From kampung shack to KLCC

Composer Adeline Wong, whoscored the upcomingperformance, says she was drawnto the simplicity and charm of thefolk melodies.

IN a small kampung near Machang, Kelantan, a wayang kulit troupe is staging a cultural guerilla attack because, officially, such traditional Malay puppet shadow theatre has been banned by the Pas state government for being “un-Islamic”.  

It is a totally rural show. The “theatre” consists of about 250 kampung folk squatting in a wet field enclosed by plastic sheets on poles. Like a 1970s School Sports Day, cheap metal cone loudspeakers are used. Tickets are at RM2 each and the dress code is decidedly casual. 

I am sitting “backstage” in a simple shack made of palm leaves, zinc sheets and bamboo poles, enveloped by hypnotic serunai (Malay oboe) melodies and clanging metal rhythms. In between the Kelantanese narration by Saupi Isa, the Tok Dalang (puppet master), I manage to make out words like naik gaji (salary raise), mee goreng (fried noodles), kahwin lagi (taking another wife) and kebun getah (rubber plantation). The crowd roars to the folksy jokes and even shout back their own suggested dialogue. 

Can this humble, yet rich, kampung culture collaborate – for the first-time ever – with the classy Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra (MPO) at the august Petronas Twin Towers?  

Eddin Khoo, the founder of Pusaka, an organisation dedicated to studying Malaysian traditional arts, certainly believes that it’s about time we got our act together.  

“In Kerala (India) they have adapted traditional kathakali theatre to Shakespeare. Similarly with Japanese kabuki theatre. In Jakarta, I even heard an angklung (bamboo instruments) orchestra playing jazz. These countries are a lot more serious (about innovation) of their traditional culture than we are.” 

Tok Dalang Saupi Isa says theexperience of working with theMPO has been difficult butenjoyable.

In fact, it was the Philharmonic who commissioned Pusaka to combine wayang music with Western classical music for its Merdeka performance this year. 

“It’s not the crude ‘East meets West’ fusion seen in tourism shows. It’s deeper,” he says. 

Pusaka brought in Adeline Wong, the composer who also scored the horror movie Chermin

Her piece, entitled Empunya yang beroleh Sita Dewi, revolves around the famous Ramayana episode where Sita is abducted by the demon-king Ravana.  

“I am drawn to the simplicity and charm of the folk melodies. The oboe represents the voice of Sita while the serunai is Rama’s. These two main melodic instruments will have a dialogue,” Wong explains.  

“Even the voice of the Tok Dalang, as he speaks and chants in verse, will be treated as an instrument.”  

At a rehearsal in Machang, with the MPO’s music on CD, the Tok Dalang’s opening chant to Rama and Sita is fine-tuned.  

“His voice is a bit hard, it needs to be softer, more persuasive,” says Wong. 

Khoo translates to Saupi with a smile, “Suara kena lebih menggoda (Voice should be more (sexually) enticing).”  

Mohd Afiq Dollah is one of the few youths in Machang who is learningwayang kulit and making the shadow puppets. The one on the left iscarved from leather and the other is drawn on plastic with marker pens.

It’s like a Tibetan chant over the MPO’s surreal squealing violins. Next, an oboe intones plaintively on the CD. Che Wil Noh, blows into his serunai and replies dramatically. The music builds in intensity, and as the full force of the wayang’s drums, metal clatterers and gongs are unleashed, it’s almost like the climax of Stravinsky’s Firebird.  

Rehearsals have been a challenge as the troupe don’t read notes.  

“But they are very good, very instinctive,” says Wong. “They have certain times (in the piece) where they come in, and within that, they can improvise.” 

Khoo points out that wayang music, as played in the kampungs, is all about ad libbing and adaptation.  

“Its village setting is a free-flowing, living culture. Compared to the official approach to wayang which makes it museum-ised and static.”  

Indeed, I had thought that wayang was all about the Ramayana only, but when I hear Saupi’s kampung-style jokes on naik gaji and kahwin lagi, I see Khoo’s point.  

“Wayang came to Kelantan from Bengal, India via Cambodia and Thailand,” he explains. “It’s a folk tradition which has absorbed an incredible mosaic of influences. Nowadays, wayang even borrows from Bollywood and lambada.” 

Khoo also underlines that Western classical music has learnt from the East.  

“Bela Bartok was influenced by Hungarian folk music while Debussy was influenced by Javanese gamelan.”  

The eight member wayang troupe will be accompanied by a small chamber orchestra minus the brass section.  

