Music of Malaysia

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Music of Malaysia is the generic term for music that has been created in various genres in Malaysia. A great variety of genres in Malaysian music reflect the specific ethnic groups of multiracial Malaysian society consisting of Malay, Chinese, Indian, Iban, Dayak, Kadazandusun, Eurasians and other groups.

In general, music of Malaysia may be categorized as classical, folk, syncretic (or acculturated music), popular and contemporary art music. Classical and folk music emerged during the pre-colonial period and exists in the form of vocal, dance and theatrical music such as Nobat, Mak Yong, Mak Inang, Dikir barat, Ulek mayang and Menora. The syncretic music developed during the post-Portuguese period (16th century) and contains elements from both local music and foreign elements of Arabian, Persian, Indian, Chinese and Western musical and theatrical sources. Among genres of this music are Zapin, Ghazal, Dondang sayang, Joget, Jikey, Boria, Keroncong and Bangsawan.[1]

Both Malaysian popular music and contemporary art music are essentially Western-based music combined with some local elements. In 1950s, the musician P.Ramlee helped in creating a Malaysian music that combined folks songs with Western dance rhythms and western Asian music.[2]


Folk Music

Besides Malay music, Chinese and Indian Malaysians have their own forms of music, and the indigenous tribes of Peninsula and East Malaysia have unique traditional instruments.[3]

Malay music

Traditional Malay music and performing arts appear to have originated in the Kelantan-Pattani region with influences from India, China, Thailand and Indonesia. The music is based around percussion instruments,[4] the most important of which is the gendang (drum). There are at least 14 types of traditional drums.[5] Drums and other traditional percussion instruments are often made from natural materials.[5] Besides drums, other percussion instruments (some made of shells) include: the rebab (a bowed string instrument), the serunai (a double-reed oboe-like instrument), the seruling (flute), and trumpets. Music is traditionally used for storytelling, celebrating life-cycle events, and times like harvest.[4] It was once used as a form of long-distance communication.[5]

In East Malaysia, gong-based musical ensemble such as agung and kulintang are commonly used in ceremonies such as funerals and weddings.[6] These ensembles are also common in neighbouring regions such as in the southern Philippines, Kalimantan in Indonesia and Brunei.[6]

The Malays of Kelantan and Terengganu are culturally linked to peoples from the South China Sea area, and are quite different from the West Coast of Malaya. The martial art of silat Melayu developed in the Malay peninsula since the beginning of common era[7][8][9][10] also popular in Malaysia, while essentially still important as a branch of the self defence form. Similar to t'ai chi, though of independent origin, it is a mix of martial arts, dance and music typically accompanied by gongs, drums and Indian oboes.

The natives of the Malay Peninsula played in small ensembles called kertok, which performed swift and rhythmic xylophone music. This may have led to the development of dikir barat. In recent years, the Malaysian government has promoted this Kelantanese music form as a national cultural icon.[11]

Arabic-derived zapin music and dance is popular throughout Malaysia, and is usually accompanied by a gambus and some drums. Ghazals from Arabia are popular in the markets and malls of Kuala Lumpur and Johor, and stars like Kamariah Noor are very successful. In Malacca, ronggeng is the dominant form of folk music. It played with a violin, drums, button accordion and a gong instrument. Another style, Dondang Sayang is slow and intense; it mixes influences from China, India, Arabia, and Portugal with traditional elements.

Chinese music

The Hua Yue Tuan (華乐团), or "Modern Chinese Orchestra," is made up of a blend of western and traditional Chinese musical instruments. The music itself combines western polyphony with Chinese melodies and scales. Although the bulk of its repertoire consists of music imported from Hong Kong, Taiwan and China, many local Chinese orchestras also regularly perform Malay folk tunes with various local composers making a definite effort to absorb elements of surrounding musical cultures, especially Malay, into their compositions. In Malaysia, Chinese orchestras exist nationwide in urban areas which have large concentrations of Chinese Malaysians. Sponsored largely by various Chinese organizations including schools and Buddhist societies, a typical orchestra consists of between 12 to 50 members.

The orchestra is usually made up of four sections:

There is no lack of virtuoso performers in the Chinese classical tradition in Malaysia. Advanced training is however not presently available with most Malaysian virtuoso musicians obtaining their advanced training either in China or Singapore. Various professional and semi-professional Chinese orchestras are in existence. Malaysian western trained classical conductors are employed full time. Much of the music played is imported from China. There are however some accomplished Malaysian composers for this medium such as Saw Boon Kiat and Chew Hee Chiat.

New generations of Chinese singers are more into pop music. These include Eric Moo, Lee Sin Je, Fish Leong, Z Chen, Penny Tai and lately Daniel Lee.

