M'sian Philharmonic Orchestra set for magical evening of keroncong and ghazal


Ahmad Muriz (right) is back the spotlight to helm the ‘Simfoni Budaya: Keroncong & Ghazal’ concert at Dewan Filharmonik Petronas in Kuala Lumpur on March 2. Photo: MPO

Music conductor Ahmad Muriz Che Rose, known for helming local and traditional music performances with the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra (MPO), is relishing a big night soon with the Simfoni Budaya: Keroncong & Ghazal concert at Dewan Filharmonik Petronas (DFP) in Kuala Lumpur this Saturday.

He emphasises how crucial such shows can connect us to cultural roots, and exposing traditional music to the masses ensures its longevity and appreciation across diverse audiences.

“I hope this concert will be the beginning of a series of concerts that celebrate the country’s musical heritage,” says Ahmad Muriz.

Rehearsals have seen the Simfoni Budaya: Keroncong & Ghazal concert setlist featuring over 20 songs, including medleys.

With two traditional music genres involved, the show will be carried by three vocalists – Datuk Yusni Hamid, Asmidar (featured on the cover) and Haziq Rosebi.

Ahmad Muriz has been fine-tuning the new arrangements, with MPO members now more than capable of humming keroncong and ghazal tunes.

Unlike populist shows – soundtrack scores and Malay pop classical crossovers – at the DFP, developing a show like Simfoni Budaya: Keroncong & Ghazal is something rather challenging, with favourites from a traditional songbook given a wide-screen orchestral life.

Ahmad Muriz says that attracting a new audience is also one of the show’s targets.

'It’s not that these arts are completely forgotten; there are young people who perform keroncong  and ghazal here and there, but I think we need to do better,' says Ahmad Muriz. Photo: The Star/Yap Chee Hong'It’s not that these arts are completely forgotten; there are young people who perform keroncong and ghazal here and there, but I think we need to do better,' says Ahmad Muriz. Photo: The Star/Yap Chee Hong

“We are going against the (popular music) grain, but we need to start somewhere and get the ball rolling. We must not let our musical heritage be forgotten in the face of contemporary music genres,” he says.

Ahmad Muriz points out that the show’s guest vocalists will play a part in making it a memorable night.

Yusni needs no introduction when it comes to traditional music (more than 40 years in the business and 15 albums), while Asmidar and Haziq are the torchbearers to continue the legacy of such traditional melodies.

“Yusni has the experience and star appeal to light up the hall, while Asmidar and Haziq have followers from across the generational divide; they both able to deliver keroncong and ghazal numbers with flair,” he adds.

The concert will include a line up keroncong classics such as Di Bawah Sinar Bulan Purnama, Tinggallah Mustika Hati and Sayang Di Sayang while ghazal numbers include Sayang Musalmah, Musalmah Manis and Payung Mahkota.

The songs have been arranged for the orchestra by Ahmad Muriz, Luqman Aziz, Ilham Subri, and Azhad Sulaiman.

Long tradition

Both keroncong and ghazal, brought into the country by Indonesian and Arabian traders respectively, have a long history, especially among the Malays in states like Johor, Perak and Selangor where these traders settled and their musical styles were assimilated into local culture.

“They were played at the verandah at homes, and eventually, society picked them up both as hobbies and entertainment during events like weddings. Over time, they became part of the local musical culture,” says Ahmad Muriz.

Yusni, who sings in several languages, is set to surprise the audience with a version of Mandarin classic 'The Moon Represents My Heart', keroncong style. Photo: MPO Yusni, who sings in several languages, is set to surprise the audience with a version of Mandarin classic 'The Moon Represents My Heart', keroncong style. Photo: MPO

The Malaysian keroncong has its roots in Indonesia and its instruments include the flute, violin, cello and a guitar. Typically, keroncong background music is faster than the vocals, often presented in a fluid and melodious manner.

Ghazal, meanwhile, is lyrical poetry with repeated rhymes and Persian roots.

Both genres enjoyed their golden era in Malaysia in the 1960s and 1970s, before Western music became extensively popular.

Gambus player Fadzil Ahmad and singers like Ahmad Jusoh, S. Fauziah and Aspalela Abdullah were some of the country’s notable ghazal artistes.

One of the most popular ghazal groups then was the Muar-based Ghazal Sri Maharani.

“The group was so popular in its heyday that everyone wanted to be associated with it. You were someone if you were part of the group,” says Ahmad Muriz.

From the 1970s to 1990s, these traditional tunes were assimilated into popular music, with singers like Datuk Sharifah Aini, Datin Rafeah Buang, Yusni and Datuk Sudirman Arshad recording keroncong-pop crossovers that were very well-received on local radio.

In the 1990s, Suhaimi Mohd Zain (popularly known as Pak Ngah) and a young Datuk Seri Siti Nurhaliza gave Malay traditional music a boost with Cindai and Hati Kama, that successfully bridged folk tunes with current pop trends.

Today, keroncong and ghazal shows are harder to come by, notably in the mainstream arts and culture scene in Kuala Lumpur. With national performing arts institution Istana Budaya closed for renovations until 2026, the public will have look harder to experience such concerts.

In Johor, groups like Sri Muar Ghazal from Muar and Kumpulan Seri Melati from Johor Baru, continue to keep this musical tradition alive. Keroncong Malam Jumaat, from Johor Baru, is a group (of young musicians) reviving the genre.

“It’s not that these musical genres are completely forgotten; there are young people who perform keroncong and ghazal here and there, but I think we need to do better and open doors for more people to appreciate the music,” says Ahmad Muriz, who is also the head of Music Talent Development at the MPO.

Mix of old and new

Ahmad Muriz believes that there is huge potential in combining traditional music with the finesse of an orchestra.

“It is something that can attract an audience to the show ... for the musicians, it also an opportunity to explore these old genres further in an orchestral setting,” he says.

Traditional Malay pop singer Asmidar is part of this weekend's show. Photo MPOTraditional Malay pop singer Asmidar is part of this weekend's show. Photo MPO

“Such timeless music, sung by vocalists who love the genres, is a good start to pique public interest,” he adds.

Balancing the music – from two worlds – on stage is also a tricky proposition.

Ahmad Muriz, as a conductor and arranger, has taken all the necessary notes. He is careful not to overpower the gentle sway of keroncong and ghazal’s rhythmic allure when the orchestral music kicks into gear.

To him, the infusion of strings and horns from classical music lends a captivating and innovative twist to traditional music, elevating folk melodies with a harmonious blend of sophistication and cultural resonance.

It’s important to celebrate the source material, he says, giving it a new shine on the main stage.

“There would be people who are curious about the music and would come to the concert. Some would come for the nostalgia or to listen to this music crossover. We hope to bring all of them into the hall to listen to a brand of music that combines Eastern and Western traditions,” he says.

Simfoni Budaya: Keroncong & Ghazal follows MPO’s traditional music concerts, which usually commemorate special days including Merdeka Day and Malaysia Day.

“We need to do these concerts and do them often to create more interest and awareness. There also needs to be a holistic approach and initiative, not just from MPO or other organisers, but also by schools and universities, even parents whose children are inclined towards music,” says Ahmad Muriz.

“We’re hoping to see a ripple effect so that more organisations will hold these concerts and more people are familiar with these music genres,” he concludes.

Simfoni Budaya: Keroncong & Ghazal is set to play at the Dewan Filharmonik Petronas in Kuala Lumpur on March 2. More info here.

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