Sabah's rhythms of the past: Betitik heritage of the Bajau Samah community


Betitik was originally played to inform villagers of upcoming festivities or events at a particular house. Today it is played at weddings and other major events. — Photos: Pusat Kebudayaan Rumpun Bajau Sama Sabah, Tuaran Facebook

The enduring tradition of betitik, a rich heritage of folk music performed during various ceremonies (notably weddings), continues to transcend generations within the Bajau Samah ethnic community in Sabah, and captivating the interest of communities beyond.

During a state-level betitik competition held recently in the state, the tradition caught the attention of many, including Sabah Chief Minister Datuk Seri Hajiji Noor.

The ensemble of musical instruments typically played during a betitik performance such as drums, gongs, bebandil (a type of gong), and kulintangan produce a rhythmic melody symbolising harmony and unity.

Pantai Dalit assemblyman, Datuk Jasnih Daya, who belongs to the Bajau Samah ethnic group, explained that the betitik was originally played to inform villagers about upcoming festivities at a particular house, and typically a month or a week before the event.

“In the modern era, it’s easy for us to communicate through the phone, social media, invitations, etc. But in the past, word of mouth and betitik served as the announcement to invite people for celebrations,” he remarked.

“I have fond childhood memories of betitik when my house was always a focal point in the community. With a large family, sometimes we had two or three weddings a year, and there were other events, so we frequently played betitik,” he said.

Jasnih shared that what makes the betitik tradition interesting is its diversity of rhythm and songs, varying in terms of fast or slow tempo and adapting to the specific celebrations.

“There are also differences based on the regions we come from. For example, I’m from Tuaran, and the rhythm and songs of our betitik differ from those of our friends from Putatan or Kota Belud,” he elaborated.

He expressed gratitude that the betitik tradition is now recognised and popular among the younger generations of Bajau Samah, and that it has also gained interest from other ethnic groups in Sabah, such as the Kadazan, Dusun, and Rungus.

Harun Kamaruddin, the manager of the Gema Bertingkah group, which emerged as the champion in the state-level Betitik Competition held on Feb 27, stated that the group practised for nearly a month leading up to the competition.

A Bajau Samah lady with a gong at a betitik session during a recent event in Tuaran, Sabah. A Bajau Samah lady with a gong at a betitik session during a recent event in Tuaran, Sabah.

The members of the group are mainly teenagers and individuals in their early 20s, some of whom are Harun’s grandchildren, who he has been teaching betitik since they were seven years old, and their friends from Putatan.

What adds an interesting dimension to the story is that Harun, 66, originally hails from Negri Sembilan. He met his Bajau Samah wife after being transferred to the state for work in 1980, and subsequently “fell in love” with betitik.

“In Negri Sembilan, I was actively involved in the cak lempong tradition of the Seri Minang group, which is similar to betitik. So, the transition was quite easy,” he explained.

Muhamad Nabil Mohamat, 34, a kulintangan player from the D Derumpun group in Petagas, revealed that he did not have any formal training to play the betitik musical instruments.

“Since young, I’ve been interested in watching the older generations play them. My grandmother, for example, played the kulintangan, and I would sit beside her, watching. In my teens, I recorded their music and used it to practise,” he explained.

“My late mother gave me money to buy a set of kulintangan, and I received strong support from my family to carry on the betitik tradition,” said the player who was honoured as the best kulintangan player at the state-level Betitik Competition in Sabah.

He expressed hope about developing betitik as a tourist attraction not only for Sabah but also for Malaysia, and conveyed his gratitude for the commendable efforts made by Hajiji and the state government in safeguarding the rich traditions of the Bajau Samah community. – Bernama

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