Indian music

Indian music is strongly associated with religious tradition and faith. As its origins in India, there are two systems of traditional or classical Indian music in Malaysia, viz. Carnatic Music and Hindustani Music. Since Tamils from South India are the predominant group among the Indian population in Malaysia, it is the South Indian carnatic music which predominates. Simply speaking, Hindustani classical music is more lyric-oriented, while Carnatic classical music emphasises musical structure.

Indian classical music as it is performed in Malaysia has remained true to its origin. There is practically no other cultural influence. Other than reflecting Indian life, the purpose of Indian classical music is to refine the soul.

The fundamental elements of carnatic music are raaga and taala. A raaga is a scale of notes, while the taala is the time-measure. A carnatic music concert usually starts with a composition with lyrical and passages in a particular raaga. This will be followed by a few major and subsequently some minor compositions.

In Malaysia, traditional or classical Indian music are studied and performed by Malaysians of Indian ethnic origin with material that still comes from India. Musical productions are mainly in the form of dance dramas incorporating instrumental ensemble, vocal music and dance. Musical instruments used in the performances are imported from India.

Over the years, Punjabi music have established itself in Malaysia. One example of famous Punjabi music is bhangra. Many Malaysian songs today has the Punjabi influence. For example, the sound of the dhol, an instrument used mainly by the Punjabis have been incorporated in many Malay, Chinese and Indian songs in Malaysia. The increase of interest in Punjabi music have led to the birth of Malaysia's very first Urban Bhangra themed group, called Goldkartz.

World Music

Ethnic music has also found a new and vigorous following, with world music festivals like the Rainforest World Music Festival, held annually since 1998 in a scenic open-air setting in Sarawak. The first Malaysian "ethnic fusion" group to play on this international platform was Akar Umbi - comprising Temuan ceremonial singer Minah Angong (1930–1999) and Rafique Rashid. Unfortunately, the charismatic Minah Angong (better known as Mak Minah) died just three weeks after winning over the hearts of a whole new audience at the RWMF 1999. This left Akar Umbi with only one posthumously released CD to its name ('Songs of the Dragon,' Magick River, 2002).

Private companies like Trident Entertainment have begun to invest in the production, distribution and promotion of the "ethnic fringe" in Malaysian music.

Classical Music

Within Malaysia, the largest performing arts venue is the Petronas Philharmonic Hall. The resident orchestra is the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra (MPO).[12] Malay popular music is a combination of the music from all ethnicities in the country.[3] The Malaysian government has taken steps in controlling what music is available in Malaysia; rap music has been criticised,[13] heavy metal has been limited,[14] and foreign bands must submit a copy of a recent concert before playing in Malaysia.[15] It is believed that this music is a bad influence on youth.[14]

21st century

The 21st century has witnessed the rapid rise of a variety of new musical trends, imported from different shores and strongly influenced by an urban elite hip to jazz-fusion and fringe music (classical revivals, ethnic-flavored folk, trance, and so on). Students who studied in Europe and the Americas began returning with a staunch passion for more progressive musical modalities.

Petronas, the national petro-chemical corporation responsible for the construction of the Dewan Filharmonik Petronas and statutory bodies like the Sarawak Tourism Board have contributed significantly to the development of a broader interest in jazz, classical and world music amongst the new generation of Malaysians. Private institutions like the Temple of Fine Arts have also produced a steady flow of students skilled in world music, primarily Hindustani & Carnatic musical traditions. The Dewan Filharmonik Petronas (Petronas Philhrmonic Hall), home to the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra, has become a popular venue amongst the affluent new Malaysian middle class for acts encompassing jazz, classical, and world music concerts.

Malaysia has a handful of homegrown musicians who have achieved world class stature in jazz exposition e.g., keyboardists Michael Veerapan and David Gomes; freestyle bassist Zailan Razak; multi-instrumentalists and vocalists, The Solianos; and virtuoso drummer Lewis Pragasam. Mohar and Prabhu Ganesh, two flautists with ethnic leanings, are Malaysian musicians who have begun to make waves abroad. Many of these innovators are ex-alumni of the Berklee School of Music in Boston, and the Juilliard School of Music in New York. The promise of even more exciting things to come can be seen in the emergence of youthful, ethnic-flavored percussion ensembles like the Diplomats of Drum.

Fusion music

In the field of Malaysian contemporary music a number of composers have gained international recognition, for example award-winning composers Chong Kee Yong, Dr Tazul Izan Tajuddin, Yii Kah Hoe, Saidah Rastam, Adeline Wong and others, encompassing a diverse range of styles and aesthetics.


