Discovering Malaysian Music Through Folk Songs – My Journey

As a Malaysian musician living abroad, I am often asked, “What is Malaysian Music?”

The great Hungarian composer, ethnomusicologist and music educator, Zoltan Kodály wrote, “The compositions of every country, if original, are based on the songs of its own people. That is why their folk songs must be constantly sung, observed, and studied.” (Kodály, 1964)

These words ring so true. Malaysian folk songs are, albeit a small yet very integral part of what defines Malaysian music. From our folk songs, we learn a great deal about Malaysia’s melting pot of culture, the wonderful people from different ethnicities, their delightful sense of humour and drama, the various languages and dialects spoken throughout the country, the folk lore (both historical and mythical) , the many styles of dances (from the lively ‘joget’ to the graceful ‘sumazau’ to the rousing ‘dikir barat’), the food (Malaysians are deeply passionate about their food!), the landscape (from the beautiful, lush rainforests, to the idyllic paddy fields, to the bustling cities), and many more.

My personal journey of trying to identify and define Malaysian music, specifically folk songs, began only after graduation when I found myself on an ‘accidental’ adventure of choral arrangement. Armed with my experience of accompanying various choirs as a music graduate in Scotland, I was keen to explore the choral scene upon my return to Malaysia in the early 2000s. In my memory, choral singing for most Malaysians was confined to the annual Teacher’s Day  and ‘end-of-year’ school concerts where the school choir would sing a few songs, receive their applause and that was it for the rest of the year. I was interested to see how the choral scene in Malaysia had developed since then.

As luck would have it, in 2002, I met a passionate music educator and choral music advocate, Susanna Saw, who was at that time working to build up the choral scene in Malaysia. To cut a long story short, I was looking to accompany one of her choirs and she was looking for someone to arrange some music for her choirs. Competitions have always been a big part of Asian culture and education, and it was and is no different in Malaysia. The Education Ministry, in its effort to revive its music education department, began to organize school choir competitions throughout the country; with a ‘folk song’ requirement: folk songs that school children did not know as these songs were hardly taught or sung anymore in Malaysian schools or even in the community. The hunt was on for choral arrangements of Malaysian folk songs suitable for young voices. Malaysian youth (as with most youth everywhere else in the world, I’m sure) were, and still are, more interested in listening to and singing pop songs. Folk songs were deemed as boring and archaic! So, choir teachers found themselves in a fix.  As a result, instead of playing for choirs, I found myself looking for folk songs to arrange that would be simple yet appealing for young children as well as the growing number of community choirs in the country.

This journey of arranging folk songs for school choirs has been such a huge learning curve for me, but an amazing experience, nonetheless. Apart from the few folk songs I recalled from my childhood, I discovered many other gems that I had never heard of, and have recently unearthed even more musical jewels, especially from the numerous indigenous communities in Borneo. That has opened a new set of challenges though. As many of these songs are passed from generation to generation orally, notated scores of the songs are almost impossible to find. There is also the added challenge of determining the accuracy of the lyrics that I found on YouTube (multiple karaoke versions included) and getting accurate translations in both English and Bahasa Malaysia. Many of these indigenous languages (and dialects) are hardly spoken nor understood by the younger generation any more. All the more reason to keep these songs alive!

Thankfully, with the help of friends (and their extended network of family and friends), as well as the ever-helpful community on Facebook, I have managed to obtain the translations for a few of these songs from the indigenous communities, which will hopefully make them more approachable to not just my fellow Malaysians, but to a global audience as well. I must admit that in  the process of translating all these folk songs, I often found myself amused, surprised and truly entertained by the humour, wisdom, and the underlying messages and lessons conveyed by our forefathers years ago. Along this journey of rediscovering Malaysian music, I also had the good fortune to meet the renowned Malaysian ethnomusicologist, Dr. Chong Pek Lin, who has devoted more than half her life to transcribing and researching songs from the various indigenous communities in Borneo. But that is an inspiring story for another time!

I moved to BC, Canada in 2013 and have since worked with a number of  choirs in Metro Vancouver. I have observed that the inclusion of any folk song in a choral concert programme , be it the popular American “Shenandoah”, the evergreen Irish “Oh Danny Boy”, or the African “Hlonolofatsa”, is always very well received by audiences. There is a treasure trove of Malaysian folk songs that is waiting to be explored and re-introduced to Malaysians, and in my humble but naturally biased opinion, is thoroughly deserving of a global audience. Hence, in conjunction with the upcoming “Hari Merdeka” (Malaysia’s Independence Day) on August 31, and “Malaysia Day” on September 16, please allow me this honour of sharing a glimpse of Malaysian music with you and hopefully one day, we may have the pleasure of listening to Malaysian folk songs being sung across the globe! Perhaps some day in the not too distant future, we will hear choirs around the world singing “Rasa Sayang” (Feel the Love) or “Oi Tambahut Kou” (Hey My Friends) as part of their choral repertoire. That would be a total privilege and a dream come true for me!

Geneviene Wong

          August 2021

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