In their new home of Johor, they found community — culture offered them a way to integrate into Malaysian society. The connection between Reog groups in Johor with their ancestral land of Ponorogo is thus renewed through continuous relationships and exists not simply through bloodlines and history. The evolution of Reog in Johor has inevitably seen changes, improvisation, and adaptation — some organic in nature and others imposed by religious authorities and cultural bureaucrats. The opening sajen ceremony for example has been largely replaced by doa in public performances. Most Jathilan dancers in Johor wear tudung, in contrast to the flowing straight locks of their counterparts in Ponorogo. There was an attempt by state authorities to alter the traditional story of Reog and impose a more Islamic version based on tales of the Prophet Sulaiman who understood and spoke to animals. Many Reog groups in Johor and Indonesia rejected this story and retained the original legend. The Fluidity of Culture The adulterated story of Reog was one of the triggers of a cultural dispute surrounding the Reog tradition between Malaysia and Indonesia. In 2007, Indonesians were angered when the Malaysian government featured Reog as one of its tourism products without acknowledging the Ponorogo origins of the dance. In Jakarta, thousands of people gathered in front of the Malaysian Embassy to protest with banners ridiculing Malaysia as “Malingsia” or thief. While the outrage of Indonesia is justified in the face of the foolish oversight of Malaysian cultural bureaucrats, there should be acknowledgement on both sides that Reog has been a shared tradition for many generations. The practitioners of Reog in Johor are in no way appropriating someone else’s culture — they are keeping alive a tradition that was passed down to them by their ancestors. Traditions such as Reog embody the fluidity of culture that moved freely across the Nusantara archipelago long before the advent of the modern nation state. *This essay was first published in Penang Monthly, August 2022.

  • Ramadan, Kuih, dan Ruang

    Bandar menghidangkan rupa dan rasa kuih-muihnya sendiri. Namun, menjamah kuih-muih di kampung, saya merasa seperti benar-benar mencecap “air tangan”. Sewaktu kecil, saya tidak pernah teruja dengan Ramadan. Buat saya, bulan untuk masyarakat beragama Islam menahan lapar dan dahaga dari pagi sampai petang itu hanyalah membawa kepenatan. Tidak banyak yang boleh dilakukan kalau perut kosong. Jika tidak ke sekolah, saya hanya terperap di rumah, dan menghabiskan waktu dengan menonton TV atau mendengar radio. Saya juga perlu sentiasa berwaspada dengan tingkah-laku. Ayah selalu berpesan untuk tidak berbuat itu atau ini kalau tidak mahu puasa terbatal. Ramadan membuat saya terasa terikat dan terbatas. Kerana itu, saya lebih ternanti-nanti waktu petangnya, ketika masa untuk berbuka puasa tersisa beberapa jam sahaja lagi, dan orang mula berpusu-pusu ke bazar Ramadan. Di bazar, Ramadan memang menjadi seperti sebuah pesta yang berlanjutan selama satu bulan. Selain masjid dan surau, bazar menjadi tempat untuk orang bertemu dan bertegur sapa setelah seharian dengan ibadah puasa masing-masing. Di situ, dengan mengikut jejak pelbagai aroma yang menggiurkan, kita berjalan dalam kerumunan orang, menuju ke tujuan yang satu: makanan. Hanya makanan dan kuih-muih di bazar yang menyuntik semangat saya untuk menghabiskan puasa. Apatah lagi kalau bazar-bazar Ramadan di Kelantan. Memilih kuih-muih di bazar di negeri itu terasa seperti menjala ikan sungai di sawah padi yang digenang air ketika musim tengkujuh. Bermacam-macam kuih yang jarang ditemui, tersedia dan hanya tinggal untuk dibungkus pulang. Malah, saya pertama kali mengenal kuih-muih manis Kelantan seperti tahi itik, jala mas, puteri mandi, dan nekbat sira kerana berkat bazar Ramadan. Sejak dari dahulu, negeri Cik Siti Wan Kembang itu memang sudah terkenal sebagai syurga kuih-muih. Mungkin salah satu alasannya adalah kerana orang Kelantan sudah lama bertalian dengan orang-orang di daerah Patani di selatan Thailand. Resipi kuih-muih banyak menyeberang sempadan Sungai Golok, diperturunkan dan diuji cuba oleh masyarakat dari kedua-dua wilayah. Jauh ke arah timur pula, orang Kelantan dan Terengganu bertukar-tukar rasa makanan untuk memperkayakan satu sama lain. Maka, kuih-muih Melayu Kelantan adalah kosmopolitan pada rasa dan bentuknya. Sama seperti Pulau Pinang. Percampuran budaya yang malah lebih rencam di negeri ini turut berbekas pada makanan dan kuih-muih. Kita