The History of Zapin in the Archipelago

By Tom Ibnur
Literal translation by Ariffin Abdullah

Zapin reached the archipelago in parallel with the region's Islamic rise in the 13th century. Arabic and Gujarati traders came with Muslim missionaries and artists, plying their trade in the archipelago. Some of them stayed on and others returned back to their homeland when their trade and business were done. Those that stayed assimilated into the local community by marrying the locals.

Zapin, among other Muslim arts and culture, was introduced by these traders, which then flourished among the Muslim communities. Now, we can find Zapin throughout the region, such as Northern Sumatra, the Riau islands, Jambi, sounthern Sumatra, Bangka Belitung, Bengkulu, Lampung, Jakarta, northwestern and southern Java, Nagara, Mataram, Sumbawa, Maumere, Kalimantan, Sulawesi Selatan, Sulawesi Tengah, Gorontalo, Ternate and Ambon. In the neighbouring countries, Zapin can be found in Brunei Darussalam, Malaysia and Singapore.

In the region, zapin consists of two forms, Zapin Arab (Arabic Zapin), which does not change much since, and still practiced by local Arabs. The second form is Zapin Melayu (Malay Zapin) which was derived from its original form and modified to suit the local communities. Zapin Arab only has one form whereas Zapin Melayu consists of a variety of forms and styles. The terminology was also diversified, depending on the language and local dialects of the region. The terminology Zapin is used in North Sumatra and Riau, and in Jambi, Southern Sumatra and Bengkulu, it is known as Dana. Zapin is known as Bedana in Lampung, and in Java it is called Zafin. Kalimantan is inclined to call it Jepin, in Sulawesi it is Jippeng and in Maluku Jepen. In Nusatenggara, it is known as Dana-Dani.

Zapin is performed in occasions such as weddings, circumcision, thanksgiving, village festivals, even Islam's major celebrations. Generally, Zapin dancers are males. The dance is accompanied by a musical ensemble comprising of marwas, gendang, flute, violin, accordion, dumbuk, harmonium and vocal. The dance is moderate and repetitive. Its movement is inspired from human nature and the environment. For example : titi batang, anak ayam patah, siku keluang, sut patin, pusing tengah, alif and others.

Zapin performance generally inspire the performers to showcase their dance skills and craftsmanship by improvising with the accompanying music. For hundreds of years, Zapin has been a source of entertainment to local communities as well as conveying good advice to its audience with its pantuns (verses, quatrains) and songs. Even if the art form have been changed, its evolution comes naturally. Problems with continuity for traditional arts and crafts, culture, religious implications and other factors are some of the reasons hampering the progress of this art form.

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Translation reproduced with permission
For unabridged version in Malay, click here