by Farhanah Binte Mohamad Saad
Somewhere along the endless row of shophouses along Joo Chiat Place, you’ll see it. A brightly lit shophouse, bustling with excitement despite it being a weekday night. My heart hummed as I took light steps towards Gunong Sayang Association(GSA), pleased to be able to join in on one of their weekly training sessions.
Figure 1: Gunong Sayang Association at Joo Chiat Place
Despite the dwindling interest in Dondang Sayang, GSA remains to be the only permanent association supporting the art of Dondang Sayang since it was set up in 1910 by Singaporean Babas.
Dondang Sayang is a traditional Malay verbal art which employs the singing of a complex poetic form of pantun (poem) accompanied by a traditional Malay orchestra, typically consisting of a violin or accordion, two Malay drums (rebana) and a gong. It is performed by at least two singers who compose and exchange pantuns spontaneously, taking care only to match the violin. While it is associated with both the Malay and Peranakan cultures, it is predominantly performed by the Peranakans and/or Chinese in Singapore today.
As I stepped into the compounds, the warm smiles of GSA’s members welcomed me. They happily introduced themselves one by one, treating me like I was a part of their big family, and even offered me a plate of kueh along with hot tea to make me feel comfortable. Soon enough, the person I was waiting to meet arrived, Baba Victor Goh, the president of GSA, walked in welcoming me with a big smile on his face. I knew then my time there was going to be a wonderful experience.
Dondang Sayang from its beginning
Its origins can be traced back all the way to the time of the Malaccan Sultanate. However, according to Pak Yahya, the leader of Dendang Irama, a local traditional band that now accompanies GSA during their weekly trainings, Dondang Sayang’s history could be said to have begun from Teluk Pasu, Indonesia, before the artform travelled to Malacca. Having more than 40 years of experience in playing music for Dondang Sayang performances, Pak Yahya, who plays the accordion on his team, takes great pride in his knowledge on this artform.
“There are three types of Dondang Sayang. Dondang Sayang Teluk Pasu, Dondang Sayang Melaka, and Dondang Sayang Bangsawan. The first two places more emphasis on the singing of the pantuns, while Dondang Sayang Bangsawan places more importance on the music accompanying the performers. The third type of Dondang Sayang is the one that has been taken up and practiced by the Babas today.”
According to Baba Victor, who has performed Dondang Sayang since 1987 under the tutelage of the late Baba William Tan, there are also several different ways of performing Dondang Sayang but they have decided to keep to the asli or original way of performing it. “We don’t sing Dondang Sayang Rumba. There is Dondang Sayang Swing or Mambo but I do not sing that way. There were people who wanted to sing Mambo style.”
Amazed at all the new information I was receiving about Dondang Sayang, I proceeded to then ask him how it was possible to make pantuns spontaneously, while having to pay attention to match the accompanying music.
“Ok,” he paused. “It is very difficult.”
Dondang Sayang is a very complex artform which takes years to perfect, in terms of its singing as well as the playing of its accompanying music. This is explained in the book “Like Tigers Around a Piece of Meat: The Baba Style of Dondang Sayang”. The Sayang violin, or accordion or flute in its place, requires the playing of the fullest range of notes possible on the instrument. In addition to that, apart from having to switch to match each singer’s pitch and maintain a tempo which will bring him to the other’s end point with reasonable accuracy, the musician has to constantly improvise and embellish his tune while continuing to play for several hours non-stop. The singer on the other hand, has to have a wide range of knowledge of the Malay culture, be able to think on his feet, and be able to come up with a pantun within a short period of time in order to keep up with the music.
“The late William Tan can balas pantun, can reply very fast. His generation, he was the last of his generation who can respond,” he said as he leaned closer to me, worrying I wouldn’t able to hear him over the GSA members who were getting ready for their training session. “I can sing but I’m not an expert. When you say you’re an expert in Dondang Sayang means you can balas (answer). Not easy to balas. You have to be very spontaneous and your otak mesti otak geliga tau (have to be intelligent you know).”
Today, pantuns are memorised and rehearsed before they are performed in front of an audience.
Figure 3: Dondang Sayang performance at GSA
GSA usually performs on Peranakan Nights at Community Centres and during opening and/or closing ceremonies of events. This is a stark difference when compared to the past. In the early days, Dondang Sayang singers performed at amusement parks and on radio, and even on television in the 1980s on the well-known Kelab Dondang Sayang, which Pak Yahya was a part of. Dondang Sayang was also very commonly performed at weddings and birthday celebrations, something which the younger generation today, including myself, would never get to experience or even imagine.
Holding on to heritage
“So why do you think Dondang Sayang is not as popular as it was in the past?”
Both Pak Yahya and Baba Victors surprisingly, gave the same answer without even thinking twice. “Dondang Sayang is for a different generation. That’s all.”
Mr Jumaat, who has been playing either the percussion or guitar in Dendang Irama alongside his father Pak Yahya for 32 years, had a different answer. “Many other musical influences have entered this part of the world, it’s natural for a musical genre to have its seasons.”
To realise that Dondang Sayang’s long history could possibly come to an end, was terrifying.
As the conversation went on, we soon began speaking about the possibilities of renewing the artform through performing it with more current music genres like electro pop, or even rock. Baba Victor however, started shifting in his seat, uncomfortable with my suggestion. A reaction similar to that given by both Pak Yahya and Mr Jumaat.
“Dondang Sayang is a heritage, warisan Melayu. It needs something very original.”
Their training begun shortly after our short chat, and I began to really understand why it was important to keep true to the original way of performing Dondang Sayang. The GSA members were beaming with happiness as they performed, drawing me in and making me feel like dancing along with them.
As I took my leave after their training, I received hugs and handshakes from the members. I was contented; thankful to have been able to watch Dondang Sayang, performed by people who truly loved the artform. However at the back of my mind, I was worried and disheartened by the possibility of Dondang Sayang disappearing from the local scene one day.
Figure 4: Baba Victor leading the practice session at GSA
Unfortunately, Dondang Sayang in Singapore has a bleak future ahead of it despite GSA and Dendang Irama’s efforts of preserving it. Pak Yahya and Mr Jumaat both notes that on top of the lack of funding and capital, there is still a severe lack in people who are willing and passionate about mastering this art today. “People just don’t want to pursue this artform as deeply anymore,” continued Mr Jumaat. This of course hinders the road to ever restoring Dondang Sayang’s former glorious popularity. Despite such obstacles however, Baba Victor, contrary to Pak Yahya and Mr Jumaat, remained positive on his outlook about Dondang Sayang. “There are many people still interested, like us. That’s why we have practice every Wednesday.”
I was reassured by his words. Dondang Sayang will continue to thrive and be preserved in Singapore for as long as there are like-minded people around.