tahu bahawa, kerana para pedagang dari India dan Timur Tengah pada dahulu kala, maka kita pada hari ini boleh menikmati makanan-makanan seperti samosa dan murtabak. Begitu juga pengaruh kebudayaan Cina serta Nyonya yang akhirnya berhujung dengan kuih-muih seperti kuih talam, seri muka, kochi, kuih lapis, bingka, dan sebagainya. Pulau Pinang juga turut beruntung dengan segala yang ditinggalkan oleh bekas penjajah Inggeris. Kerana keterbukaannya, di bazar-bazar Ramadan, kita senang sahaja bertemu dengan kuih-muih atau kek seperti tiramisu, brownies, macaron, donat ataupun cheese cake. Yang jelas, setiap masyarakat menawarkan kelainan dalam makanan dan kuih-muihnya, sesuai dengan persekitaran budaya masing-masing. Proses pertukaran, peminjaman, pemasukan atau pengecualian senantiasa terjadi dalam kerja penciptaan makanan. Malahan, kita tidak lagi terlalu menghiraukan persoalan keaslian sesuatu makanan apabila berhadapan dengan hakikat perkahwinan budaya seperti ini. Makanan dan kuih-muih, selagi boleh dikecap lidah dan tidak ditolak perut, kekal dalam pertandingan mempertahankan kemandirian. Namun, saya kira, keanekaan rasa dan bentuk kuih dan masakan tidak hanya bergantung kepada interaksi yang terus-menerus terjadi antara pelbagai kebudayaan. Ia turut dipengaruhi oleh ruang atau kadangkala, geografi. Malah bagi saya, ruang bukan sekadar berpengaruh terhadap keragaman kuih, tetapi turut menentukan cara penyediaan, serta kualiti sesuatu kuih atau masakan. Mungkin kerana itu saya lebih gemar untuk menikmati kuih-muih dari halaman sendiri. Dengan kata lain, saya lebih memilih kuih dari kampung berbanding bandar. Jadi, di Kelantan dan Terengganu, tidak pelik jika minuman seperti tuak atau nira menjadi minuman khas setiap kali berbuka puasa. Alasannya, paling mudah, kerana kedua-duanya adalah negeri berpantai, dan pokok kelapa serta nipah berderetan di tepi jalan atau di belakang rumah. Kerana ruang juga, kuih akok masih boleh dibakar dan diperap menggunakan api dan asap daripada sabut kelapa, bukan ketuhar elektrik, seperti umumnya akok bandar. Atas alasan yang sama, tapai masih boleh dibungkus dengan daun pokok getah atau pisang, bukannya bekas plastik. Nenek dan ibu saya setidak-tidaknya masih meneruskan tradisi itu. Tidak berlebihan kalau dikatakan bahawa ruang yang memungkinkan mereka meneruskan tradisi. Di belakang rumah, tanah yang tidak berpagar itu adalah tempat pokok dan tanaman kembali berbakti. Mereka tidak semestinya perlu ke pasar kerana sebakul daun getah ataupun pisang. Memeram tapai berhari-hari atau membakar ayam percik juga menjadi lebih mudah dengan adanya dapur dian—dapur luar tempat perempuan berpantang dan kerja-kerja memasak skala besar dilakukan. Hakikatnya, kampung tidak hanya menawarkan lebih banyak ruang fizikal, tetapi—lewat cara hidup “kekampungan”— ia turut memberi ruang dan keleluasaan dalam bentuk waktu. Ramuan sudah tentunya penting. Tetapi dalam kerja menghasilkan kuih-muih Melayu—baik Kelantan atau tidak—keleluasaan atau kelapangan juga mustahak. Prosesnya renyah dan memakan masa yang lama. Jadi tidak selalunya orang mempunyai waktu dan sanggup untuk menyingsing lengan baju, duduk memarut kelapa, dan menunggu semata-mata untuk sepinggan kuih. Ambil kuih lompat tikam, kuih Kelantan dengan gabungan pulut merah, tepung hijau, kepala santan, dan air gula melaka, misalnya. Bukan sahaja memasaknya memerlukan kemahiran menyukat dan kuali jenis tembaga, menyantapnya sahaja perlu duduk berhidang. Untung orang kampung yang umumnya bekerja sendiri, waktu-waktu lapang yang ada boleh digunakan untuk bermain-main dengan senduk dan periuk. Di kampung, kita mengenali kuih-muih bukan sekadar makanan untuk mengenyangkan perut. Lebih daripada itu, ia turut hadir sebagai pengikat hubungan antara masyarakat. Kehidupan kampung masih banyak memberi peluang untuk orang bergilir-gilir menghasilkan kuih, kemudian dibawa untuk bermoreh di surau dan masjid selepas berbuka puasa. Selalu juga kuih-muih menjadi persembahan dalam upacara-upacara kesyukuran seperti menyambut hari jadi, berkhatam Quran, malah kadangkala untuk berubat orang sakit. Ia memiliki sisi adatnya. Tidak ada apa yang kurangnya dengan berpuasa dan menjejak bazar-bazar Ramadan di bandar. Setelah dewasa, hidup di tanah sempit dan padat seperti ini, jarang-jarang saya tetap menapak ke bazar. Bandar menghidangkan rupa dan rasa kuih-muihnya sendiri. Namun, menjamah kuih-muih di kampung, saya merasa seperti benar-benar mencecap “air tangan”. *Esei ini pertama kali diterbitakan di Suara Nadi, 8 April 2022.