Malaysia's pop music scene developed from traditional asli (pure) music popularized in the 1920s and 1930s by Bangsawan troupes[citation needed]. These troupes are in fact a type of Malaysian opera influenced by Indian opera at first known as Wayang Pasir (Persia) which was started by rich Persians residing in India. They portrayed stories from diverse groups such as Indian, Western, Islamic, Chinese, Indonesian and Malay. Music, dance, and acting with costumes are used in performance depending on the stories told. The musicians were mostly local Malays, Filipinos and Guanis (descendants from Gua in India).

One of the earliest modern Malay pop songs was "Tudung Periok", sung by Momo Latif, who recorded it in 1930. In the 1950s, P.Ramlee became the most popular Malay singer and composer with a range of slow ballads such as "Azizah", "Dendang Perantau" and the evergreen "Di Mana Kan Ku Cari Ganti".

In the mid-1990s, Dangdut experienced a resurgence after lying dormant since the early 1980s with the debut of Amelina. Her least successful album sold in the 100,000s, a feat that is yet to be repeated in the 2010s. Composer Ruslan Mamat [1], who pioneered the modern Dangdut, credited Ace of Base for the tempo reference.[16]

Contemporary pop music exchanges between Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore and Brunei are normal since these countries share the Malay language. Pop singer Siti Nurhaliza for example is famous in all four countries.

Hip Hop

KRU is the most successful Hip Hop group in Malaysia. After bringing Rap music to the masses in the early 90s, they established their own record label creating the first Malaysian girl group Feminin and R&B crooners Indigo.


Malaysian Rock reached its peak in the 80s with the local adaptation of Glam Rock. The popularity even reached neighboring country Indonesia spearheaded by legendary rock group Search.

See also

External links


  1. ^ Patricia Ann Matusky (Author, Editor), Tan Sooi Beng (Author), Sooi Beng Tan (Editor) (2004). The Music of Malaysia: The Classical, Folk, and Syncretic Traditions. Ashgate Publishing. pp. 5–7. ISBN 978-0754608318. 
  2. ^ World and Its Peoples: Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, and Brunei. New York: Marshall Cavendish Corporation. 2008. p. 1220. 
  3. ^ a b Marshall Cavendish Corporation (2008). World and Its Peoples: Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, and Brunei. New York: Marshall Cavendish Corporation. pp. 1218–1222. 
  4. ^ a b Miller, Terry E.; Williams, Sean (2008). The Garland handbook of Southeast Asian music. New York: Taylor and Francis Group. pp. 223–224. ISBN 0-203-93144-0. 
  5. ^ a b c Asiapac Editorial (2003). Gateway to Malay culture. Singapore: Asiapac Books Ptd Ltd. p. 110. ISBN 981-229-326-4. 
  6. ^ a b Patricia Ann Matusky, Sooi Beng Tan (2004), The Music of Malaysia: The Classical, Folk, and Syncretic Traditions, Ashgate Publishing. Ltd., pp. 177–187,, retrieved 2010-11-01 
  7. ^ Thesis: Seni Silat Melayu by Abd Rahman Ismail (USM 2005 matter 188)
  8. ^ James Alexander (2006). Malaysia Brunei & Singapore. New Holland Publishers. pp. 225, 51, 52. ISBN 1-86011-309-5. 
  9. ^ Abd. Rahman Ismail (2008). Seni Silat Melayu: Sejarah, Perkembangan dan Budaya. Kuala Lumpur: Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka. p. 188. ISBN 9789836299345. 
  10. ^ Black Belt. Rainbow Publications. October Edition, 1994. pp. 73. ISBN 0277-3066. 
  11. ^ Malaysian Ministry of Information Portal. "National Dikir Barat Competition To Be Expanded Next Year", 2006. Retrieved on 2009-01-30.
  12. ^ "Meet the MPO". Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra. Archived from the original on August 28, 2007. Retrieved 2007-12-11. 
  13. ^ "Mahathir raps rap". BBC News. 2001-02-19. Retrieved 2010-11-08. 
  14. ^ a b "Malaysia curbs heavy metal music". BBC News. 2001-08-04. Retrieved 2010-11-08. 
  15. ^ "Malaysia's foreign band crack down". BBC News. 2001-07-30. Retrieved 2010-11-08. 
  16. ^
  • Munan, Heidi. "Music at the Crossroads". 2000. In Broughton, Simon and Ellingham, Mark with McConnachie, James and Duane, Orla (Ed.), World Music, Vol. 2: Latin & North America, Caribbean, India, Asia and Pacific, pp 175–182. Rough Guides Ltd, Penguin Books. ISBN 1-85828-636-0.

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