Quo Vadis Malay Asli Songs

By Tan Sri Dato' S M Salim
This article has been written for the Malay Asli Singing Competition cum Seminar in Singapore from the 26th to the 27th July 2003
Article reprinted for Dendang Temasek CD album by Perkamus in 2005

This seminar organised by Perkamus (Association of the Malay Music Professionals), is a worthy effort that merits a strong and united support from the Malay communities in the region.

Today, Malay Asli songs are being marginalised and considered archaic. The market for Asli songs is shrinking.

Being a veteran Malay Asli singer, I honestly feel the uncertainties of our wonderful heritage. Hence continuous efforts should be forged in Singapore, Brunei, Malaysia and Indonesia to ensure our cultural heritage remains viable.

The Origin

Up till today, there is no verifiable or concrete proofs on the origin of Asli songs. Based on my experience and observation, the melodies of Asli songs are probably influenced by qasidah (Islamic songs in praise of Prophet Muhammad PBUH) like Barzanji and Marhaban and, to some extent, tunes from Quranic reading. With the spread of Islam beginning in the 12th Century AD, the Malays were introduced to various forms of music from the Middle East.

Unfortunately, most Asli songs are without the names of the composers.

When Singapore was the hub of the Malay performing arts in the region, many aspiring actors, singers, writers, composers from every corner of the Malay world came to this island where leading recording (like EMI and more) and film production companies were located.

During those days, there was no big orchestras in Singapore. Instead there were many small musical groups. Usually the musical instruments were violin, gendang (Malay drums), guitar, bass and perhaps cello.

Concept Of Malay Asli Songs

The rendition of Asli song is unique and wholesome unlike modern Malay songs or Langgam.

Usually the ensemble would perform the introduction. The singer then proceeds with poetic lyrics (pantun). After singing the first verse or the second lines (sometimes repeating them), there is a short pause but the music plays on. The song "Pasir Roboh" (the Sand Collapse) does repeat itself twice, whereas "Timang Banjar" ( Dandling in Lines) is sung once through.

In singing Asli songs, one should almost definitely, and unexpectedly, be cut and dragged halfway through the first line of the lyrics. Sometimes the lyrics are sung in such a way that the first part of it is halted and suddenly dragged and intertwined into a different paragraph.

For and example, the song "Kamarulzaman" is a difficult song to croon for it demands the singer to have a mastery of the erratic tempo.

Many famous Asli singers hailed from Singapore like A Rahman, Rubiah and Saemah. I am yet to see aspiring singers like them.

The lyrics

Most Asli songs like "Patah Hati" (Brokenhearted), "Makan Sireh" (Eating the Betel Leaves) and "Jalak Lenteng" probably originated from pantun (Malay traditional poems).

Pantun is considered the Malay's most unique cultural heritage. And no one would have thought of improvising pantun. But for me, it is possible and I would support it, provided that we do not blemish or obliterate its original meaning or message.

To preserve Asli songs, we must take extra care of the lyrics if we fancy changing them, but do stick to the original message. For example, the Asli song "Laksmana Mati Dibunuh" (The Admiral Is Murdered), is of historical significance. Hence, it is really appalling if we were to ingeniously change it to something like "Mat Salleh Mati Dibunuh" (The Caucasian is murdered).

The same goes for musical arrangements of Asli songs. To inject freshness to the music, we can drop accordion, violin, guitar, bass or gendang (the traditional percussions). It would be best of we can have a grand musical arrangement for a full-scale orchestra.

But do take an added precaution - watch the original tempo of the Asli song. Like the song "Tak Seindah Wajah" (Not As Pleasing As The Look), which I sang with an orchestra, though it is a Malay Asli beat, yet it does not belong to the actual list of established Malay Asli songs. There are many other Malay songs like this, in Asli tempo, being created of late.

The Music

The music that accompanies Asli songs should be improvised. In the past the music of Malay Asli songs was often performed by a group of five or six musicians.

But to present Asli songs that enthrall the audience and to optimise their beauty, it is possible to have a full-scale orchestra which includes twenty to thirty violinists, to perform this cultural heritage.

Such a performance may rekindle new interest in Asli songs. A brilliant music arrangement should be able to achieve this. My rendition of "Sri Siantan" was given a boost by a splendid arrangement of Ramli M S and powerful performance of the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra.