  • Muzik dan Piring Hitam

    Dengan wadah fizikal seperti piring hitam juga, kita kembali bertenang-tenang dengan masa, keluar menjelajah, bertemu orang, dan akhirnya merasa memiliki muzik. Seperti membaca novel atau puisi, mendengar muzik adalah suatu pengalaman yang sangat peribadi. Kita menghadam lalu mentafsirkan apa sahaja muzik atau lagu yang tertuang ke lubang telinga kita dengan cara berbeza. Ambil misalnya lagu Senja Nan Merah nyanyian Awie dan Ziana Zain. Saya kurang pasti kisah berkasih-kasihan apa yang ingin disampaikan M. Nasir dan Loloq sewaktu menggubahnya. Namun, lagu tersebut cukup untuk mengingatkan saya kepada hidupan pada suatu zaman yang saya kira paling menarik di Malaysia. Kerana itu, ketika usia remaja, saya sudah cukup senang kalau sekadar bersendirian di bilik tidur, memutarkan lagu-lagu kegemaran. Tidak banyak yang boleh diharapkan di Kelantan pada tahun 2000-an. Konsert atau pesta muzik tiada atau tidak sesering di tempat-tempat lain. Acara keramaian sedemikian sudah tidak mudah untuk dianjurkan. Untung orang masih boleh ke warung-warung karaoke untuk berdendang. Jarang-jarang, ada persembahan dikir barat yang boleh saya kunjungi dengan tiket seringgit. Di situ—di padang dan di celah-celah kebun getah—muzik lebih memainkan peranan sosialnya. Orang kampung berkerumun mendengarkan suara Zaidi Buluh Perindu, Megat Nordin, dan Jen Endoro memecah sunyi malam. Maka, dalam segala keterbatasan, dengan radio (tepatnya stereo kereta), saya lebih banyak mencipta khayalan-khayalan sendiri. Melalui muzik dan lagu-lagu, saya meneroka ke pelbagai kenyataan baharu lewat rentak dan irama yang datangnya dari pelbagai tempat. Pada waktu itu, banyak dari Amerika dan beberapa dari Eropah. Sesekali, saya juga menjejak alam baharu secara lebih perlahan dengan muzik-muzik pop dan balada Melayu tempatan. Ternyata, muzik bukan sekadar menghibur. Melalui muzik juga saya belajar memahami sekeliling. *** Saya kira, pengalaman mendengarkan muzik kurang lebih begitu ketika orang belum lagi memutarkan lagu secara digital seperti hari ini. Pada hari ini, mencari dan mendengar lagu sudah menjadi terlalu mudah dengan adanya Youtube atau Spotify. Kita tinggal menaip nama lagu dan menekan butang “main” sahaja. Mendengar muzik dan lagu juga terlalu mudah sehingga boleh dimainkan atau dihentikan pada bila-bila masa tidak mengira tempat. Sewaktu remaja, saya tidak pernah berpeluang untuk mendekati piring hitam—wadah mendengar muzik terawal dan masih ada sehingga ke hari ini. Harganya mahal, alat pemainnya juga saya tidak ada. Jadi, muzik yang saya dengar umumnya keluar dari kaset ataupun cakera padat (CD). Harganya jauh lebih murah dan lebih tersedia. Tidak ada cara lain lagi sehinggalah pada waktu-waktu terkemudian ketika lagu-lagu boleh dimuat turun dengan percuma dalam bentuk mp3. Namun, mendengar lagu lewat wadah-wadah fizikal seperti itu, kita menjadi lebih terpaku di kerusi, hadir di hadapan muzik, dan turut serta dalam sebuah kerja penciptaan. Hal ini yang tidak dapat diberikan oleh wadah digital, setidak-tidaknya kepada saya. Bagi saya, mendengar muzik di telefon bimbit telah menghilangkan banyak proses yang dilalui oleh seseorang pendengar muzik lewat wadah fizikal. Kerana terlalu mudah, mungkin kita sudah jarang sekali duduk memegang, merenung, dan berbual-berbual tentang penyanyi-penyanyi atau karya-karya yang kita dengar. Muzik, lewat bentuk fizikal, menuntut usaha dan perhatian yang lebih. Manakan tidak, seluruh prosesnya boleh dikatakan manual dan renyah. Saya perlu menunggu berbulan-bulan hanya untuk membeli sekeping album yang tidak banyak jualnya di pekan-pekan terdekat. Selalu juga, saya dan teman-teman menukar dengar kaset dan CD kepunyaan kami. Hanya pada ketika itu suatu pengalaman yang sebelumnya bersifat peribadi menjadi sosial. Kami mencipta dunia, minat, dan bertutur dengan bahasa yang dikongsi bersama. *** Mungkin kerana wabak atau mungkin juga tidak. Namun, sejak kebelakangan ini, orang mulai kembali ke wadah fizikal. Jualan kaset, CD, dan piring hitam khususnya semakin laku di pasaran. Di Amerika sahaja, menurut satu laporan yang dipetik oleh majalah The Atlantic, selain daripada minat orang terhadap lagu-lagu lama (70-an dan 80-an) yang semakin meningkat, piring hitam juga dikatakan menjadi wadah fizikal yang paling banyak dibeli. Tidak