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.
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
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
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.