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Malaysian Culture

Malaysians and Music
A Malay Kampung has a kompang band, an ensemble of boys and girls beating goatskin tambourines, accompanied by the drummers' own singing.  A good band can be in demand for weddings and other festive occasions throughout the district.

Chinese music enthusiasts get together to form chamber groups.  These dispense with the percussion that gives Chinese opera its deafening resonance, using knee-fiddles, flutes, lutes and sometimes one softly played tambourine.

In towns, formal western music lessons are available.  Many middle class children are encouraged to learn piano.  Like anywhere else, most "drop out" after a few years, while the few talented performers reach an admirable standard.  Malaysian music students take examinations from the Royal School of Music or Trinity College.

Those who do not play, sing.  Schoolchildren sing; fishermen sing; soldiers sing; birds' nests collectors sing on the way to their dangerous work in deep caves.  Many Malaysians are members of church or secular choirs.  Office staff choirs serenade visitors.  School choirs are inevitable.


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Dramatic Pursuits
Malaysia does not have any indigenous drama.  People are very fond of watching a dramatic performance, but until quite recently it was not considered quite the thing for respectable citizens, or their children, to be seen on a stage.  "Outsiders" provided the entertainment.

The bangsawan, once a traveling show, was something not unlike an operetta.  The involved plot was broken by unconnected interludes called "extra turns" which permitted one actor (or actress) to garner a little separate applause and maybe a shower of coins.  Stories and music were often improvised by the performers: one bangsawan popular before the war was called "Lohengrin and His Big Duck" ---- Wagner's grand opera adapted to suit a culture where swans are unknown!

Many bangsawan performers were children, bought from their parents or shadier sources for this trade.  The court books of the prewar period are full of complaints against bangsawan masters ill-using their charges, or even kidnapping pretty children before the show moved on to another town!

Chinese opera may be seen from time to time in most Malaysian towns.  This is a form of drama with close religious connections; a temple deity's birthday is often celebrated with an opera.  The hungry ghosts which roam the land during the Chinese seventh month are generally appeased with lavish operatic performances.


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In Chinese opera, quite young actors may get their early training in silent parts, as attendants or messengers, before graduating to Prince, Emperor, General, Princess or Queen.  While the Emperor or the General are always sung by men, the part of the Prince, especially in a romantic work, may be performed by a young woman.  The part requires a very high tenor voice and the character is supposed to look "sweet".

One very ancient Malaysian spectator art is storytelling.  Especially in the days when hardly anybody could read, before the radio and TV provided entertainment in the long evenings, a practiced storyteller could be sure of an enthralled audience.  There is a Malay method of chanting a historical tale, called syair, which often entertained choice gatherings at royal parties.




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Last modified: August 31, 2012      Copyright © 2001 - 2012  All Rights Reserved.