pelik kalau gejala sedemikian terjadi kerana orang mungkin sedang mengalami kepenatan digital. Di komputer atau di telefon pintar, bunyi dan rupa bercampur aduk dalam ruang yang sama, beradu untuk meraih perhatian. Orang juga mungkin sudah semakin penat bergantung kepada mesin algoritma dalam memilih dan menentukan selera mendengar atau melihat. Saya tidak terkecuali dalam pasaran ini. Kerana tidak pernah mencuba piring hitam, saya ikut terjun bersama. Bagi saya, suara garau penyanyi jazz seperti Billie Holiday, atau bunyi trompet Chet Baker misalnya hanya sesuai di atas piring hitam. Namun, lebih daripada sekadar ikut berenang bersama arus, ada hal lain yang turut mendorong: keinginan untuk mendengar dengan lebih tekun dan menyumbang dengan lebih dekat kepada proses penghasilan sesuatu produk yang saya hadam. Seperti kaset dan CD, wadah muzik yang paling tua itu menawarkan peluang ini. Dengan piring hitam, kita mendengar dan mampu “menyentuh” muzik melalui alur-alur halus yang tergores panjang. Memang proses mendengarkan muzik dan lagu mengikut gaya lama ini perlahan dan renyah. Namun, kita diajarkan untuk lebih menghargai keseluruhan proses penciptaan muzik, baik dari penghasilan lagu, kerja-kerja penerbitan, sehinggalah kepada sampai ke telinga pendengar. Dengan wadah fizikal seperti piring hitam juga, kita kembali bertenang-tenang dengan masa, keluar menjelajah, bertemu orang, dan akhirnya merasa memiliki muzik. * Esei ini pertama kali diterbitkan di Suara Nadi, 11 Mac 2022.

  • Memartabatkan Bahasa Melayu?

    Di ranah paling bawah ini—di sastera atau persuratan—bahasa berkembang dan mencari tempatnya melalui proses penawaran dan penolakan, melalui perhubungannya dengan pelbagai bahasa lain. Saya tidak pasti kalau tindakan Tuan Ibrahim Tuan Man yang berbahasa Melayu di Pertubuhan Bangsa-Bangsa Bersatu (PBB)—atau Ismail Sabri ketika bertemu Prayuth Chan o-cha di Bangkok—merupakan satu tanda kemenangan besar buat bahasa itu. Apatah lagi kalau alasannya semata-mata kerana mereka tidak tahu atau tidak yakin untuk berbahasa Inggeris. Namun, tidak sedikit yang merasa begitu; bahawa bahasa Melayu akhirnya sudah terbela dan dimartabatkan ketika dua orang pemimpin negara dengan bangga berbicara dalam bahasa sendiri di pertemuan antarabangsa. Alasan keraguan saya mudah. Pertama, seperti kebanyakan orang lain yang bahasa Inggeris bukan bahasa ibunda mereka, saya memang menanggapi bahasa itu selayaknya sebuah lingua franca—dipelajari dan dituturkan kerana terpaksa. Bahasa Melayu sendiri—setidak-tidaknya di wilayah-wilayah pelabuhan di Kepulauan Melayu—pernah memegang status bahasa pengantar atau penyatu ini. Maka, saya mempelajari dan bertutur dalam bahasa Inggeris dalam keadaan-keadaan yang memerlukan saya untuk berbahasa itu. Mungkin bukan di pasar, tetapi dalam situasi kerja, ketika bertemu orang yang—mahu tidak mahu—memerlukan bahasa Inggeris kalau ingin memahami satu sama lain. Alasan kedua mungkin kerana saya tidak pernah merasakan bahawa bahasa Melayu sedang dibunuh atau dihina apabila saya, dalam keadaan tertentu, memilih untuk berbahasa Inggeris atau mencampuradukkan bahasa ketika bertutur. Tidak seperti bahasa Inggeris, bahasa Melayu adalah bahasa ibunda yang tidak sengaja saya kuasai. Saya dilahirkan dan membesar dalam bahasa tersebut—seperti ramai orang lain di negara ini yang hidup dalam bahasa ibunda masing-masing. Melalui bahasa Melayu saya berfikir, dan membentuk salah satu dunia, di samping bahasa-bahasa lain yang saya kenali, khususnya Inggeris. Maka, tindakan seseorang wakil negara bertutur di pertemuan antarabangsa dalam bahasa yang difahami semua—dalam kes ini, bahasa Inggeris—didorong tidak lebih daripada sekadar satu keperluan. Tidak ada pertarungan antara bahasa dan tidak ada apa yang ingin dimenangi oleh bahasa dalam keadaan sempit seperti itu. Bahasa Inggeris—atau apa sahaja bahasa yang mungkin akan menjadi bahasa penghantar pada masa hadapan—adalah salah satu daripada banyak tempat bertemu sebelum kita berangkat ke bahasa-bahasa lain. Oleh itu, perjuangan terhadap bahasa, kalaupun ada, terletak di arena lain. Namun, itu yang selalunya terjadi kepada bahasa kalau di tangan negara—atau apa sahaja bentuk kekuasaan. Bahasa dibawa masuk ke ranah politik dan menjadi seperti objek dan lambang yang boleh dipegang-pegang lalu