Gambus tradition kept alive


OCTOGENARIAN Hassan Othman is a fine example of a craftsman dedicated to preserving the art of making the musical instrument gambus

Hassan showing the gambusArab (right) which has 12 strings and the gambusMelayu with seven strings.

He is among a few gambus makers left in Johor and probably the country, and has spent 40 years of his life making the Arabian stringed lute. 

His handmade gambus is sought after by ghazal groups in Malaysia and Singapore and collectors of ethnic musical instruments from all over the world. 

“I inherited the skill from my late father,” Hassan said in an interview recently. 

He said his father Othman Ahmad, a farmer and part-time carpenter, made gambus to supplement his income. 

Hassan said his friends encouraged him to become a gambus maker.  

“My friends insisted that, since I had the interest, I was the right person to preserve the art of making gambus,” he added. 

To brush up his skill, Hassan went to Singapore for a year in 1950 to learn the art from Arabic gambus maker Sheikh Ahmad Al-Kadri. 

Like his father, Hassan made gambus on part-time basis at first. He became seriously involved in the craft in 1963 and opened his workshop in 1969. 

The workshop, located next to his house in Parit Hailam, Senggarang, Batu Pahat, receives a stream of local and foreign visitors until today. 

Among them are academicians, artistes, musicians, tourists, and school and university students from Australia, China, Indonesia, Japan, the Netherlands, Singapore and Middle Eastern countries. 

He said there was an incident he could not forget when an Iraqi visitor was sceptical about a non-Arab making the Arabian lute. 

Only after he saw Hassan make the instrument and play it before his eyes was the Iraqi convinced a Javanese like Hassan could make a good gambus

Hassan receives students from Akademi Seni Kebangsaan who spend a month at the workshop every year to learn gambus-making. 

Apart from making gambus in different shapes and sizes, Hassan also makes kompang and rebana.

Hassan said the gambus was brought to the Malay Archipelago by Arab traders and missionaries. 

Ghazal and zapin, which are popular in Johor, originated in the Middle East and gambus was the main musical instrument in the performances,” said Hassan. 

He said there were two types of gambus - gambus Arab which has 11 and 12 strings and gambus Melayu which is a seven-stringed lute. 

Over the years, Johor Malays have adopted gambus Arab as one of their musical instrument in ghazal and zapin and have proudly named it as gambus Johor. 

Hassan said a gambus is divided into four parts – muka (face), badan (body), leher (neck), telinga (ears) and bontot (back) with different types of wood used in different parts. 

Teak is used for the face while durian, seraya and meranti woods are used for the body as they are lighter and produce better sound. 

Leban or teak is used for the neck and ears while strips of seraya are used for the back as the wood is light and can easily bend without breaking. 

As the instrument is handmade, Hassan produces only one gambus a month. 

Hassan (left) explaining gambus-making to visitor Mazlan Hamzah from Johor Baru.

“My gambus is priced from RM800 upwards and each one comes with my name stamped inside,” he said. 

His effort in keeping the tradition alive was recognised by United Nations of Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) in 1997. 

Hassan said he thanked former instructor Nik Mustapha Nik Salleh at the then Culture, Arts and Tourism Ministry for presenting a paper on his gambus-making during a Unesco meeting in Tokyo. 

In 1999, Johor Arts, Culture and Tourism Department awarded Hassan the Penggerak Budaya Johor award. 

For details on gambus-making or to visit his workshop, contact Hassan at 07-429 2631 or his nephew Halidan Ithnin at 012-731 8112.  

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