The Malay Heritage Foundation

HANAFI IDRUS: Preserving Malay Heritage With The Classic – Moving In Rhythm Through Poetry And Music

Born on 29 April 1985, Hanafi Idrus, better known as Afi Hanafi, is a young Singaporean Malay cultural artist and singer. Under his stewardship, he has established several groups over the past decade: Orkestra Sri Temasek (co-founded with Megat Muhammad Firdaus), Permaisuara and Syairpura (Classical Malay poetry performance group).

His inclination towards the Malay language and the art of singing has made Afi, 37, rally these interest groups with the desire to invite more young people to continue appreciating Malay heritage in the cosmopolitan city of Singapore. Afi has also represented Singapore as a syair reciter (pendendang) and judge in international competitions, which featured poets and syair proponents from Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei. As an active local Malay arts activist, he has taught classical Malay poetry (Syair and Pantun) in schools for the past decade.

Last year, the Malay Language Month Committee appointed Afi to sing ‘Bahasa Menjunjung Budaya’, the official theme song of the Malay Language Month (Bulan Bahasa) campaign, aired daily on radio Warna 94.2FM from 14 August to 10 October.

The talented Afi also owns a songket handcrafts online business, Afi Hanafi Singapura. He regularly conducts songket handcrafts workshops for primary and secondary school students. We recently talked to Afi to find out more about his recent developments. 

Orkestra Sri Temasek performed at the Victoria Theatre for the Light to Night Festival. (Credit: Afi Hanafi)

Q: Hi Afi, how are you? Please share with us what you have been up to recently. What does your typical week look like?

Hi! Thank you for having me. I have been busy performing and attending cultural events locally and overseas for the past few months. Almost every day, I’ll be busy completing orders of my songket handcrafts, teaching syair class, attending meetings and rehearsals. Lately, I enjoy sharing syair melodies with fellow arts activists and the public more.

Q: Not many young people nowadays are into classical poetry like pantun and syair, let alone champion them. What made you decide to be an advocate for preserving the Malay heritage via poetry and song?

I have loved the Bahasa Melayu since young, and I love to sing too. I felt my love for these two should unite to share the beauty of the Malay language, culture and values.

Q: Who do you draw your inspiration from? Are there any individuals or icons you considered when growing up?
No one in particular. I have loved watching classical Malay films since I was young, and those films have built and strengthened my interest more, plunging into the Malay language and culture.

Afi conducting the Syair workshop at Tampines Meridian Junior College. (Credit: Afi Hanafi)

Q: You are active in the syair circle and have represented Singapore several times in international competitions as a participant and judge. Could you share more with us about your experience?

I represented Singapore in 2016 and 2017 for a regional syair concert in Kuala Lumpur, where I met syair activists from whom I learned different syair melodies. To date, I have memorised ten different syair melodies, which I share with my EMAS programme students.

As one of the international judges in 2020 and 2021, I had the opportunity to share my thoughts and opinion on syair recitation with judges from Brunei, Indonesia and Malaysia. It was not an easy task to evaluate syair recitation from video recordings and via Zoom. I’ve learned much about each country’s syair style and practices.

Q: It is certainly not a walk in the park to be able to perform a syair recital in international competitions. Do you have any stage fright when performing it? Any memorable experience and in your opinion, what makes an individual a good syair reciter?

I have stage fright every time, haha. I learn to stay calm and deliver it with my heart, and it’ll be good. I remember the feeling of performing on a massive stage in front of prominent poets, national laureates, and international representatives in Malaysia. It was surreal.

I learned that a good syair reciter should be able to not only have a good singing voice but have clarity in pronunciation without any slang, understands the text (homework needed) and melody, delivers with good hand and facial expression, and lastly, delivers calmly and moderately without exaggeration in vocal or body movement.

Afi sharing his perspectives regarding syair melodies and their variations at the Singapore Bangsawan Festival 2022 organised by Sriwana. (Credit: Afi Hanafi)

Q: You also established Syairpura. How did this idea come about, and what do you hope to achieve through this platform?

After representing Singapore at the regional syair concert in 2016, I felt I was responsible for sharing my knowledge and experience. I started to share with my close friends and then with other activists. Not many knew that there’s more than just iramaSelendang Delima’ to be used to recite a syair text. Having more than one melody for a syair performance or competition would be exciting and colourful. Malay syair isn’t as dull and the same as we know. I had the idea of having traditional Malay vocalists in Singapore at least be able to recite syair in two different melodies and have them perform at events as opening and closing. This will surely be an added value.

Q: How did you feel when the Malay Language Month Committee appointed you to sing the official theme song, “Bahasa Menjunjung Budaya” last year?

I was really surprised, actually. At first, I was asked to record the guide vocal track for the new version but was later told that it’ll be used for the real thing. Honestly, this song by the late Cikgu Ariff Ahmad and Cikgu Abdolah Lamat has had a special place in my heart since I was in school. I teared up each time I sing it. The song calls for the people to embrace the Malay language and culture.

Q: You are also wearing many hats and actively organising workshops for schools. What keeps you motivated and going despite the hectic schedules?

I really wish to see more young Malays embrace their language and culture and be proud of it.

Afi believes that keroncong is like the jazz of the Malay world. (Credit: Afi Hanafi)

Q: Aside from poetry, you are also a vocalist for many interest groups like Sinar Fusika and PermaiSuara. Do you have any preference between singing and the syair recital? What are the differences between the two?

I would say singing and syair recital as the same. Both have their own message for listeners to understand and feel the intended emotions or values.

Q: What song genre do you usually perform, and which are your favourites? 

I have been singing joget, zapin, asli, inang, and masri songs for the past two decades, but lately, keroncong has become my favourite. It’s like the jazz of the Malay world.

Q: What challenges do you currently face as a Malay arts practitioner, and what do you hope to accomplish to continue supporting Malay heritage?

Of course, there are challenges as a Malay arts practitioner, but I’ll have to explore more and find the remedy. I hope to share more of the 10 syair melodies I’ve learned with more brothers and sisters out there and have them prepared to represent Singapore as I did.

Afi hopes the younger generation does not hesitate to turn to practitioners like himself for support and references, as he strongly advocates knowledge sharing. (Credit: Afi Hanafi)

Q: What are your hopes and aspirations for Malay classical poetry in Singapore, especially for the local artists and practitioners? Any advice for young Singaporeans who are interested and wish to know about syair?

Seeing quite a few younger ones interested in Malay classical poetry lately, I hope it’ll bring more awareness to the younger generation. I hope they stay strong and true, and I always look for support and references from activists of my age and before me who are still around to share their knowledge and experiences. My door is always open, and I welcome everyone to contact me if they wish to learn how to recite syair in different melodies. I’ll share what I’ve learned.

Q: Describe yourself in three words.

  1. Passionate
  2. Grateful
  3. Peculiar

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