bermati-matian dipertahankan. Maka, tidak pelik jika ada orang yang selama ini tidak pernah mengendahkan atau benar-benar bergelumang dengan bahasa, berdiri di barisan paling depan dalam tunjuk perasaan memartabatkan bahasa. Di sini, bahasa seringkali menjadi umpan untuk meraih kekuasaan. Malah, di negara ini kita bertemu dengan ironinya. Sejak merdeka lagi, bahasa Melayu—yang sudah pun menjadi bahasa perantara—diinstitusikan menjadi bahasa rasmi negara. Sekolah dan pejabat kerajaan wajib menggunakan bahasa Melayu ketika berurusan. Bahasa ini juga dijamin lagi keberlangsungannya melalui penubuhan badan khusus seperti Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka untuk menyelia penggunaan bahasa Melayu dan perkembangan sastera. Tidak terkecuali kelebihan Akta Bahasa Kebangsaan yang diluluskan pada tahun 1963. Sekalipun demikian, kita—atau tepatnya orang politik—tetap sahaja resah. Mungkin kita tidak perlu berbuat apa-apa kepada bahasa. Bahasa—baik apa pun rupanya—perlu dibiarkan sendiri, dan tidak perlu dibela. Kalau pun negara tetap ingin masuk campur dalam cara kita berbahasa, peranan negara sudah cukup sekadar memastikan adanya ruang-ruang untuk apa sahaja bahasa dipelajari, dituturkan, dan dikembangkan dengan lebih alami. Hakikatnya, bahasa tidak berkembang atau terbela dengan sekelip mata melalui paksaan, tetapi dalam jangka panjang lewat penyemaian. Saya kira, kerja-kerja sebenar dalam mempertahankan dan mengembangkan bahasa selama ini bukan dilakukan oleh orang politik atau negara, tetapi di peringkat bawah oleh para penulis, penyair, atau lebih umum oleh kesusasteraan. Jadi, letak duduk sesuatu bahasa dinilai bukan kepada kebolehan seseorang pemimpin untuk berucap dalam bahasa sendiri di pentas antarabangsa, tetapi lewat karya-karya sastera, kegiatan penulisan, industri perbukuan, serta wacana-wacana bahasa yang terjadi dalam sesuatu bahasa tersebut. Tidak ada orang yang lebih akrab dengan bahasa selain daripada seorang penulis—baik yang mengarang prosa ataupun puisi. Tetapi, jauh dari sekadar lambang, di tangan penulis, bahasa menjadi alat dan wadah yang tidak ada sucinya, senantiasa anjal, dan terbuka untuk dimanipulasikan. Hampir setiap hari penulis dan penyair bergulat dengan bahasa. Melalui sastera dan penulisan, mereka menguji cuba keupayaan bahasa untuk mengungkapkan. Malah, penulis juga tidak berbalah dengan bahasa lain, tetapi asyik berkelahi dengan bahasa sendiri. Kita juga barangkali akan menemui kekuatan, politik, dan sifat mudah lentur bahasa dalam tradisi lisan yang sudah berakar panjang dalam masyarakat negara ini. Hanya sahaja, kita tidak terlalu memberi tumpuan terhadapnya. Di ranah paling bawah ini—di sastera atau persuratan—bahasa berkembang dan mencari tempatnya melalui proses penawaran dan penolakan, melalui perhubungannya dengan pelbagai bahasa lain. Hal ini misalnya lebih jelas dapat dilihat melalui kerja-kerja penterjemahan dan penyaduran yang sudah lama diusahakan oleh para pesilat bahasa kita. Karya-karya sastera dan bahasa secara umum tidak mungkin dapat dikenali tanpa adanya pertembungan seperti ini. Bahasa Melayu sendiri pernah berkembang dan menjadi bahasa kosmopolitan, digunakan tidak hanya dalam urusan jual beli, tetapi juga dalam mengurus tadbir masyarakat. Namun, ia tidak terjadi dengan semena-menanya. Tidak berlebihan jika dikatakan bahawa dengan kehadiran bahasa Inggeris, atau lebih tepatnya kerana pertemuan bahasa Melayu dengan bahasa Inggeris sejak sekian lama, maka kita akhirnya menjadi lebih mudah berhubungan dengan masyarakat dari luar kebudayaan sendiri. Malah, tidak hanya bahasa Inggeris, bahasa Melayu juga turut berterima kasih dengan adanya bahasa-bahasa dunia lain seperti Arab, Sanskrit, Parsi, Portugis, mahupun Belanda. Bagi saya, tumpuan utama yang harus diberikan bukanlah terhadap keupayaan kita untuk menyusun dan menyebut kata-kata Melayu di luar lingkungan sendiri, tetapi terhadap usaha untuk menawarkan cara pandang dunia kita ke luar. Dengan itu, kita tidak menjadi terlalu tegar dengan bahasa, sebaliknya lebih senang bermain-main dengan kecantikan dan kejelikan atau kesempitan dan keluasan bahasa. Jadi, untuk memperjuangkan bahasa, kita perlu bertenang-tenang, dan bantulah dalam mengembangkan sastera dan dunia penulisan sendiri. *Esei ini pertama kali diterbitkan di Suara Nadi, 28 Mac 2022.

