In KL, Rumah Gambus strikes a chord in keeping musical heritage alive


‘The gambus isn’t just an instrument; it’s the heartbeat of my lifelong dedication to the art of music,’ says Raja Zulkarnain. Photo: The Star/Muhamad Shahril Rosli

If you build it, they will come. That famous Hollywood phrase definitely applies to Rumah Gambus – a tiny shoebox of a creative space – tucked in the middle of High Street Studios (a Think City heritage project) along Jalan Tun H.S. Lee in Kuala Lumpur.

During a recent late evening visit to the “showplace”, surrounded by glass walls, visitors were welcomed by the soulful strings of the gambus, which is an instrument (a short-necked lute) used for traditional music genres such as the ghazal and zapin.

A friendly Raja Zulkarnain Raja Yusof, Rumah Gambus’ owner, was busy attending to a group of curious music fans, who were asking him plenty of questions about the instrument and his background.

How do you hold the pick? How do you handle the instrument?

Raja Zulkarnain, 54, was very helpful with his responses, and gave the visitors a chance to play the gambus, teaching them how to hold the pick and the different patterns to strum.

Rumah Gambus is designed to suit musicians performing in a circle. Photo: The Star/Muhamad Shahril RosliRumah Gambus is designed to suit musicians performing in a circle. Photo: The Star/Muhamad Shahril Rosli

Before you knew it, more people came into the store, and a short jamming session started, with Raja Zulkarnain – also known as Cikgu Zul – getting some percussion instruments involved in the mix.

This sums up the type patrons that stop by at Rumah Gambus, a one-stop for gambus lessons, live sessions and a place for gambus repair and accessories.

“We thrive in this type of environment since inception, as a community of both enthusiasts and learners,” says Raja Zulkarnain, who divides his time between teaching music, writing, researching, performing (he plans to revive his “Oudkestra” project) and running Rumah Gambus.

During the Ramadan month, he will also be introducing a Malay-Arabesque live series for public and private events.

A little shop that could

Next month will also see Rumah Gambus celebrating its first anniversary, but Raja Zulkarnain isn’t planning a big celebration. He is just happy to have a place where the gambus is the main focus, and when there is a need for a show, he can use the Riwayat Bookstore next door for live sessions.

At Rumah Gambus, a group of curious visitors is all it takes to start a jamming session. Photo: SITISAt Rumah Gambus, a group of curious visitors is all it takes to start a jamming session. Photo: SITIS

“I believe that we (Rumah Gambus, Riwayat Bookstore) have enriched the cultural landscape here in KL. Rumah Gambus provides a place for both locals and travellers from all over the world to have an authentic experience. At the same time, I learned a lot from them,” says the musician.

“I’ve met some interesting people, some who are musicians as well, who are looking for some inspiration. There has been more interest in the instrument itself, so I’m looking forward to having more musicians coming to Rumah Gambus for a lesson,” he adds.

Raja Zulkarnain, who completed a diploma programme at the Institute of Contemporary Music Performance in London in the late 1990s, was more in tune with the guitar and popular music before the gambus appeared on his radar.

For someone born in Muar, Johor, a historic hotbed for the ghazal genre, he also didn’t have much exposure to the gambus during his childhood.

“None, actually. My first interest in the instrument (an Arabic oud, instead of a gambus) actually started in a music shop in London back in the late 1990s. I was initially a guitarist, but saw that the playing style is similar. Unlike in Sabah, where there is the Festival Gambus Sabah every year, there is not much that highlights the gambus where I was growing up,” he says.

Raja Zulkarnain has set up a comfortable and laidback atmosphere for Rumah Gambus. Photo: Rumah GambusRaja Zulkarnain has set up a comfortable and laidback atmosphere for Rumah Gambus. Photo: Rumah Gambus

“I will say that the art of gambus and ghazal music has not died out. It just needs to be introduced from an early age.”

In the beginning, Raja Zulkarnain adopted a hands-on approach, learning the Arabic method of playing the oud in London, before returning to Malaysia in 2002 to further his knowledge on the gambus, where he first got a job (gambus player) with the Subang Jaya Municipal Council orchestra combo.

Learning as a community

His past has been a colourful one, with the gambus opening many doors for him, including teaching spells at UiTM Shah Alam and Aswara (National Academy of Arts Culture and Heritage).

The gambus classroom environment, says Raja Zulkarnain, can be adopted in many places.

Rumah Gambus is set up right outside a garden area, allowing plenty of natural light to enter, while enhancing the calm atmosphere. You have to take your shoes off to enter, but there are floor sofas, which are popular in Middle Eastern culture for you the sit back and relax.

“It is designed to suit musicians performing in a circle,” he says.

A range of instruments sold at Rumah Gambus, which are mostly sourced from Istanbul. Photo: Rumah GambusA range of instruments sold at Rumah Gambus, which are mostly sourced from Istanbul. Photo: Rumah Gambus

Besides the various gambus that he is tuning and servicing at Rumah Gambus, scattered around the room are a variety of instruments, tools and trinkets, clearly a collection from Raja Zulkarnain’s travels. He has visited places like Turkey, Dubai, and Egypt, learning more about the roots of the gambus.

He also studied the instrument at Cairo’s Beit Al-Oud Al-Arabi music school.

“Studying the gambus was more about getting the focus, improving my memory on the notes, and getting coordinated with the scales of the instrument. Since it’s a fretless instrument, I really need to feel the placement of the fingers. It still has the same ‘do re mi fa so la ti do’ but on the gambus it’s played quite differently,” says Raja Zulkarnain, who adds that anything from the late great gambus player Fadzil Ahmad’s collection of songs is worth an investigation.

“There’s a reason he is considered ‘Raja Gambus. Gambus passages played by Fadzil managed to put ghazal music and desert rhythms on par with other genres of music, colouring the music of Malaysia, especially in the 1960s to 1990s,” he adds.

Raja Zulkarnain explaining how a gambus works to a visitor at Rumah Gambus. Photo: The Star/Muhamad Shahril RosliRaja Zulkarnain explaining how a gambus works to a visitor at Rumah Gambus. Photo: The Star/Muhamad Shahril Rosli

Raja Zulkarnain’s journey with the gambus – nearly 25 years – includes teaching at universities and music schools, to writing two books (Oud: Warisan Seni Dari Timur Tengah; and Gambus Spesifikasi Dan Cara Bermain), organising gambus festivals, founding the Malaysian Gambus Association, before finally opening Rumah Gambus as a sanctuary for fellow enthusiasts.

“Teaching has made me more of an understanding person. It made me more patient when approaching students who needed some time to understand the concepts, or even how to strum the strings.

"I get a lot of tourists coming through the store, so what I really want is to spark their interest in playing. It’s a fun instrument with an interesting sound, they just need to discover that for themselves,” he concludes.

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