Improvised Style

Some Malay music experts think that except for the established Asli songs, all Malay songs can be sung in various styles, including rock and rap. An example is my own song entitled "Apa Dah Jadi?" (What Has Happened?), which was done almost like a rap style.

In the 1950s or the era of pentas joget (modern dance stage or cabaret), most Malay songs were performed in rhumba, tango and chacha.

Therefore I feel it is feasible for Malay Asli songs to be performed with the Ghazal tempo. However, Asli and Ghazal tempos are different.

A singer without enough stamina would be better off not singing a Ghazal song, because if he tries, he might end up tormenting the melody, as a result of his shortness of breath. But in the case of a Malay Asli song, if we do not have have the required stamina, there is still a chance of pilfering breath in between in between the considerably long melody breaks. Not a chance in Ghazal, where literally we are forced to sing continuously in accordance to the beat of the tabla (a traditional drum of Indian origin, that acts as a percussion piece in Ghazal performance).

Asli Vs Modern Singers

Asli songs are not easy to sing. These songs have their own unique style - the rhythm, the tempo, the musical intro and the poems which are the lyrics, must all be taken into consideration.

Today Malay Asli singers are few. For yesteryear, we had singers like A Rahman, whom was later succeeded by his son, R Ismail, then Rubiah, Saemah and many more.

In Malaysia, Asli singers include myself, Aspalela and Yusni Hamid, just a handful of us. If there is anyone or any singer at present, who wishes to croon Asli songs, he or she must first truly understand the traits of perfecting the techniques of singing these songs, by not shying away from asking and to learn most definitely, from the Malay Asli connoisseurs.

The splendour of Malay Asli songs should not be distorted or blighted in any way when singing, through the recklessness of experimental styling or a horrendous and coarse singing performance. Malay asli songs and its beautiful melodies after all are meant to divulge the superlative innate fine disposition of the Malays.

Please take note: if possible it is better to avoid singing Malay Asli songs through the karaoke, as music made for karaoke have a propensity of ruining the original beauty of malay Asli songs. But of course Asli songs can be made into karaoke for mass participation.

Be Selective

The choice of Malay Asli songs to be sung is indeed important. There are many certain Asli songs meant solely for lady of male singers.

For example, "Lela Manja" should be sung by a lady and bot by a man, because Lela is the sister of Manja. Sadly, there are male singers who sing it. Likewise, "Selamat Tinggal Bungaku" (Goodbye My Flower) is meant for male singers.

There are undeniably difficult Asli songs like "Bentan Telani" and "Sembawa Balik" which require strong vocals that some singers are not confident or petrified to sing them.

Steps for The Future

Malay Asli songs are out heritage. If it is not for us to safeguard, conserve and promote them to our present and future generations, who else will?

We have to resolve this modern dilemma urgently. The foreign influence and influx have invaded our music heritage.

A recent example is a group named "Woodstock", who came to Malaysia, and staged performances in the estates in and around the country. Later, circuitously, our younger generations get obsessed with them and their music, and worst, as time seeps, drugs fall into the fray, and transform intto a necessity for these "music lovers and musicians" to perform their music.

That is the reason, I deem, why our own younger generations are so fixated with music from the West. Apart from the negative influencem they may also suppose our own Malay music to passe, when in fact Malay Asli songs are our brand of music, a cultural and racial heritage, and inimitable inheritance from our forefathers. Now, why should we be the ones, the generation that detriments our own legacy?

Suggestions and Aspirations

There should be organized Malay songs singing competitions, at least one bi-annually, if not annually in the region.

The choice of songs, also, should not be restricted to a song for all contestants, we should avoid having a compulsory song. I agree with the choice laid by Perkamus, which is to have a different song all the way through from the auditions to the finals. This is to avoid giving an advantage to a singer who is very good at a song.

A seminar like this, held today, should be exposed to the younger generations, in queue, they should also question the older generations more.

The media, namely, radio, television and the reporters should co-operate and work together, to expose and publicise Malay Asli songs to the local arts stage. Without appropriate and adequate promotion from the media, I feel Malay songs, will slowly but surely be phased out and gradually become extinct.

The efforts by Perkamus must be given due credits, and must by supported and given mutual aid by all sides, in order to preserve, conserve and safeguard the beauty abd eminence of our own music; a form of racial heritage to its optimum.

Back To Top