  • A Future in Penang for the Film Industry

    Be it for education or entertainment, once you learn the art of reading films, you will be able to determine what a good film actually is,” says Al Jafree. THE HISTORY OF Malaysian cinema began along Jalan Ampas in Singapore in 1933 with Leila Majnun, a rendition of a classical Persian story about two ill-fated lovers, directed by B. S. Rajhans and produced by Motilal Chemical Company of Bombay. After a sequence of development and decline following World War II, the industry relocated to KL in the 1960s, with the establishment of Merdeka Film Studio. But it was not until 1963, when the television was introduced, that the local film industry truly experienced a shock; and with the introduction of coloured television and VHS in the 1970s, Malaysians realised they no longer needed to frequent the cinemas for movies. The goal at the time was to increase the production of local films to be showcased on the international stage. This led to the establishment of the National Film Development Corporation Malaysia (FINAS) in 1980, with the intent of stimulating growth and maintaining standards of the film industry, mainly through funding which in itself is a constant obstacle at both the creation and distribution levels of the industry. “Government backing, like in the US and Korea, is important in helping to sustain the film industry,” says Al Jafree Md Yusop, film editor, screenwriter and director. On the flip side, however, content regulation by the government disheartened many local filmmakers. But the change in government in 2018 renewed hope. “Many are in agreement that the Film Censorship Board of Malaysia should not have dual censoring and rating roles – this may cause some confusion. But filmmakers are still able to work around this. Iranian filmmakers face worse censorship and stricter regulations, yet they are able to produce some of the best movies in the world,” he says. Adding to this, the film industry has been recently afflicted by an identity crisis, e.g. what makes a Malaysian movie uniquely Malaysian? The Malaysia Film Festival caused an uproar in 2016 when it decided to categorically divide the entries based on the language used. “This ties back to a lack of understanding of how the Malaysian film industry first came to be, and the importance of the national film archive in preserving the history and identity of Malaysian cinema. Films that are directed or produced by Malaysians in Malaysia are essentially local products,” says Jafree, who has written and directed ten films and telemovies, including his latest romantic comedy Mencari Rahmat (2018), a Malay adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. By and large, despite the gradual increase of ticket prices since 2012 and the emergence of online streaming websites like Netflix, the Malaysian film industry still garnered over RM150mil via 49 box office releases in 2018; and a total of 86 locally-produced films such as Fly By Night, Shuttle Life, Lagi Senang Jaga Sekandang Lembu and Bunohan premiered at the New York, Shanghai, Venice and Toronto International Film Festivals respectively. Unpredictable Business The film industry is an unpredictable business; and much like gambling, it involves trial and error. William Goldman in Adventure in the Screen Trade (1989) wrote that “not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what's going to work. Every time out it's a guess and, if you're lucky, an educated one.” It is for this reason that when Jafree made Melur vs Rajawali and Ghahim Takut Nak Azan, two of the highest-rated telemovies that have now become cult phenomena among local movie-goers, he only focused on the storytelling aspect, rather than the market itself. In filmmaking, the same formula does not always translate into the same outcome. “In 1975 when Steven Spielberg decided to make Jaws, everybody thought it was a crazy idea. ‘It was not going to work, nobody will watch it’. But the film became the first to earn more than USD100mil and pioneered the era of blockbusters in the US,” he says. The advancement of technology, too, has reinvented the filmmaking industry; films can now be shot on smartphones. Yet, storytelling is still a very important skill to have. “Our problem right now is a lack of imagination and creativity in filmmaking. Many film directors start out as scriptwriters, and directors as writers. I’ve always believed that storytellers are intellectuals that must constantly develop themselves through the readings they do.” Potential Film Hub Penang serves not only as a creative ground for exchange for artists, actors, and filmmakers; the combination of traditional kampung and colonial town settings, as well as its diverse population makes Penang a great movie location. Since 2014 the state government has been actively organising creative programmes annually, ranging from art and theatre to music and film; and providing funds and spaces for hosting these events. To further boost the local film industry, the state government is also assisting FINAS in the form of entertainment tax from movie ticket sales. The first Penang International Film Festival will be introduced next. In witnessing Penang’s cinematic offerings, Jafree left KL in 2017 to make the island his new home. “As a city, Penang is very inspiring and visually beautiful. You can make a great romantic movie here,” he says. And for the past two years, Jafree has been hard at work organising workshops on screenwriting and storytelling in George Town, as well as developing its film community. He believes that for the film industry to flourish “you must not only develop the filmmaker, but the audience as well. Be it for education or entertainment, once you learn the art of reading films, you will be able to determine what a good film actually is,” he says. *This article was first published in Penang Monthly, January 2020.

