Malaysian music and dance

Malay traditional drums or ‘gendang’

Malay music is influenced mainly by styles from China and Islamic styles originating from the Middle East. Percussion is prevalent with a unique drum known as a endang popular when played alongside flutes, gongs, trumpets and instruments formed from shells. Indonesia, Thailand and neighbouring Indonesia have extolled considerable influence on Malaysian music due to the large immigrant population which historically have sheltered in the country on voyages around Asia.

‘Dance dramas’ are also extremely popular and tell myths and legends from long ago with Arabic zapin music sometimes performed with accompanying drums and gambus. Indian, Portuguese, Oriental and Arabian rhythms can be identified in traditional Malaysian music, while the slow, intense dondang sayang dance moves and swift kertok xylophone tunes have been enjoyed by indigenous tribes for hundreds of years.

Arabian ghazals can often be found around Malaysian towns and cities with their popularity growth thanks mainly to musicians such as Kamariah Noor. The historic west coast island of Penang is home to the native boria, which is a fading form of art with haunting singing and elaborate dance moves. It was once extremely popular amongst local Malays but is less prominent now than previously due to the influence of modern culture.

Chinese immigrants took the infamous lion dance to Penang when the first official performance troupe arrived as early as 1903. This ancient dance form has since adopted its own distinct Malaysian style, and is brought out at Chinese celebrations. This dazzling artform is closely associated with luck, power, strength, majesty and happiness. Visitors who happen to be in Malaysia during Chinese New Year will have little trouble finding the dance being performed, but it is also popular to bring good fortune upon the opening of a new business.
Mak yong is a Malaysian fairy tale from hundreds of years ago which is the subject of dramatic performances featuring song and dance in which beautiful princesses are usually captured by tyrannical sultans. Typical accompanying melodies are performed by a Gamelan orchestra of gongs, xylophones and metallic instruments.

Wayang kulit is an form of artistic performance which utilises shadow puppets to tell epic fables regarding the life of Ramayana. Malaysian Indians keep their subcontinental traditions of garland-making (bunga malai) for celebrations such as marriages with traditional Indian music and dance accompanying this traditional pursuit.

Visitors to Penang are blessed with a busy music scene and The Penang State Symphony Orchestra and Chorus (Pessoc) is highly regarded around the region for its acclaimed youth orchestra and choir.

The Penang Symphony Orchestra also puts on regular concerts while the Fingerprints Chamber Choir is comprised of singing teachers and their best students and has several prizes to its name after excelling at national and international competitions.

Penang State Chinese Orchestra and ProArt Chinese Orchestra both employ traditional instruments from the Orient whilst the Actors’ Studio Greenhall puts on stage musicals. The annual Penang-YTL Arts Festival takes place each December with a plethora of theatrical performances, contemporary and traditional dance plus art exhibitions.