Dondang Sayang Is A Form of Royal Entertainment

By Kamali Hudi
Berita Harian 1 June 2002
Translation by Ariffin Abdullah

Dondang Sayang is an old Malay music genre that is able to withstand the test of time until today.

It was believed that the genre was introduced in Malacca in the 15th century and was among the royal entertainment of the Malaccan Sultanate.

The original Dondang Sayang is a duet about social living. Usually, the subject mainly revolves around unrequited love. It is popular among the people, especially the Peranakan Babas and Nonyas.

In the beginning, Dondang Sayang was accompanied by musical instruments comprising of the gendang, gong and rebab. The performance was socially acceptable as the presentation was done with grace.

The Dondang Sayang tune is sweet, mellow and intoxicating. It reflects courtesy and humility, characteristics of the Malays. An example of the pantun sung by a duet of female and male singers are as follows :

Female singer :
Limau lelang di tepi lubang
Petik benihnya di hujung dahan
Harimau garang duduk menyangkung
Kalau kau berani, lalu di depan

Male singer :
Angkut-angkut membuat sarang
Jatuh berderai diatas peti
Apa ditakut harimau yang garang
Sebelum ajal berpantang mati

The accompanying music is important in the song presentation, although the melody repeats for each pantun.

A lot of singers has tested their singing prowess with Dondang Sayang, which was presented from premier social functions to weddings. Among them includes SM Salim, Rosiah Chik and Rokiah Wanda.

Younger generation of singers such as Sharifah Aini, A Ramlie, Rafeah Buang and most recently Noranizah Idris, has also lend their voice to sing Dondang Sayang. It was believed that this traditional music genre are able to test their Malay essence in singing.

Since the accompanying music merely repeats itself throughout the duration of the song, the message in the Dondang Sayang performance actually rests on the pantun that was conveyed by the singers.

Usually the pantun talks about love and its struggles and sometimes about patriotism and family (especially during the days immediately before the end of colonialism in Malaya).

In the 1950s, music arrangers and composers, in particular those that work in social dance halls and film industry, tried to revive the old genre by injecting contemporary Western beat such as mambo. This means that the Dondang Sayang was played with a more upbeat tempo and its melancholic quality reduced.

Since early 20th century, the musical instruments accompanying the song has been modernised. Rebab was replaced with violin, but the gong and gendang is still in use.

The Chinese Peranakans has adopted the genre as part of their heritage. The Gunung Sayang Association in Singapore is among the most active to have organized regular Dondang Sayang sessions.

Sadly, the younger generations of Chinese Peranakans are not inclined to embrace this heritage.

In the 1980s, Dondang Sayang was presented regularly through the TV variety show Kelab Dondang Sayang, produced by Mockram Kassim. Nowadays, it enjoy a rerun by MediaCorp's Suria channel. It is imperative that Suria and Malay art societies such as Majlis Pusat to continue reviving such vanishing Malay traditional genre and songs.

In the early 20th century, Pak Dolmat (father to the celebrated violin player, Hamzah Dolmat and Rosiah Chik) was a champion of Dondang Sayang.

He was then succeeded by Pak Malim Othman who led a Dondang Sayang ensemble and has regular spots in radio and television. Now, their place are attempted to be filled by Sri Mahligai, who are active with Peoples' Association (http://srimahligai.hypermart.net).

With the spanking new Esplanade - Theatres On The Bay, Majlis Pusat and Malay art societies should try to revive these vanishing Malay music, including Dondang Sayang, Ghazal and such to an international platform.

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For unabridged version in Malay, click here