  • Kamera Analog, Gambar Cetak, dan Ingatan

    Buat saya, mencipta gambar dengan cara lama tidak hanya memegunkan detik-detik. Kita percaya bahawa hidup tidak selalunya perlu tergesa-gesa. Tok ki, atuk sebelah ayah, meninggal dunia pada tahun 2010, sewaktu saya masih menuntut di universiti. Berita tentang pemergiannya saya terima dari ibu, lewat malam, ketika saya dan teman-teman sedang sibuk membuat persiapan akhir untuk sebuah seminar pelajar. Perbualan kami pendek. Ibu hanya ingin menyampaikan berita dan tidak mahu saya bersusah-payah untuk pulang. Jadi, saya tidak tahu sebab pemergian tok ki. Tok—isterinya—dan orang terdekat lebih senang untuk mengatakan bahawa dia pergi kerana sakit tua. Saya menapak keluar dari pintu belakang balai siswazah—tempat kami bekerja—dan berehat di sebuah bangku. Saya memanggil-manggil segala ingatan saya bersama tok ki. Tidak banyak. Sewaktu membesar, kami jarang bertemu. Dia memburuh di kilang balak untuk hidup di waktu mudanya. Di sela-sela waktu, tok ki belajar bersilat Gayong sehingga dia sendiri akhirnya mengajar orang. Ketika kekudanya sudah goyang, dia menghabiskan sisa-sisa hidup dengan memandu teksi dan mengukir sarung keris. Ingatan saya tentang tok ki adalah ingatan terhadap bunyi-bunyi serunai dan gendang pertunjukan silat yang dia sering anjurkan di laman rumahnya. Sulit untuk menggali-gali semula ingatan terhadap sesuatu, apalagi kalau ianya berupa serpihan-serpihan yang sudah lama termendap di belakang kepala. Hanya sekeping dan satu-satunya potret tok ki yang tertimbus dalam longgokan fail dalam komputer dapat membantu saya menatap wajahnya dan mencungkil naik sedikit ingatan. Dalam gambar digital yang saya sendiri rakam itu, tok ki yang bertubuh kering, tidak berbaju hanya bersarung petak, sedang duduk di samping meja kopinya. Matanya tajam ke lensa kamera. Potret itu saya cetak pada sekeping kertas gambar dan memasukkannya ke dalam sekeping sampul. Sewaktu pertama kali pulang untuk menziarahi kubur tok ki, saya selitkannya di celah baju-baju tok yang berlipat di dalam almarinya. *** Kurang pasti apa yang mengheret saya untuk berbuat demikian. Mencetak gambar digital—dengan mesin pencetak yang saya curi-curi guna di balai siswazah—kemudian menyerahkan kepada tok dengan diam-diam. Alasannya mungkin kerana saya tahu bahawa tok tidak pernah memiliki walaupun sekeping gambar tok ki. Gambar-gambar yang ada di rumahnya hanyalah selembar lukisan pantai yang murah, potret arwah anaknya dalam seragam askar, dan gambar naga pada kalendar koyak yang digantung pada dinding. Saya fikir, tidak ada apa lagi di rumah yang akan terus membuatkan tok atau saya sendiri mengingat dan kenal dengan wajah tok ki, selain daripada potret yang saya cetak itu. Hakikatnya, waktu dahulu kamera merupakan barang yang mewah. Belum tentu dalam satu kampung ada keluarga yang memiliki kamera, apatah lagi kalau orang kampung yang hidup jauh ke bukit. Hendak ke pekan sahaja berjam-jam perlu berjalan kaki. Jadi, untuk mengabadikan wajah-wajah ahli keluarga, orang kampung kebiasaannya akan ke studio gambar yang letaknya di pekan. Harga jauh lebih murah berbanding mengambil sendiri gambar-gambar tersebut. Di studio, orang boleh bergambar dengan latar belakang buatan yang tentunya lebih cantik dari di rumah. Kalaupun pernah tok dan tok ki menyentuh kamera, waktu itu ketika anak-anaknya sudah bekerja. Namun, seperti ayah, semuanya hidup berjauhan. Gambar-gambar tok dan tok ki berdua, kalaupun ada, banyak dalam milikan orang lain. Maka tidak pelik kalau tok sering mengingat; tentang salasilahnya; peristiwa-peristiwa penting yang pernah terjadi dalam keluarga; atau wajah-wajah deretan cucunya. Hal yang sama berlaku kepada mok, nenek saya sebelah ibu. Tidak ada yang disimpan dalam laci almari mereka selain daripada cebisan-cebisan gambar keluarga yang berjaya