02 November 2012

What is Malaysian Music?

Apologies to regular readers of this blog for the long absence.  A change of location, a change of job and a change of time-zone have kept me otherwise occupied.  But the dust has settled and normal service can now be resumed.  Thanks to all who have expressed concern and regret at this temporary hiatus in activity.

For the next few months at least I am based in the UK from where I get a very different perspective on musical life in Asia, although when I presented my weekly lectures at Middlesex University this week I was both surprised and delighted to bump into a gaggle of former students and colleagues from UPM in Kuala Lumpur who were there to present a demonstration on Malaysian music. Sadly, I wasn't able to make their show; the fact that for the rest of the week I am working at the University of St Andrews, some 800 kilometers away, meant that as soon as I left the lecture theatre I was in the car and heading north.

But I would have loved to have been there, not least because I wonder what is meant by Malaysian music.  When, about 20 years ago, I was involved in collecting and recording the ethnic music of Sarawak, we ran up against a lot of official opposition; the music of the indigenous peoples of Sarawak did not reflect what the government wanted to promote as Malaysia's Islamic Heritage.  (The fact that there is virtually no Islamic Heritage in Sarawak was conveniently overlooked in a governmental attitude which, as I have often said, takes the view that history is a reflection of the present.)  We were forced to remove the lovely Bidayuh art from the cover and replace it with a rather insipid drawing of traditional Malay dancers, and the inset essay was obliged to refer to the Muslim influence despite the fact that this was not apparent from the music on the disc. 

I understood totally the government's point of view.  Malaysia is a new country (formed in its present guise, for those who do not know it, in 1965 - although west Malaysia secured Independence from the British in 1957) and to recognise the ethnic and cultural diversity which many feel is one of the strengths of the country is to undermine the desire, so persistently voiced by the then Prime Minister, for Malaysia to be regarded as a single nation.  Chinese, Indian, Indonesian, Polynesian, Indigenous art, enjoyed by the diverse ethnic groups in the country, was seen as divisive, and the push was to subjugate that into a "Malaysian" art which reflected what the government wanted to project to the outside world as the country's uniqueness.  The dominant peoples in west Malaysia, where the Prime Minister lived, were Muslims, so it seemed natural that ethnic arts were absorbed into an over-arching artistic identity which reflected Islamic principles.

Which would have been fine were it not for the fact that, glorious as so much Islamic art is, music does not feature significantly in it.  As a result, while Chinese, Indian or other ethnically specific musics could not be labelled "Malaysian", that left a vacuum since there was no significant Islamic music to take its place.

Attempts to introduce Western Music through the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra, met with almost overwhelming opposition from those who saw it merely as artistic colonialism, while new native-born composers, desperate to show that Malaysia could hold its own on the international music front, too often presented their work before they had matured sufficiently to sound anything other than derivative or, more often, imitative.  Gamlean groups took the music of one of Malaysia's neighbours - Indonesia - and tried to argue that close proximity was roughly equivalent to indigenous, while the colleges that grew up to encourage Malaysian musicians, saw success as commercial rather than artistic, resulting in a vast output of bland and inane pop music, linked by slow tempi and minor keys, a desperately unhappy marriage between Indonesian Dangdut and Afro-American Soul.

So I really would have liked to know what my good friends presented to the students and staff of Middlesex University as Malaysian Music?  Can we really say that such a thing exists?


  1. I'm glad you are still alive :) Welcome back! And congratulation on your new life.

  2. Dear Dr. Marc,

    I remember in one of your old posts where the definition of "Malaysian music" was questioned. Is it a melting pot of all the different cultures in Malaysia and combining to form something that sounds neither Malay nor Chinese nor Indian nor Bidayuh? Or is it just defined based on who composes the music? If, by "Malaysian music" it means music composed by Malaysians, then pieces by Adeline Wong, Tajul Ariffin, etc. would constitute "Malaysian music". I don't know whether this is too loose a definition.

    I would also venture to ask what "Singaporean music" would mean, if it is ever an issue among Singaporean musicians/composers.