While performing on the saxophone or guest conducting outside of Malaysia, often I received queries about what Malaysian music is, and where to find them. Malaysian music is as varied, complex, rich, and vibrant as the people themselves. It is such a broad and evolving topic, and I dare not claim an expert to it. But here I am to share what contribute to the identity of Malaysian music from the lens of the history of wind bands in Malaysia.
Wind band is a flexible term for a musical group that consists mostly of wind instruments, with the addition of percussion, piano, harp and occasionally the low string instruments in the modern wind band. Wind and percussion instruments can be documented in an unbroken tradition back to the very earliest records of man. Wind bands around the world play an important role in providing people from various financial backgrounds and age groups with an opportunity to learn a musical instrument.
This is especially true with the wind band scene in Malaysia. The earliest wind band movement can be traced back to Malaysia’s pre-independence in the late nineteenth century, when the British established missionary schools at the Straits Settlements (Penang, Singapore, Malacca and Dinding in the Peninsular Malaysia) and the Borneo Island. Drum and fife bands were formed, alongside the cadet corps that were common that time at the schools. At around the same time, the Chinese clan organizations also started similar musical activities, which some were carried forward to the schools that were established and supported by the clan organizations. Although their musical activities were mainly focused on performing Chinese music with the used of Chinese musical instruments, the used of western musical instruments such as trumpet, flute, clarinet, and saxophone were not rare.
The influence of western wind bands upon the Malaysian wind bands should not be underestimated, as evidenced using uniforms, marching styles, instrumentation, repertoire, and teaching methods. Formed in the 1950s, the Central Band of the Royal Malay Regiment is currently the official service band of the Malaysian Army’s Royal Malay Regiment with their main duty to provides ceremonial honours and music to the Malaysia’s Supreme Head or the King (Yang di-Pertuan Agong), the Prime Minister, the Chief Justice, the President of the Senate (Yang di-Pertua Dewan Negara), and the Speaker of the House of Representatives (Yang di-Pertua Dewan Rakyat). As a Commonwealth member, Malaysia has strong influence from the British as well as other commonwealth countries. These include the musical training of the services bands at the earlier formation period, and the use of sousaphones and the snare drums at the front when on parade. Despite the few similarities, there were many compositions and arrangement made for these groups, including marches and patriotic songs composed throughout the years by local composers to cater the need of the Malaysian demographics. Such examples including works by Tan Sri Ahmad Merican, Tony Fonseka, Datuk Ahmad Dasilah, Datuk Suhaimi Mohd Zain (Pak Ngah), Saiful Bahari, Datuk Mohammad Rahmat and many more.
Towards the seventies and all the way till early nineties, wind bands were introduced to the public school system as a co-curriculum activity, under the “Badan Beruniform”, the uniformed groups. Although music is a compulsory subject at primary schools, there is not much focus or structure on instrumental playing. Many bands formed at this time carried the name of “Recorder Band” 鼓笛队or the “Military Brass Band” 军铜乐队. As suggested by its name, many of them only have recorders or brass instruments with the standard marching percussion instruments such as the snare drum, bass drum, cymbals and occasionally the bells and the multi-toms. Wind band exist in most schools for the main purpose of performing for school occasions such as Sports Day, National Day and Teachers’ Day. Schools with better funding may employ professional band instructors to work with the members and to slowly purchased woodwind instruments and indoor percussion instruments such as suspended cymbals, drum set, mallet percussions and timpani; however, this is the exception rather than the rule due to funding constraints. Yamaha Music Malaysia, even till today, remains active in advocating for the development and training of wind band in Malaysia. Bandmaster Mr. Mitsuo Nonami was brought in by Yamaha Music Malaysia back in the early 1970s and has trained numerous local band directors that still active in the music scene. On the other hands, we also have local talents that return from their study at foreign countries and began their lifelong search in the Malaysiam musical development. These musical frontiers includes the late Chan Lok Hung 陈洛汉, late Tan Hooi Song 陈徽崇 and many more.
Expanding from the marches and arrangement of patriotic songs repertoire from the Central Band, wind bands in Malaysia at that time started to perform more American and British wind band repertoire. From the nineties onwards, we seen more wind bands that are fully equip with the full instrumentation of woodwinds, brass, and percussion equipment. Bands are trying their hands on music from other parts of the world as well, especially the European and Japanese wind band repertoire, and arrangement of folk and pop songs from the region. Although the number of community musical groups decline at the Chinese clan organizations, we witnessed the formation of community-based ensembles setup by music enthusiasts. Most of the membership from these community groups went through the co-curriculum band training at their former high schools and were interested to keep the music playing going. Examples of these ensembles include, but not limited to the PJ Youth Symphonic Band (founded in 1995, discontinued in the early 2000s), Penang Wind Orchestra (founded in 2000), Malaysia Instructor Band (founded in 2002, discontinued in 2010), High Winds Ensemble (founded in 2004), Ipoh Symphonic Band, Kinta Valley Wind Orchestra (founded in 2010), Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre (KLPac) Symphonic Band (founded in 2011), Philharmonic Winds of Malaysia (founded in 2016), Penang Philharmonic Winds (founded in 2018), Band Lab from Kuching Sarawak (founded in 2018), Kuching City Winds (founded in 2021) and more. All these ensembles played, and continue to play, an important role in nurturing wind band activities in Malaysia. Over the years, they have organised events such as music festivals, workshops, exchange programs, competitions, and concerts to keep the wind band culture alive. Examples of wind band activities included, but not limited to the IOI Mall Band Competition, Yamaha Band Festival, Sultan Idris University National Wind Orchestra Competition, Malaysia National Band Competition (NATCOMP), Malaysia World Band Competition (MWBC), 737兴成杯全国室内管乐合奏赛 (Winds Art Studio), Red Sonata Fiesta – Universiti Teknologi Petronas and lately the Malaysian International Virtual Band Championship.
The mission of wind bands in Malaysia has changed from merely providing music for the community, schools, and concert halls. It is an art form that encourage collaboration among the musicians, and the contemporary composers. However, there remain the lack of support to brings together or promotes Malaysian wind band music. The younger generation is very much pop-influenced, with wind band music mainly “imported” from East Asia or the West. Malaysian wind bands participating in international level competitions often find it very difficult to locate music which represents Malaysian culture. Arrangements by local composers and arrangers are scant. But thanks to many young graduates from conservatory or music colleges, we have seen a nationalism musical movement in the late twentieth century but without the political independence movements. There is more creative repertoire that being composed nowadays that is characterized by an emphasis on folk songs and folk dances or rhythms. With the effort by the Persatuan Pancaragam Malaysia (Malaysia Band Association), National Band Directors Association Malaysia (NBDAM) and many more wind band advocacy groups, wind band in Malaysia is gradually seeing as a tool to provide music education, for all.