Susah tapi seronok (difficult but enjoyable),” says Saupi of the mish-mash of different musical worlds.  

However, one traditional aspect will be absent at the Twin Towers – the opening ritual of chanting mantras over offerings of pulut rice, sireh leaves, betelnuts, pieces of chicken and kemenyan incense. 

“In KL, we will just main biasa (normal performance), not like in the village where we main puja (spiritual performance),” says Che Wil. 

The MPO chamber ensemble rehearsing with the Kelantanese wayang kulit troupe (behind the screen). – SAZUKI EMBONG / The Star

It is precisely such spiritual elements – not to mention the fact that the Ramayana is a Hindu epic filled with mythical characters like Hanuman the monkey-god – which have led the Kelantan state government to ban it for alleged syirik (idol-worshipping). 

“Syirik? Those who studied wayang only till Standard Six may call it syirik. But if you have studied it till University level, you will understand it is not,” clarifies Che Wil. “We are just following the petua (instructions) from our fore-fathers to give us semangat (spirit) for playing.” 

Abdul Rahman Dolah, the troupe’s manager adds, “This is art. Hindu deities? For me, tak ada apa-apa (it’s nothing). I am not worshipping them.” 

Saupi says that the state government has relaxed the ban a little.  

“Tonight we can play at Machang. But yesterday our show in Kota Baru was not allowed. So sometimes can, sometimes cannot.”  

And so the wayang has ended up doing hit and run guerilla-style shows in isolated kampungs. When they can perform, each troupe member gets about RM50 for a night’s work. In the meantime, they scrape by – Saupi taps rubber, Abdul Rahman is a health department driver while Che Wil gets a modest Army pension.  

But at least, thanks to the little extra income from wayang, Saupi says he upgraded from a motorbike to a second-hand Proton Iswara two months ago. Khoo laments that the Malays, in the old days, did not have a cultural identity crisis.  

“Everything could flow back then. It was a complex hybrid culture (with Indian, Thai and other elements). Now it’s all about politics and religion.” 

“For me, as a non-Muslim, the Pas people regard me as ganjil (strange) for being interested in wayang,” explains Khoo. “Which is good. Because if I was a Muslim, it would be more difficult for me to work here. “  

Tok Dalang Saupi Isa manipulates the shadow puppets as he narrates the story.

Wayang has indeed become quite political in Kelantan – for instance, Che Wil reveals that all of the troupe members are Umno members. Even then, they say they could not get government assistance.  

“The Minister (of Culture, Arts and Heritage) may talk of helping art,” he says. “But when we apply for grants, we have to deal with the lower level officers who are a bit lembab (unenthusiastic).”  

Instead, it is private organisations – such as Digi (last year) and the MPO (now) – which are supporting wayang with solid cash.  

“Working with these people has been good. It allows us to earn an income also,” says Abdul Rahman. 

Che Wil adds, “We are thankful to Pusaka for linking us up to people from outside Kelantan.” 

While Malay pop stars lead glamorous urban lives, the meagre incomes and “backward” rural aura of wayang attracts few Kelantanese youths to this time-honoured artform. 

One who has taken it up is Mohd Afiq Dolah, 18, the younger brother of Abdul Rahman. 

“There are many Mat Rempit in Machang. Most youths are into rock music,” he says, while carving new puppets from leather.  

And so, a part of our culture is dying away as our youths Look West. Yet ironically, the West loves what we have.  

“Westerners are fascinated by our music and culture,” says Wong. “In America, I have seen full Mat Salleh ensembles playing gamelan. Some even play it heavy metal style.” 

When Pusaka arranged for Saupi’s troupe to play for a week in Paris last March, they had huge ovations from capacity crowds.  

“The French are very interested in our arts and culture,” says Abdul Rahman. 

Are we Malaysians proud of our traditional culture? The glamorous Twin Towers houses the MPO – the Mat Salleh Philharmonic Orchestra, so goes the joke – rather than a local cultural group. 

But now, for the first time ever, the MPO will duet with a wayang troupe. After 50 years of independence, this unique collaboration may just “Merdeka” our attitudes towards our musical heritage. 

  • The performances will be on Aug 31, Sept 1 (8.30pm) and Sept 2 (3pm). The programme also includes classical pieces by Bizet and Respighi.  

    Dress Code: Long-sleeved batik or lounge suit. No jeans, shorts, T-shirts, sneakers and slippers allowed. 

    For tickets (RM20 -RM80) contact the MPO at 03-2051 7007 or go to