Synchronised Singing

08 September 2017

A group of grassroots-driven practitioners is contributing to the boom of interest in dikir barat, the traditional musical art form that has a special place in Malaysian culture.

They start streaming into the open-air community hall shortly after 9.30pm. It’s hard to fathom why this motley crew of baby boomers, hipsters and tweens would choose to hang out together on a Saturday night, but the reason soon becomes clear: they’re wearing a black T-shirt that says “Real Sri Melati”, and they’ve all got the semutar on, that cloth-made headgear once favoured by Kelantanese farmers and now mainly used in dikir barat performances.

This group of residents from Sri Melati Apartment, Bukit Subang, who call themselves Dikir Barat Sri Melati (DBSM), are dedicated practitioners of the popular Kelantanese performance art that combines improv poetry, energetic singing and synchronised body movements.

Different people have different stories of its history. Some say it originated as a wedding dance in Thailand (in the old days, Northern Malaysians viewed Thailand as the west, hence “barat”), while others claim the dikir barat was sung by fishermen and farmers as a balm to tired limbs and waning spirits. What most agree on is the instrumental role of Mat Salleh Ahmad, better known as Pak Leh Tapei, in popularising the art form in Kelantan circa 1930s.

Unlike many traditional Malay art forms that have declined in popularity, dikir barat has flourished in recent years. Many schools and universities throughout Malaysia have formed their own dikir barat groups, while a slew of dikir competitions at state and national levels keep the interest level high. Increasingly, however, the current boom is credited to the emergence of grassroots-driven groups such as Dikir Barat Sri Melati.

DBSM is the brainchild of 38-year-old Kelantanese school teacher Dasuki Mohamed. Though he has settled down in Selangor for a number of years now, Dasuki’s formative years were spent in Kota Bharu, where his father, a full-time performance artist, would bring him along on dikir barat tours. “I was fascinated by how the music, the poetry and rhythmic body movements all came together,” he says.

Dikir Barat Sri Melati is the brainchild of Kelantanese native Dasuki Mohamed, whose father was a full-time performance arts practitioner.

It’s not hard to understand why; watching a dikir barat performance is a dramatic and immersive experience for an adult, let alone an impressionable little boy.

In a typical dikir barat performance, the group will perform two segments. The first is led by the tok juara, who sings from a set of prepared songs, accompanied by the rhythmic clapping of the choir members (awak-awak) and musical instruments, typically consisting of a serunai, rebana, gong, canang and maracas.

Though dikir barat was performed with no instruments in the past, these days it is typically accompanied by a set of percussion instruments that includes the canang, a small gong.

The second segment is led by the tukang karut, usually a former tok juara who was promoted for his talent in creating spontaneous lyrics, thus establishing the reputation of the dikir barat group. Depending on the theme or audience, the topics may range from the comical to the profound. In competition, the two opposing dikir barat groups engage in a lyrical debate. The tukang karut who can refute the other team with a cleverer answer will win the audience’s applause – and the championship for his team.

While all this is happening, the awak-awak must accurately echo the tukang karut’s verses, and simultaneously clap and throw their hands up rhythmically, in sync with percussionists. The tempo grows faster, whipping both the performers and audience into a fever pitch, before concluding with a mellow traditional finale called wau bulan.

Chu Ikram, a permanent member of DBSM, is wearing the semutar, a cloth-made headgear once favoured by Kelantanese farmers.

An intoxicating blend of lyrical improvisation and well-coordinated choreography, no two dikir barat performances are ever alike. While appreciative of its entertainment value, the Kelantanese have a special place for dikir barat in their hearts.

“Dikir barat is very much about who the Kelantanese are,” says Dasuki. “When you hear the call of the dikir, something moves in our hearts. Even when we Kelantanese merantau [roam the earth], dikir barat is always in our blood.”

One of the instruments in dikir barat is the kesi, which is played by striking the fixed discs with two other discs which the performer holds in his hands like cymbals. It‘s also used in makyong and main puteri.

Which is why one of the first things Dasuki did when he moved to the West Coast was to look for opportunities to practise dikir barat. He was delighted to get the chance to share dikir barat during co-curriculum courses at Sekolah Kebangsaan Subang Bestari Dua, where he currently teaches. Feeling that he could still do more, in November 2015, he put out word at his apartment complex about setting up a dikir barat troupe

An avalanche of inquiries came from both natives and non-Kelantanese. This presented a problem initially; many of the members struggled with the Kelantanese dialect, which has significant vocabulary differences from standard Malay as well as sound changes.

But what they lacked in knowledge they more than made up for in enthusiasm and commitment. For the past one and a half years, the group members – who total more than 20 now – religiously show up twice a week for practice sessions that last from 9.45pm to midnight.

The serunai (flute) is played during the "bertabuh" segment which marks the beginning of a performance.

It may have to do with the way the group is run. In typical dikir barat troupes, members are assigned strict roles according to their strengths. Quick-witted singers take on leadership roles as the tukang juara or tukang karut, while those with a musical ear might serve as percussionists.

Dasuki, however, manages the group more democratically. Instead of one designated tukang karut or tukang juara, there are at least two or three reserves (pelapis) for the main roles, and if an awak-awak wants a shot at doing something else, it’s up for grabs. He says, “We want to nurture a friendly atmosphere where everyone gets a fair chance to pursue what they like and hone their abilities.”

At the moment, the group functions as a pool of active performers rather than a full-fledged band. Earlier this year, DBSM joined forces with 16 other dikir barat groups to form Gabungan Pendikir Lembah Kelang, a coalition of Klang Valley-based practitioners to promote the heritage performance art form. Its efforts are clearly bringing renewed attention to the art, and more importantly, attracting new blood, such as 11-year-old Ahmad Adi Putra Mohd Hasrol. Currently the youngest member of DBSM, he enthuses, “I was a fan of dikir barat since I attended school in Kedah. When we moved down to the south and I learned there was a dikir barat group in my apartment, I joined immediately.”

Dasuki says, “At the moment, we’re happy doing shows for clients and friends, but we aim to reach competitive standards as soon as possible. Our ultimate goal is to show the world just how creative and beautiful the art of dikir barat is.”

For show appearances, contact Chu at 011 3365 6936. www.facebook.com/realsrimelati/

By Alexandra Wong
Photos by Teoh Eng Hooi

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