Geographically, Malaysia is as diverse as its culture. There are two parts to the country, 11 states in the peninsula of Malaysia and two states on the northern part of Borneo. The mix of cultural influences in Malaysia is the result of centuries of immigration and trade with the outside world, particularly with Arab nations, China, and India. Early groups of incoming foreigners brought wealth from around the world, plus their own unique cultural heritages and religions. Further, once imported, each culture remained largely intact; that is, none have truly been homogenized. The trade interactions among Malay, Indian, Chinese, Islamic and European peoples in Malay city-states also included rich artistic exchanges. This complex cultural mÃ©lange is at the heart of Malaysian musical identity.
In the classical music of the royal courts of Kedah, Perak, Selangor and Trengganu the deep cultural and musical influence of Middle Eastern Islamic music is evident. The nobat ensembles – a small orchestra including six instruments: kettledrum (negara), two barrel drums (gendang), nafiri (trumpet), serunai (oboe) and a suspended gong – have been considered important elements of the royal regalia since the 15th century. The ensembles, which are considered spiritually potent, play for weddings, funerals and Islamic events such as the breaking of the fast. In the realm of folk music, instruments and ensembles used to accompany possession rituals are common among many of Malaysia’s various original ethnic groups. Small ensembles of gendangs and rebabs (fiddles) are often employed for folk-healing/possession rituals such as the main puteri.
Among Malaysia’s many theatrical forms wayang kulit may be the oldest extant genre. Like similar traditions in Java and Bali in Indonesia, Malaysian wayang kulit are rooted in stories based upon the Indic Ramayana although today local Malay legends and stories are more popular. Several forms of wayang kulit exist in Malaysia, mostly in the Northern peninsular region. The accompanying ensemble, like the nobat, is comparatively small and includes a small set of gong-chimes, a rebab fiddle, hanging gongs and barrel drums. Regional forms of wayang include the nang talung form performed by ethnically Tai and Malay peoples in the north and which, today, often are accompanied by small combos including Western and traditional instruments.
The most common forms of popular music in Malaysia exhibit the syncretic nature of Malaysian cultural identity. The keroncong form, also known in Indonesia, combines the Western string instruments (first brought to the region by the Portuguese in the 15th century) with local melodies and rhythms. The current form developed mainly in the 1930s and was heavily influenced by Hawaiian guitar styles, rumba, tango and jazz. In the southern state of Johore, the Middle Eastern and Indian derived ghazal music, based upon love poetry, is especially popular. The Malaysian ghazal orchestra includes Indian tabla drums, Western maracas, tambourine, violin, guitar and harmonium and Malaysian gambus lutes.
Modern Malaysian popular music was born in the 1950s with the singer P. Ramlee who modernized and shortened classical Malaysian song. Ramlee’s love duets with his wife, Saloma, recorded to the accompaniment of a Western orchestra, are now remembered nostalgically as the golden age of Malaysian popular song. Today, pop artists such as singers Shiela Majid and the younger Siti Nurhaliza, who croon light love tunes as well more pious Middle Eastern influenced Islamic repertoire, have become popular in Malaysia and throughout the region.