diperoleh dari mana-mana. Kita sudah tidak mencetak gambar. Tok dan mok tidak seperti orang lain. Mereka tetap tidak mampu untuk turut serta ketika orang sudah mula beralih ke gambar digital pada pertengahan tahun 1990-an. Sewaktu dunia penciptaan gambar semakin cepat bergerak ke depan dengan lahirnya JPEG dan MPEG, mereka berdua terhenti pada titik sejarah tersebut. Kemudian, datangnya telefon bimbit yang dilengkapi kamera, Internet, serta laman-laman sosial pada awal tahun 2000. Studio-studio gambar dengan perlahan-lahan membungkus mesin-mesin pencuci mereka. Gambar tidak lagi boleh dipegang. *** Barangkali, saya hanya melaksanakan satu langkah akhir yang saya anggap akan melengkapkan proses penciptaan gambar. Gambar tetap perlu menjadi benda nyata dan ia tidak dapat tidak hanya terlahir dari proses penciptaan gambar zaman pra-digital. Akhirnya saya mengulangi apa yang pernah saya dan keluarga lakukan lebih dari tiga dekad dahulu. Sewaktu saya kecil, ayah pernah memiliki sebuah kamera analog rangefinder Olympus PEN-D yang saiznya sebesar tapak tangan. Kamera itulah yang saya kilik setiap kali kami ke mana-mana—kenduri, berkelah, atau menziarahi sanak-saudara. Merakam detik-detik pada lembar negatif yang kemudiannya dibalikkan menjadi positif melalui proses kimia itu merupakan suatu proses yang renyah dan mengambil masa yang banyak. Selalunya, sehari sebelum berencana ke mana-mana, saya dan ayah akan ke pekan terlebih dahulu untuk membeli beberapa pusing filem. Di rumah, kami memasang filem tersebut ke dalam kamera. Mengendalikan kamera analog menuntut ketelitian. Apa lagi dengan kamera SLR Canon AE-1 Program yang pertama saya miliki beberapa tahun lalu. “KECAKKK!!! KREEEKK!!!”. Bunyinya juga memang bingit. Beratnya bukan kepalang. Barangkali separuh daripada berat batu jongkong biasa. Namun, mengendalikan kamera model tahun 1980-an itu menjadi mudah kalau sudah terbiasa atau memahami sedikit sebanyak sifat cahaya. Malah, kerja mengawal cahaya bertambah senang dengan adanya nombor-nombor di viewfinder. Namun, kerja merakamkan detik dan ingatan secara azalinya akan berakhir ketika gambar-gambar yang ditangkap siap dicetak dan dimasukkan ke dalam album. Boleh sahaja alasannya bahawa tok tidak memiliki telefon pintar dan mencetak gambar untuknya adalah satu-satunya jalan untuk mengabadikan ingatan. Melalui gambar cetak, ingatan menjadi benda nyata yang kini boleh dipegang, ditatap, malah tidak pelik kalau dihidu. Berbeza dengan proses penciptaan gambar digital melalui telefon pintar. Dalam merakam gambar, cerita sudah terbangun seawal proses perencanaan. Kerana itu, pada waktu dahulu, gambar benar-benar menjadi alat untuk menandakan peristiwa-peristiwa tertentu dalam hidup. Ia menjadi tempat penyimpanan ingatan. Melalui telefon pintar, mengambil gambar semudah menghalakan lensa dan menekan butang rakam. Jumlahnya juga tidak luak. Namun, gambar-gambar digital selalunya terpendam di dalam telefon atau berakhir di media sosial. *** Biarpun gambar-gambar yang saya ambil hari ini sudah memenuhi telefon, sesekali saya beralih ke kamera analog. Tujuannya antara lain adalah untuk bertenang-tenang dengan waktu dan lebih peka terhadap sekeliling. Kerana jumlah gambar yang boleh diambil juga tidak banyak, kita menjadi lebih berhati-hati dan berkira-kira. Tok menemui gambar tok ki yang saya sorok di celah lipatan bajunya. Bagi tok dan mok, gambar-gambar cetak yang kini terus mereka terima dari saya setiap kali pulang ke kampung adalah sebuah penerusan kepada kerja merakam ingatan yang pernah terhenti seketika dalam hidup mereka. Buat saya, mencipta gambar dengan cara lama tidak hanya memegunkan detik-detik. Kita percaya bahawa hidup tidak selalunya perlu tergesa-gesa. *Esei ini pertama kali diterbitkan di Suara Nadi, 28 Januari 2022.

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