Gambus maker keeps tradition alive


HALIDAN Ithnin is a fine example of a young craftsman dedicated to preserving the art of making gambus, a traditional musical instrument.

The 45-year-old is among the few young gambus makers in the country, who is passionate about ensuring the tradition of making the gambus survives for future generations.

Under the watchful eyes of his uncle Hassan Othman, Halidan is no stranger to producing the musical instrument as he has been at it since he was young.

Hassan, 85, is a renowned gambus maker in the country and has over 45 years of experience in making the Arabian-styled stringed lute.

Apart from the lute, Hassan also makes kompang and jidor (Malay hand percussion instruments) played in groups at a wedding procession or welcoming important guest, but he is more famous for his gambus.

His handmade gambus is sought after by ghazal and zapin groups in Malaysia and Singapore as it is the main musical instrument in the performances. Collectors of ethnic musical instruments from all over the world also seek out his gambus.

“Actually, I’m more interested in making the kompang and jidor as the process is not tedious compared to gambus-making,” he told StarMetro recently.

Halidan added that his uncle coaxed him to take up gambus making but was quite reluctant as he felt he did not have the soul, patience and passion in producing the lutes.

However, he said it took two men to persuade him before finally decided to heed their advice and went into full-time gambus-making in 1983.

The men he referred to were his uncle and the former instructor Nik Mustapha Nik Salleh at the then Culture, Arts and Tourism Ministry.

Hassan and Nik Mustapha are good friends and the latter was instrumental in getting Hassan’s effort in keeping the tradition of gambus-making being recognized by the United Nations of Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco).

The recognition was given to Hassan when Nik Mustapha presented a paper on his gambus-making during a Unesco meeting in Tokyo, Japan in 1997.

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

“I’m glad that I took their advice in continuing the art of making gambus because I am afraid that one day the tradition will die,” said Halidan.

He has not looked back since then and many of his customers are really impressed with the high-quality of his handmade lute.

Halidan also taught gambus-making on part time basis at the Akademi Seni Budaya dan Warisan Kebangsaan (Aswara) in Kuala lumpur from 2006 until 2010.

His also receives students from Aswara who spend a month at his house-cum-workshop in Parit Hailam in Senggarang, Batu Pahat, every year to learn gambus-making.

Halidan said there were two types of gambus – the gambus Arab which has 11 and 13 strings and gambus Melayu which is a seven-stringed lute.

He said the instrument was brought to Johor by Yemenis from the Hadhramaut region in Yemen, as most Arab immigrants in Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia came from there.

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

The instrument 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.

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